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On Being Sick

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A short story by Jacqueline Cooper

It must have been around midnight when I began to throw up. I was fourteen. I got up and banged on my parents door having learned early in life that one never suffered in silence in Alexandria. Within minutes everyone in our large villa was awake.

Mother came in. She was in a pale blue dressing-gown that matched her eyes. "I threw up nine times," I moaned, my throat raw, my nose burning. I clutched my stomach as I felt a tenth onslaught coming on.

Nagibeh, the diminutive housekeeper had also heard the commotion. In her cotton dressing-gown with pink flowers, a large safety pin modestly closing the neckline about her chin, she cried, "Look at the carpet!" Her voice was shrill.

Dia, my baby sister's very plump nanny, padded into the room with the rosary she was seldom without. She had put on her white uniform over the nightie that reached down to the soft brown leather slippers turned down at the back. "Maalish, my treasure, my soul," she cooed, "never mind."

In his brocade dressing gown Father looked at me sternly. "You ate in between meals again."

"Only a few "sudanis" at the beach." "Sudanis" were mouth-watering peanuts coated with thick salt. Vendors sold them off carts, roasted and warm wrapped in newspaper cones.

" We need ice-cold water for compresses," Mother said to Dia. "She feels feverish."
The nanny plodded out of the room praying softly.

"What's up? Yelled Grandmother from her rooms on the ground floor.

"Nothing!" Father shouted back from the top of the staircase. "She's vomiting as usual." He came back into the room and frowned as he studied the carpet. "Nagibeh, please call Soliman to clean up this mess."

"He knows nothing about cleaning carpets." Her laugh sounded like a cackle. I'll clean it myself with Savon de Marseilles."

Mother put a cold compress on my throbbing forehead. " I'm worried about her," she whispered to Father. "She may have peritonitis, like Sophie's daughter. We should call Dr. Nahas." Dr. Nahas was a family friend and neighbor.

A moment later the contents of my stomach shot up again and missed the bowl. Standing at the foot of the bed Dia continued to pray in fervent whispers.

"Very well," Father said, " I'll call Dr. Nahas."

Thirty minutes later the doctor arrived with his black bag. By now the lights were full on in the house. Boogie, the mongrel who looked like a large white rat, and who liked to sleep in the hen house, trotted in ahead of the doctor.

"What seems to be the matter?" Dr. Nahas shook hands with my parents and looked at me. " Ah, I smell "sudanis."

"She's vomited twelve times!" Nagibeh cried. "How am I ever going to clean the carpet, even with Savon de Marseilles?"

Dr. Nahas spread a white cloth over my stomach and put his ear to it. "Oh, la, la, qu'est-ce que j'entends!". His remark was acknowledged by a loud rumble. He observed me above his glasses as he prodded my stomach.

"She'll need an enema, and Milk of Magnesia. No solid food for three days." He scribbled on his prescription pad. "This medicine has a bitter taste, so pinch your nose when you swallow it." He chuckled.

"No solid food for three days? I'll be even skinnier and tinier than I am now!"

"Maalish, maalish, my soul." Dia patted my hand. Everyone left the room except Nagibeh, who wanted to sit by my bed until I fell asleep.

The "sudani story" quickly did the rounds of Alexandria. Nagibeh told her friend, Marie in the house across the street, Mother told her four sisters, Grandmother told her cronies, and the next morning the phone never stopped ringing. I could hear the story being embellished every time it was told. It was all rather fun, and made me forget the dreadful tasting medicine that Hassan, the gardener, had gone to collect from the pharmacy.

I had visitors. Not only my school friends, but also aunts, cousins, once twice and thrice removed. They all sat in my room to keep me company.

"You are very pale, cherie." They were kind and brought me books, colored pencils and boxes of watercolor. Often their gossip proved to be more interesting than the books, and I watched them as they talked with their hands, their eyes bright and expressive, their cheeks well rouged. When their numbers swelled and they could no longer fit into my room, they adjourned to the salon on the same floor and their voices drifted pleasantly my way.

Soliman went around with a silver tray on which were our purple and gold cups of Turkish coffee accompanied by glasses of water. In summer he served mulberry syrup of a rich wine color, home made by Nagibeh. There were petits fours, sometimes crystallized dates, and if it is was around Easter, sugar coated pastries, again made by our tireless housekeeper. Being sick in Alexandria was not something to bear alone.

Soup was brought up to me from the kitchen in the depths of the house, even though I could easily have walked to the breakfast room on the same floor. What? Get out of bed and catch cold? It would be a good week until I was deemed well enough to have meals downstairs in the dining room.

We had another doctor, too, a Greek, rotund and chain smoking. He puffed slowly up the marble staircase, holding onto the bannister, complaining about the high Alexandrian humidity.

As soon as he appeared the visitors tiptoed out of the room, as though they had just left a dying patient. Dr. Meimaroglou sat by my bed, chatting amiably with my mother, lighting another gold-tipped cigarette, telling us how many cases like my grippe there were in town. "Beaucoup de grippes cette annee," he'd say, talking with his hands. He had a cup of Turkish coffee, and then he wrote down the name of some inevitably foul-tasting medicine that would cure me in no time.

One day Mother told him that Nagibeh was not feeling well, and would he please examine her.

