By Marilyn Mehr
I don’t know why I started laughing. Nothing was funny, not really, not the two of us, Annie and I, lurching along the freeway at breakneck speed to reach a neglected neighborhood of West Los Angeles, to show up for an appointment with a doctor we had never met on a Saturday morning in September 1993. We were two middle-aged women who had lived together for nearly 20 years and were both scared. ‘Nothing funny about that. From our home in Mt. Washington, down the winding roads named after the Mexicans who had carved them—“Cazador,”” El Paso,” “Figueroa”—to the sprawling freeways, taking us to the edges of the old Culver City movie lots, we had barely spoken, not even smiled.
When we pulled up beside a white stucco apartment building, I was sure that Annie would tell me to drive away and find the nearest coffee shop. But no, she pushed open the car door and found her way unsteadily to her feet and began crossing the sidewalk in a crablike walk to a set of stairs.
“Wait! I’ll help you.” I called out, but she waved me away.
Not one to pay attention to those resisting my help, I hurried along behind her until she had reached midway to the second story. For a moment, I averted my eyes as she missed the next step, grabbed the wooden stairway and tumbled backward pell-mell into my arms as we spiraled downward onto the landing falling into a potted palm. The air was blue with expletives (“stupid, fucking palm tree!”) as Annie swore at the mulishness of the plant, brushed the dust and humiliation from her clothes and tried to stand up. That’s when I started laughing.
“What the hell is so damned funny?” she yelled at me.
“Nothing,” I gasped, one hand over my mouth as I reached with the other to lift her up. “It is funny, too funny—the two of us falling into a potted palm in a godforsaken section of L.A. in search of a Chinese magic doctor.”
Annie stood up, straightening her tweed jacket, brushing off her gabardine pants, while glaring at me and squinting her eyes against the morning sun. She rubbed a bruised patch of skin on her cheek. Then, determined to navigate the steps alone, she said, “Come on. We’re going up there to meet this little lady and see what she knows. You can laugh like a fool in a funhouse, I’m going in.”
Starting up the stairs again, she held firmly to the railing, lifting each foot deliberately until she reached the top. Then, searching for the apartment number and, seeing that the door was open, she stepped inside.
Annie tells me that I laugh when nothing is funny because I’m tense and afraid to show how I really feel. How I felt at that moment was hysterical. Nothing could have kept me from laughing, although God knows, I tried. When I saw the tables lined up in what was meant to be the living room, I was just curious. When I noticed a middle-aged man who appeared to be Asian, his head barely visible above a mound of paper sacks and twigs, I wanted to laugh. I put my hand over my mouth, trying to muffle my giggles under the steady snap of breaking branches. No one noticed.
Hearing us enter, the man jumped up, bowed and offered us seats on folding chairs lined up against a wall. Now, I knew that we would leave. Annie would survey this twig factory, take in the odor of decaying trees, make an excuse and we would leave. Perhaps, we could drive out to Santa Monica for lunch. The ocean air would do us both some good. To my surprise, she sat down, folded her hands in her lap and waited. Taking her cue, I did the same.
Nobody said anything for about ten minutes, the only sound being the steady cracking of the twigs. To divert myself, I tried to count the snaps, “one, two, three,” then multiply them as though taking a pulse to get the numbers per minute. I tried to focus, just to get some control, but couldn’t.
Finally, a short woman in a white lab coat appeared at the door holding what looked like a patient’s chart. Wearing glasses and sensible shoes, she projected an air of quiet confidence. She smiled as she asked, “Which of you is the patient?”
Annie raised her hand and attempted to rise. Seeing her difficulty, the doctor came to her side, offering her arm as Annie rose unsteadily.
“You are Annie,” she said. “I am Dr. Chang.” She placed her arm around Annie’s waist and guided her to one of the rooms, leaving the door ajar as she began questioning her about her symptoms.
As the interview proceeded, I tried to settle myself on one of the foldout chairs lined up against the wall, tracing our path to this little office in the middle of an impoverished suburban park on the Westside of Los Angeles. How did we get here?
