I had trouble breathing last night, Mom. Whenever my asthma came to plague me, that meant that my will was going to war with my body. I would either drown in my own phlegm or get a few moment’s rest. Every time that I laid down flat on my stiff bed, I was suffocating, and the only sound I could make was the breathless wheezing that replaced my voice. Most of the time, I slept sitting upright with my back propped up against piles and piles of secondhand pillows until I felt that it was enough to keep me afloat. My humidifier would fill the small room with misty air, and the sound of the machine was my lullaby. When it stopped singing, I had to fight the urge of giving into the scratchy sensation in my throat that was begging for me to cough because I knew that if I surrendered, the fits of coughing would never end until tears filled my eyes and oxygen became scarce. C’mmon mija, I’ll give you honey and té de oregano.
I fought against her because I knew that she would make me stand on top of the dining table chair and push me next to the archaic stove so that I could stick my face into the steam. Má, I don’t want tea. I hated the smell of oregano; it was sweet, but it also had that bit of spice that hid away like a shy girl’s moment of redemption. Oregano meant that my nose was runny and that my eyes watered so badly that I was temporarily blind. My mother always stood next to me to make sure I wouldn’t try to escape. Mina, estas tose y tose. Go to the kitchen, we’re going to deal with that cough. And then she would always make me drink it while it was boiling hot. By the end of it, the oregano tea had shaved off the first layer of my tongue, and each taste bud was so burned that they were each too shaken to relax and couldn’t even rest comfortably when they pressed against the roof of my mouth because it stung like the fury of dying bees.
After the tea, you can have miel and some limon. The honey was my favorite part. It was the only good part. It was the only thing that my taste buds could handle. The cool sweetness always hit my tongue like vapor, the sugary syrup was so overpowering that it soothed my scalding taste buds. The seeping lemon juice and the combination of the honey’s thickness coated my throat in a blanket of sweet and sour, it was enough to calm the coughing demon inside of me. And then after the miel, you have to do your medicinas again.
My medicine routine lasted for so many years that it is permanently ingrained in my memory. Every morning, I took exactly one allergy pill, I used the seretide two-in-one inhaler once, I rinsed my mouth, and took two puffs from a bronchodilator. Ma, no I don’t want to, I did them before I went to sleep. I just want to go back to bed. Then, throughout the day, I would do two puffs from the bronchodilator every four to six hours and in the evening, it was twenty minutes of oxygen therapy while I sat trapped underneath the mask and pretended that I was standing in the middle of poison gas even though regular air was poison gas for me. And before bed, I would do the entire morning routine over again. Sometimes my mother would try to throw in a nasal spray to clear my sinuses, but they made my nose bleed. Te va servir aunque no lo crees. Trust me, it works. Sometimes she would just give me a tablespoon of honey and lemon juice. I want the honey and lemon, Mom, not the tea.
There were nights when my mother was so tired that she would crankily get out of her peaceful bed to calm my chaotic coughing. The walls in our house were so thin. Ya vengo, I’m coming. She would sit next to me, holding my small shoulders, as I would make putrid vomiting sounds as an attempt to expel the phlegm from my body and into the trash can that I would keep by my bedside. When I finally managed to stop and catch my breath, I used to watch her tired eyes underneath the dim lighting of my bedroom. With her messy bed head, she always looked ten years older than her real age. Are you sure you don’t want the tea? How tiring it must have been to have a child that could not fully complete a basic human function: breathing. I made her age faster. Ok. I’ll get the honey, but after this it’s back to bed. After all, air is what keeps us all alive, yet I felt like a fish without water.
I’m tired of hearing her cough like that, why isn’t she getting better? Ella debería de estar mejorando no empeorando. I couldn’t run like everyone else, if I tried I would cough until I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I was too sick to go to school.
Mom, Mr. Barajas gave me a trophy for being a good student today. After being bedridden for an entire week, I went back to school and my teacher, Mr. Barajas, taught the class a new math lesson. When he assigned us a set of problems to complete, I was the first one to finish, and when he looked them over, I got a perfect score. He then gave us a spelling test for a set of vocabulary words that he had taught when I was away. He looked at me and told me to try my best. It was another perfect score. Que bueno, mija. I’m proud of you. He was so astonished that he grabbed the biggest trophy from the display case at the front of the classroom and placed it in the corner of my desk. He wouldn’t look at me after that. Mr. Barajas must have pitied me deeply.