"I don't want him to examine me!" cried Nagibeh in her screechy voice.. At least we knew there was nothing wrong with her vocal chords. "I'm not about to take my clothes off in front of him!"

"He's used to seeing people without their clothes," Dia told her.

"Well, if he's used to it, I'm not!" Nagibeh shot back. "Heaven preserve us from doctors and hospitals." When Nagibeh was under the weather, which was about once every decade, she dosed herself with castor oil and kept to her room for twenty four hours. The house was not the same without her tiny, hyperactive presence and shrill voice. When she surfaced she was her old nagging but devoted self again, and everyone sighed with relief.


How different it was being sick in Washington, D.C!

"When will Dr. Smarts be able to come and see me?" I asked the receptionist who answered the phone. His name had been given to me by a friend.

"Come to see you?" She seemed to think that what I said was funny.

"I have a sore throat and temperature, my nose is stuffed up, and I can't taste food."

"I have a cancellation for three o'clock tomorrow"

"Tomorrow? But I'm sick, and I can't go out with a fever!"

"Take two Aspirins, drink plenty of fluids, and we'll see you tomorrow."

"Doesn't Dr. Smarts make house calls?"

"Not unless you're in your eighties. Even so, he prefers to see patients in the hospital."

Hospital! I shuddered and thought of Nagibeh.

I called the convent school where I taught, to say I was sick and could not come in.

"There's a virus going around." The secretary was understanding. "Drink plenty of fluids."

What was a virus? No Alexandrian had ever mentioned the word "virus."

It was a miserable day spent alone. My friends were either at work or otherwise engaged. The only  visitor I had all day was Mr. Williams, the building engineer, who came to check the air-conditioning.

But there was American television to which I had quickly become addicted. Alas, the early afternoon movie was an old one, "Suez," and it made me homesick for Egypt. When I saw all that sand and Tyrone Power chasing flies with a fly whisk, I nearly burst into tears.

Where was Nagibeh to scold me in her shrill voice, to sit in my room until I fell asleep, and Dia with her rosary and fervent prayers? Where was my mother to read me stories, my mother who again and again turned down invitations to tea, just because her greedy daughter had another bout of indigestion, that might just be peritonitis? Where was the soup, the home-made yoghurt, the "compote de pommes," brought to me on a tray? Where was the kindly Greek doctor who puffed up the marble staircase and whose presence made me feel better, even when he blew smoke rings into my face?

The following day my temperature was up. Although it was a warm September day, I felt shivery. I wrapped up as though for a polar expedition and walked the one block to Dr. Smart's office. How extraordinary that Dr. Smarts did not make house calls, and me so close by, too.

Dr. Smarts was unimpressed with my symptoms. I coughed and coughed in his face, I exaggerated my aches and pains.
I did such a good job that he decided to run tests. He also wanted to know the medical history of every member of my family. He was beginning to get on my nerves, Dr. Smarts was. All I probably had was a bad case of "la grippe," which-some nasty-tasting medicine would cure in no time, and here he was asking about my family.

Sick as I was I gave him a colorful account of being sick in Egypt. Egypt? He was surprised. He thought I was either English of French. I even told him about the "sudani" night, and how Nagibeh cleaned the carpet with Savon de Marseilles He had never heard of Savon de Marseilles. His general knowledge was pitiful.

"Couldn't you have cleaned the carpet in the washing machine?" he asked. I pursed my lips and looked scornful.

To give him credit Dr. Smarts was a good listener and jotted down everything I said. No doctor I knew ever wrote down anything other than a prescription.

"What do you normally eat during the day?" he asked.

" I have an English breakfast, eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, black, no sugar."


"First, there's elevenses."

"What's elevenses?"

Oh, you ignoramus, I thought. "It's a mid-morning snack," I answered patiently. I have hot cocoa and biscuits."

"How many biscuits?"

"In our culture, it's considered rude to count what one eats. However, if they're chocolate, most of the box."


"At the school where I teach lunch consists of cold cuts and salad. I'm not fond of lettuce. I'm not a rabbit. But at 3:00 pm, before I pick up my daughter from the French International School, I have a chilli hot dog and a glass of milk at People's Drug Store. My main meal is dinner. Chicken or steak, potatoes, spinach, a banana. I dislike desserts.
Sometimes, before I go to bed I have a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise."

The doctor put his pen down and looked at me. "It's a wonder you're not as big as a house."

"I ate much more than that in Alexandria," I replied hotly. My father and grandmother ate like horses, and were not fat at all. My mother hardly ate a thing and was always sick." Dr. Smarts appeared shaken.

"You know, Dr.Smarts, in Alexandria, they say, "Eat, eat, "bil hana wal shifa." That means with pleasure and good health. We also say "Bon appetit." And doctors all make house calls."

"We used to make house calls, too." He sounded wistful. He got up and opened the door. "Don't worry, you'll be fine."

"Aren't you going to give me a prescription?"

"You don't need one. Just drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin."

I bundled up again under the amused eye of the receptionist.

As I walked home I thought of what I'd write for "La Reforme Illustree," our friendly Alexandria Sunday paper. No house calls, no prescription, counting biscuits! It was unheard of! No visits, no room service. How uncivilized! I resolved never to be sick in Washington, D.C. Being sick there was no fun at all.

Jacqueline Cooper 1998

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