Six weeks ago, I had sat across from Annie at our breakfast table watching the clouds pass over the San Gabriel Mountains while Annie flipped through the newspaper. We were both dressed, ready to run off to our jobs as professors, she at a nearby university, where she taught in the Counseling Department, and I at a nearby graduate school of psychology.
Suddenly Annie put her hand to the side of her face, her eyes wide in alarm. “My face is so hot! Do you see anything? I’m burning up!”
I reached over the table, to put my hand on her forehead. Her temperature seemed normal, not feverish, and her complexion was its usual light olive color. I told her that I couldn’t feel anything.
“Well, then, it’s gone,” and she folded the paper. “No, there it goes again! It’s like a street light—on/off, walk/stop—and now, I can’t see out of my left eye!”
I tried to remain calm as I watched and measured her responses. For the next five minutes, the flashes of heat and blindness continued until I finally blurted out, “I’m going to call a doctor who’ll see you today. Something’s wrong!”
As a psychologist who had worked in hospitals, I knew many physicians in the area and soon set up an appointment with a well-known neurologist. We both cancelled our regular appointments and tried to while away the time until we saw her. We distracted each other by listening to music, sharing a sandwich and flipping through some old New Yorkers, pointing to cartoons and trying to laugh.
Finally, at 2:00, we met with Dr. Nielsen. A slight woman in a white coat, hair drawn into a knot behind her neck, she was efficient, thorough and brusque. After examining Annie, she sent her for an MRI and lab tests, indicating that there were several options, all of which scared us silly: brain tumor, compressed nerves in the spine, optical neuritis and MS, that is, “multiple sclerosis.” By the time we returned a week later, Annie’s vision had returned but the flushing continued as well as problems maintaining her balance.
“I just feel tipsy,” she complained.
The doctor sighed, reviewed the chart, threw the MRI onto a screen and pointed to the lesions scattered like spilled pepper over her brain.
“We don’t know for sure, but it looks like MS,” Dr. Nielsen said folding her arms as though to block out contagion.
Annie replied cautiously, trying not to push back too hard. “Well, O.K. What can be done to treat it?”
“Nothing really,” the doctor replied, pursing her lips. “It may get worse, it may get better. We can try a round of steroids if it returns and it probably will, but for now, nothing. We’ll just watch and wait.” And with that, she closed the chart and left.
For the next few weeks, Annie returned to work, balancing herself on doorways and desktops, trying to conceal her symptoms until one day, exasperated by the doctor’s curt brushoff, I marched down the hall of my school, seeking out a colleague who had a reputation for knowing about alternative medicines. Paula’s office was covered with the posters of 60’s idols—Janis Joplin, Ram Dass, the Grateful Dead—her sympathies were clear. She still lived in the 60’s, as her dress easily confirmed--the long blonde braid trailing down her back, the rows of beads, the colorful headband and the Indian cotton blouse—all expressed her love of the counter-culture.
Although I had lived in that time, too, I had become more traditional, accommodating to the scientific method to survive in graduate school culture. I was open to alternative medicine, but I didn’t advocate any of its methods. After all, my own mother had been an ardent student of “natural” treatments, schooling herself with the ministrations of chiropractors, nutritionists, iridologists and phrenologists. She insisted that we never touch white bread, always buying whole grains, which she would grind, then bake into huge round loaves, free of all contaminants and she always resisted antibiotics as they “killed off the good germs, too.”
Paula listened carefully, asked a few questions and gave me a slip of paper that said, Dr. Junjiang Chang, Chinese Medicine. “Try this,” she said. “I think you’ll like her.” As I left her office and walked down the hall, I had an uncontrollable urge to laugh and could hardly get to the door of my own office before I burst out giggling. Here I am, a Professor of Health Psychology, trained in the scientific method and I’m finding Annie a quack to cure her MS. Well, western medicine has nothing to offer, why not turn to the east? Anyhow, I reasoned, it doesn’t matter because Annie will never go.