I used to joke that if I was born before advanced medicine, I would have died by now. Take her to see a specialist, Mrs. Rodriguez. She’s seen every doctor in this clinic and it has been too many years without any significant improvements. I was around ten years old. The x-ray technicians took x-rays of my chest and my primary doctor referred us to a specialist at an Allergy and Asthma Center where they could take me on as a regular patient. Aren’t you a doctor, why can’t you help my daughter? My primary care physician at our usual clinic painted pictures of pink and golden hues, she made the specialist sound like he held a potion that could cure me. This new doctor was the equivalent to a wizard in her eyes; his unconventional treatment was a spell, but to me, he was more like a magician. You will get better, mija. I promise, this new doctor will fix you right up.
I remember the switch from the clinic to the specialist clearly. His office was a thirty minute drive from our house. We got lost the first time we went because it was in one of the rich cities that surrounded my town. It was always too expensive for us to do anything there, but Dr. Lin was always nice to me. You’ll be like Deadpool after this. Looking back, didn’t those people damage Deadpool? I thought I was going to go through another physical examination, maybe they’d have me run until I couldn’t breathe, some more x-rays? I expected the usual routine. My parents were not with me when Dr. Lin examined me. Please, remove your shirt, Mina.
He had come in with a kind nurse that was holding sterilized tubes of different substances and several plastic claw hands. I had worn a purple That’s So Raven top that I was trying to show off. The shirt has to come off, Mina. I expected to flinch at the touch of cold metal from his stethoscope against my bare back, but instead, I felt the claws prick me at several different locations. Dr. Lin explained that I might feel some discomfort and that I might be tempted to scratch my back or lay down. I wasn’t allowed to do either. Yeah. I’m a big girl, I can handle it.
Five minutes went by and I shrieked at the top of my lungs for help. My parents would look at the nurses and nod as they walked by. My parents held my arms in an iron-locked grip as I made every attempt possible to scratch my back. I was ready to peel the skin right off, and it lasted for what felt like eons. Please, please, please! Feeling pain would have been better than feeling twenty different kinds of intense itches. The tears streamed down my face like a chemical shower, it was my only relief.
Lay down. Dr. Lin came in with a different nurse. They examined me and explained that I was having allergic reactions to the substances they pricked me with. Their cool latex-covered touch soothed the itching. Wash. It. Off. Dr. Lin talked for a lifetime about the very long list of my allergies without anything being pressed against my back. I just wanted it to stop itching and to cover my exposed body.
We’re not done just yet, Mina.
One of the nurses finally washed my back and I then followed Dr. Lin. He took me into another room where he handed me this plastic sphere with a hole in it. It was hooked up to a monitor. The monitor had a picture of a seemingly benign birthday cake and candles, he told me to blow into the hole and try to blow them all out. Make a wish. It took me more than three tries to blow out the candles. A person with normal lungs would have only taken one attempt. He ruined “making wishes” for me after that I was always self-conscious about blowing out birthday candles at every birthday party.
He walked me back to the previous room, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk next to him. I waited in the room with my parents for nearly an hour. We’re preparing the vaccines for your daughter, miss. They will be ready soon. By the time that the nurse came in with the vaccine, I was already crying and telling my parents to take me home. I need you to hold still for me, it’ll only be a pinch. I jumped off of the seat and tried to run out of the door. My parents had already anticipated that I would do this and grabbed my arms to prevent me from leaving. There I was in the middle of the doorway standing ajar and with all the nurses walking by seeing this great spectacle. Don’t move. I was a blubbering idiot for the rest of the time that I was there.
We are going to give her two allergy vaccines each week, one on each arm, and they should work better than any of the other medications she’s taking since her asthma is allergy-induced. My parents took me back every Saturday. My arms would swell around the spot that they pricked me with the needle and it would itch for the next three or so days, the bumps would swell to the diameter of a tennis ball. Hoodies and long sleeves became my new best friend. Don’t scratch it. You’ll only make it worse. At least, I stopped trying to run out of the room when they gave me the vaccines.
After many years of seeing Dr. Lin, I was able to drop my entire medicine routine. Dios mio, mija. You will finally be a normal kid . I was around 14 years old. The humidifier went away first, then it was the oxygen therapy machine. Soon followed the seretide two-in-one and the bronchodilator. Slowly, every single medicine nestled into the corners of my mother’s medicine cabinet and the bigger machines hid away on the shelves in her closet. I’m not throwing anything away. I’m keeping them para emergencias. The only new prescription that I received was an itching cream. The itching always reminded me of the reality of ‘normality’ and the threat that my mother might stick my face into the steam of oregano tea at the first sign of coughing. Mija, puedes correr. You can run. You can do whatever you want. But not on Saturdays because those were reserved for Dr. Lin.
