On the seventh day I get a call from the doctor’s office, saying my son’s test for whooping cough has come back negative. Mine hasn’t come in yet, since the lab is backed up—but we can presume it’s negative too. The receptionist goes on to say that my father—who I thought was my father—is not my father, and that my real heritage is Arabic. No, no, I’m not that shocked. Our whoops and gags have progressed, but I lack the energy for skepticism. I’m fairly relieved. Whooping cough is known in Asia as the 100 day cough, so this call is a gift, the gift of time. However, while holding the receiver to my ear I look over at my son, who is so still and thin, barely there. The word drawn comes to mind—if he were drawn in pencil and being erased. And my relief shifts to dismay. To lack a diagnosis is to lack any treatment, or tries at treatment. I manage to say, without coughing, that our coughs are much worse. That we would like to figure out what we have. We would like, most of all, hopefully, some medicine. Our old doctor is booked, and our new doctor is booked, but the word luckily is again called for here, since some people on my island can’t get doctors. Because we have one, we are able to get an appointment with a medical resident that very day.
During the drive there my son worries he’ll have to get another nose swab. I tell him no, we already did that test. I tell him there might be other tests, but they won’t hurt like that one. My mind rushes ahead to what other torturous tests they might give us, that might make the nose swab seem like a tickle under the armpit. Is this an undisclosed part of the job requirement for parent, this easy progression into the contemplation of worst-case scenarios?
It’s been over a week since I’ve gone anywhere except to take my younger son to the school bus stop. (Younger son has been noticeably absent in this narrative, which is an indication of how thoroughly the cough has taken over. You can imagine him, though, after school with a TV set flashing on his zombie eyes, the crunch of Cheerios he’s pilfered from the cupboard competing in his ears with the never-ending coughs issuing from the mummies who used to be his brother and his mother). I drive really slowly, ready to coast to the side whenever a coughing fit threatens. It’s a summer day in June, the first steady showing of the sun since last November, and people along the road are walking and running and biking and milling about at food and coffee stands. Even the ones standing still seem like coiled springs, poised to move on. How can they manage to wave their arms while also talking? Out on the harbour, sails ripple and scoot along the ocean. The sea is exhausting, how it keeps moving up and down in so many peaks, and how it won’t stop skittering light.
It’s strange to find the mere sight of something I love—like the sea—so wearing. Just days before, in one of my delirium dreams induced by refusing to lie down, I was living in a beach hammock that I’d woven little mesh compartments into, to hold my toothbrush, my book, and my other bathing suits. On this dream morning I’m so eager to run into the sea that when my feet touch the sand I start sprinting. For some reason I’m wearing my calf-high tube socks with the green and yellow stripes, and I completely forget to peel them off. When I dive into the sea I realize the socks are shimmying and hoisting me along at great speed. It turns out they are fins that got cast under an evil spell into tube socks. The frog hopes, but never expects—because really, what are the chances?—to be kissed by a princess. And these tube socks. They long ago stopped hoping someone would break the spell by running them into surf. Even as the dry sand beneath them gives way to wet sand, gives way to an inch of salty sea, the socks decide they’re dreaming.
Everyone is so busy, my son remarks from the backseat.
I tell him that was just what I was thinking. Even the ocean is way too busy.
The medical resident says to call him by his first name. He is young and good-looking, even by television doctor standards. He has on socks the same bright green as my lucky sneakers, which regrettably I just left on the shoe rack at home. We start to tell him about our symptoms and he listens intently. The more closely he listens the better-looking he becomes. Maybe it’s how I look to my dog when I suddenly lie down on the floor, at his level. How fast he rushes over then, to land on my hand or my hair, whatever flat part he can flop on. The doctor asks lots of questions, which I may answer eagerly, in too much detail. In the beam of his interest–anyone’s interest towards our diagnosis, I like to think–I may get close to lively, not sick at all. I never quite realized a doctor has to lift up your shirt to press a stethoscope to your back. He tells us to take deep breaths, and just as my son and I exchange worried glances—because deep breaths are the devil, the thing that really sets off our coughing fits—he adds: And if you feel like a deep breath will make you cough then you don’t have to take a very big one. I’m wondering if I’ve made up this doctor, if I’m dreaming this visit. Or am I the tube socks in an inch of ocean?