Yet, she did. When I told her about my conversation with Paula, Annie was eager to set up the appointment. “There’s nothing else,” she had said stoically, as we got into the car this morning. I was even more surprised when she surveyed the building, looked around the modest neighborhood and walked up the stairs, straight into the twig-snapping factory of Dr. Chang.
Dr. Chang wasn’t a traditional doctor and didn’t observe traditional notions about privacy, either. She left her door open as she proceeded with Annie’s history so all could hear, including the man breaking up twigs, if he understood English. When Annie finished recounting her symptoms, Dr. Chang reviewed her notes and said gently, “Annie, I don’t think that this is MS. Have you traveled anywhere recently?”
“Yes, we were in Baja California six weeks ago. When I came back, I was very sick with a stomach virus which I thought I had gotten from the food.”
“Hmm, I think what you have is a virus which has settled in your brain.”
Sure, I thought to myself, and next she’ll say that Annie has Mexican bees in her bonnet, but I kept listening.
“What you must do is to take these herbs—from China –boil them three times a day and drink the broth—drink it fast. Can you do that?”
Annie agreed that she could. I was certain she wouldn’t. She hated to cook and would never even open a can of soup for herself, preferring anything that didn’t require preparation—cereal, yogurt, dried apricots, licorice sticks. I knew she wouldn’t put twigs in a pot and drink the liquid. Still, my partner of twenty years had surprised me many times in the past few weeks. She might again.
“Come back in two weeks and we can talk about acupuncture,” Dr. Chang advised, putting her arm around Annie’s shoulder and guiding her gently to the door.
“Annie is going to get better,” was all she said as we made our way out and down the steps.
For the next two weeks, Annie boiled the twigs and leaves filling the house with a foul brackish smell that seeped into the curtains, the carpets, the couches, even our clothing. Once, when Annie was at school, I sipped some of the broth and spit it out into the sink, gasping at the acrid taste, which was just as foul as the smell. Still, Annie drank vast quantities of it, never complaining.
On the Saturday of our next appointment, Annie looked across the breakfast table at me and said, “Just so you know, I can see now…no more blurring, no more fog... and the flushing has stopped.”
I didn’t laugh. I didn’t do anything, but stare at her and marvel. Someone I had known for twenty years had surprised me by her willingness to cross borders of training and culture, to try something new, anything, to get well.
I threw my arms around her. “Maybe you’ve washed it away. Let’s hope.”
Was it MS? Probably, but the symptoms didn’t return for eighteen years, time to grow her career, teach and write articles, see patients, travel, experience life fully. And then, one day, in 2005, she started to walk from the couch in our New York apartment to the television and fell. We dismissed it as clumsiness, but then she fell again. The next time she fell, we agreed that she should see a neurologist. At the Mt. Sinai MS Clinic, we met a warm Israeli doctor whose sense of humor was similar to Annie’s and mine. She too could laugh at the adversities of nature.
When Annie told her about Dr. Chang’s remedies, Dr. Leibowitz never scoffed at the story of a little Chinese doctor working out of the second story of an apartment building. She didn’t call us gullible or naïve, but marveled at the length of Annie’s recovery. This time, the new doctor had her own medicines to offer, but no real assurances. No one knew how the disease would progress, she cautioned, but she, too, took Annie’s arm, touched her gently and offered support for whatever lay ahead.
While they continued their visit, I remained in the waiting room. I had learned to stop laughing when I was scared. Now, I breathed in, breathed out and hummed a tune from the Grateful Dead, “Tell you what I’ll do, I’ll look out for you.”
Marilyn Mehr is a retired psychologist and Professor of Family Medicine who lives in New York City where she writes and engages in social protest. Her most recent publication was Such Charming Exiles: How Two Gay Women Learned to Live Openly and Love Fiercely. In addition, she has written The Courage to Achieve, with Betty A. Walker, and Holding the World Together, a novel about her Mormon ancestry. She lives with her wife, Betty Walker, whom she married at the Bronx County Courthouse in 2011, all thanks to the Great State of New York.