Half the time my husband thinks I'm a hypochondriac. (I'm afraid he's got schizophrenia, which would explain the other half.) Mitch started feeling this way early in our marriage, when he discovered that my idea of a bedtime story was a pertinent selection from the Physician's Desk Reference.
So he wasn't surprised when, after an excursion to the Great Salt Lake, I awoke from a fitful sleep, my scalp on fire. "Wake up, I might be dying," I cried, shaking him wildly. "My brains itch. Is it a tumor? Could it be scalp cancer?""Either that, or you got bitten by brine flies at the lake today," he mumbled, burying his face in his pillow. "Chances are you'll live 'til morning. How about we talk then?"
In my own defense, I must say that I come by my neurosis honestly, hypochondria being a time-honored tradition when I was growing up. (Our family crest was a feeding tube inside a funeral wreath, with the words "All Roads Lead to Cancer" inscribed underneath.) Somebody was always sure that somebody else had a lingering illness that "didn't look good," and that it was "only a matter of time." My mother was one of the ringleaders, always searching for and often finding the cloud behind every silver lining.
The story goes that early in her pregnancy, she was convinced she had stomach cancer because she felt nauseated every morning. "Harriet, it's morning sickness - everyone gets it," my father would say.
"No, this is different. This is Something Else."
As it turned out, it wasn't something else, it was me. From the day I was born, Mom nervously scanned the horizon for impending doom. Unduly fearful of all childhood diseases, she had me hospitalized for chicken pox. When I had a tonsillectomy at the age of 4, they gave my mother the sedative. (She asked for a general, but they refused.) At 12, I was rushed to the emergency room for hiccups. Despite my father's repeated attempts to scare me and make them go away, ultimately my mother prevailed, winning him over with her invincible argument, "you never know." Seventy-five dollars and a glass of sugar water later they knew, and I was cured.
A classic example of her hysteria occurred several years later. Having gone to the bathroom, I noticed that the contents of the toilet looked exactly like cherry Kool-Aid. Finding this mildly interesting, I casually mentioned it to Mom. Weeping, she called the doctor.
Dr. Goldstein liked me even less than I liked him, which was not at all. He had a ridiculous handlebar mustache which made him look like the sheriff of Dodge City, prompting me to say "Howdy, pardner," every time I went to see him. He got revenge by keeping his stethoscope on ice, then insisting I remove my blouse for the examination, the better to hear my heartbeat.
By the time I was 15, I had figured out that he could hear my heart fine through a thin layer of cotton, and he was probably just a dirty old man. (Upon reflection, I see now that he would have made a great politician.) Thus, on the Kool-Aid occasion, the following exchange took place with me partially undressed: "Have you eaten anything strange today?"
"No stranger than usual. Have you tasted my mother's cooking?"
"How about last night?"
"Let's see, tuna casserole, salad, half a pomegranate. . . ."
"You can get dressed now."
The pomegranate was the culprit. Mom was somewhat mollified, although she didn't allow a mere medical explanation to close the case. "Maybe it's something in your liver," she mused, and instituted a policy of pre-flush inspections. (You can see why my shrink told me years ago that I was doing quite well, considering.) By the way, my scalp got better, so I suppose it was the brine flies after all. But just to be safe, I called a dermatologist.
You never know.