A lesson in tolerance

This morning I was driving J to work and we were listening to perfectly nice music and having a perfectly nice conversation when he started in on one of his hacking fits, in which he coughs so loud and hard that I ask him if he'd like me to drive him to the hospital. It's a mock-serious question. I'm saying to him, "Listen, do you want me to drive you to the hospital? Because that cough is really intense and sounds serious," but also, "Justin. The ridiculous fashion in which you are coughing, that I believe to be a little bit over the top because there is no way in hell you need to make that much noise, makes me feel like I should do something equally ridiculous, like ask if you need emergency services."

When he coughs like this it's because he "has something in his throat" he tells me, and he, therefore, "needs to get it out," and this requires that, after the violent, hacking, forced cough, he must follow up with a series of grunts and "ahem AHEM AHEM AHEM AHEMS" in order to clear his throat further. "It's still in there!" he explains, when I look at him, exasperated, my sympathy clearly gone, and I just need him to stop making those noises, please, God, please stop.

The funny thing about this habit is that my father does the same thing, in different ways - that is, play-up his natural bodily reflexes, sneezing, coughing, clearing his throat. How I remember the many times my family would be sitting in a restaurant when my father would sit up straight in his chair, raise up his hands, palms facing outwards as if to silence the room, and sneeze so loudly and violently that patrons at other tables had to turn see what had just happened. This, apparently, not being enough attention drawn to the simple act of sneezing, my father would then yell something to make sure people knew that that, man, that had been a big one! "Wow!" or "Woah!" he'd shout, or sometimes "Jesus Christ!" with a major emphasis on that first syllable, like "Jeeeeeee - sus Christ!"

Needless to say, this was fun for Vin and I as teenagers. We'd hide behind our menus, looking at our mother, imploringly, as if to ask, "Really? Him? Was this your best option?" Meanwhile the waiter stood by, patiently, a smile playing at the edge of his lips as my father happily announced, again, in case people didn't hear, that that was a big sneeze, his eyes watering, his handkerchief out.

The handkerchief, one of my father's must-haves-at-all-times, always placed in his back pants pocket, was, in my opinion, at odds with his loud sneezing and coughing habit. He had a penchant for manners, my father, and to this day, if I chew with my mouth open or sniffle too loudly when I've got a cold, I stop, quickly, remembering the hundreds, thousands of times he'd tell me, "Cara, that's disgusting." I learned, finally, what is and is not acceptable. It took growing up and observing other people to realize that not only were my father's standards high, they were marked by a sort of obsession. Just a year or so ago I was at a pizza place with my parents, was getting over a cold, and in a moment of panic reached for one of the napkins - that are, I've been taught, strictly for use related to eating (the wiping of hands and mouth) - and placed one to my dripping nostril to stop a stream from landing on the table. There was an immediate uproar from my father's side of the table, "CARA! WHAT ARE YOU...JESUS CHRIST! THAT'S DISGUSTING!"  

I'm just not sure how much more "disgusting" my slight wiping of the nose with a dinner napkin is than his brilliant display of sneezes and coughs, and the continual carrying around of a dirty, cloth handkercheif.

Car trips were marked by deep, guttural throat clearings, much like my husband displayed this morning. "EHHHHHHHHH. EEEEHHHHHHHHHHHGGGGGGGGG." My brother and I would sit, mouths agape, wondering how my mother had become immune to this constant noise. Surely a person didn't need to work so hard at getting his throat cleared or scratched or whatever he was doing. But apparently he did, and on it would go. If we were lucky, a sneeze. In Chinese restaurants my father would self-inflict, adding hot mustard to his dish, taking a bite, and then assuming the typical palms-up gesture as though he were about to make a speech. His eyes would water, he'd swallow, and announce, "Jesus! That's HOT!" Is it? Is it hot, Dad? We couldn't tell because you weren't DRAWING ENOUGH ATTENTION TO THAT FACT.

So this morning I told J that I couldn't believed I'd married right back into the madness I sought so hard to flee in my youth. I've married someone who feels the need to clear their throat and cough loudly and harshly enough that I sometimes want to pull over the car and ask that he maybe get out until he is finished. He still claims, over and over, that he just needs to "get it out" the "it" mysterious because I'm pretty sure I've never had anything of that magnitude stuck in my throat. And luckily for now it's just this. But who knows how long it will be before he adopts other habits. Maybe one day I'll sit, quiet and poised like my mother, my eyes closed, pretending to nap. Maybe one day I won't even hear it anymore and at that point I'll realize an even truer definition of love and acceptance.