Mina, you’ve been coming here for many years now. It was a Saturday in November when Dr. Lin told me that he cured me. Stunned, I walked out into the waiting room where my mother was waiting for me to complain about whether the nurse was gentle with the needle or not. I don’t have to ever come back here ever again. I’m cured. In pure euphoria, I ran out of the clinic and into the bright southern California sun. I basked in it and I breathed in the slight winds that were no doubt blowing pollen and dust into my nostrils and down my respiratory system, but I didn’t care. I was cured. It didn’t affect me anymore.
Mom, I’m cured. She grabbed my arm and dragged me back inside. She burst into the waiting area of the clinic in red hot anger and demanded to see Dr. Lin. There was a panic in her eyes that I had only seen once when the doctors at our original clinic told us that they had done everything they could for me. Her shrill screaming echoed throughout Dr. Lin’s clinic and filled the silence with the sound of her booming voice. Only a mother was capable of producing the words with so much power and so much vulnerability. Do not tell my daughter that she has been cured. She has not been able to breathe since she was five years old and you’re telling me that there is no chance of the asthma coming back? Don’t lie to me. There is no cure. You helped, yes. But there is no cure. I sank into my seat, hoping to become the chair’s next layer of leather. It would have been better than sitting there in a crowded waiting room listening to my mother crush the dreams of all the children waiting to receive their vaccines. Two of the nurses ushered my mother into a far off room for a few minutes.
Vamonos, Mina. I’m tired of his bullshit. It was the insurance, pinche cobarde. We stormed out and we never went back. Mom was right. There was no cure. I got sick a couple of times after Dr. Lin dismissed us, but it was nothing that we could not handle. My mom always busted out the medicine routine and the tea. In a few days, I was fine again. Mija, you won’t ever need to go to the hospital again, I will always take care of you.
She sacrificed too much for me. One time, when I was sixteen, my boyfriend got sick and I got sick right after. Por andar de novia, stop kissing him. Don’t you have any regard for your health? She dragged me to the stove. Ma, stop! I don’t need it anymore! It’s just a cold, it’s not asthma! She made me drink the scalding tea anyways. I threw out all of the old medicines, she didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t kiss him. No more inhalers. She gave me the beating of a lifetime when she noticed what I had done. You don’t have insurance anymore! We can’t replace them, si empeoras! We don’t have money, Mina. Good. I was done with all of that. I wanted to prove that my body could fight for itself.
It couldn’t. Turns out, I needed all of that stuff. I had a ‘cold’ for the entire month of March. Te dije, Mina, you still needed everything. Like old times, she would come into my room at night to calm my panic when I couldn’t breathe when I coughed. She stayed up with me until I could catch my breath. She looked 10 years older than what she actually was on those nights. Te voy hacer un te, I’m going to make you some tea. And I would grunt and roll over in my bedsheets in defiance until the coughing fits came and I would reluctantly follow her to the kitchen. Ma, no. Quiero miel y limón. The same old argument, the same old routine. It’s not that serious, mom. It’s just a light cough, I’m fine.
When April came, she drove me to see Dr. Lin because I would not stop wheezing. The rhythmic whistling sound that was produced from the inside of my chest gave it all away. Asthma. Like your mother told you, there is no real cure, but like a soldier you can always fight the enemy. He renewed my prescriptions on the entire list of medicines that I used to take as a kid, and my mom paid for everything upfront in cash. I wondered if that money was our month’s grocery money and like a pathogen, the guilt infected my entire body.
It was bad one particular night that month. I was on the edge of crying out in frustration. The coughing would not let me sleep no matter how many times I tried to. The drowning feeling would wake me up before the coughing would even start. Mom came in that night, but something was different. She didn’t look tired or ten years older. Hija, te doy miel y limón? It was the first time that she has ever offered honey instead of tea. After the coughing stopped, I spit out the phlegm that was choking me and tried my best to smile up at her. Si, mama, por favor. She sat down next to me, feeding me the thick sweetness with drops of sour that I could now taste in full effect.
Mija, I don’t ever want you to feel like you are a burden to me. With a mouthful of honey, I hugged her. It was too thick for me to swallow and too thick for me to try to speak. I just want to take care of you, you’re my little girl. I thought of everything that she has sacrificed for me. So much of her time, her life, to care for me. I pulled her closer to me, and her hair smelled like oregano. For once, it didn’t disgust me or send violent jolts throughout my body urging me to run away. It soothed me even though it made my eyes water and my nose runny. She was better than any doctor, Mom was my home remedy.