Diagnosis: Pleurisy

The early 1980s were surreal for me. Then in my early 20s, I had a dream job as Video Editor of Billboard in the early days of MTV. I traveled a lot, moderated industry panels, chaired the Billboard Video Music Conference and Awards and was even interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. Never mind that I was making a living as an expert on a quasi-art form that I secretly prayed would die a quick death. I had a column in Rolling Stone and lots of friends and went out every night to restaurants, clubs and concerts in a Manhattan I remember as glittering.

Then there was my family life. My mother had moved into the city while I was at NYU and inserted herself and my two sisters back into my daily life in a way I had thought I was done with. She called almost every morning before I left for work--often before I even woke up--to be sure she didn't miss me with her instructions for the day.

I spent my 20s trying to break away from my family (except my youngest sister Lisa!) and finally, at 29, I succeeded, picking up and heading west where so far no one has followed. But back in those days I was forever pulled into family dramas and mini-vacations. One, to Ocean City, Maryland, involved the humiliation of my mother trying to set me up with Kevin Kline, who was in town making a movie called Violets Are Blue.

And yet, in December 1985, I went back for more. I agreed to go to Williamsburg, Virginia for Christmas with my mother, grandmother (aka Mimi) and Lisa, at the time a teenager. The dream of a normal family was dying hard for my mother, who still believed she might someday hear her WASPy mother say "I love you."

I boarded Amtrak in New York with a hacking cough. By the time we reached Washington, where Mimi joined me, I was hugging myself with every cough, trying not to crack a rib. I had a seat to myself--the only one in the crowded car.

My grandmother took one look at me and said, "You've got pleurisy." She knew her illnesses. Despite a marriage of more than 40 years to a devout Christian Scientist, she was an equally devout hypochondriac who stood firmly on her knowledge of all things medical and had a custom-made prescription-filled medicine cabinet to back it up.

That night we met my mother and Lisa at the Williamsburg Inn, an elegant re-creation of 18th-century style that rarely saw the likes of our motley crew. Mimi announced her diagnosis to my mother and said we would need to find a doctor the following day.

"Pleurisy!" snorted my mother. "They don't have that any more!" A debate ensued. I recall polio being mentioned as a disease that had been eradicated--in contrast to pleurisy which indeed still existed. Or didn't. At this point I didn't care what I had, I just wanted it to stop.

The next day we headed for the local clinic. After my examination the doctor was giving me instructions for treatment when I interrupted him to ask, "What do I have?" He told me I had fluid in my lungs, and some other symptoms. Again I interrupted him: "Would another name be pleurisy?" I asked.

"Well, we don't use that term anymore," he answered, "but yes."

I excused myself and hurried, clutching the opening on my skimpy gown, out to the waiting room where the three women in my life were bickering about something in a magazine. "Just wanted to let you know I have pleurisy!" I croaked gleefully. I will never forget the expressions on my mother's and grandmother's faces, pure representations of betrayal and victory, respectively.

Yes, I had my diagnosis, and the unending bitterness of my mother. But our time in Williamsburg was not yet over. There was more bitterness-building left to do.

On our final day we went out for a walk. It was cold and the definition of crisp: everything looked and smelled more vivid, more defined, which made it really easy to notice a beautiful golden retriever wandering on the hotel grounds without a collar. "Oh the poor dog!" my mother said. "We have to take care of him!"

"This dog isn't homeless," Mimi insisted. "He's obviously well cared-for."

"A well cared-for dog does not wander without a collar and tags," my mother the dog expert said (and I don't use the word "expert" lightly: she currently has more than a dozen dogs of her own--don't ask). "This dog needs a home and we're going to give it to him." She moved the dog in and, as we checked out, told the front desk of the hotel that we had found a stray, in the unlikely event that anyone reported a missing dog.

Looking back, I'm shocked that I went along with what came next, but then I'm older, wiser and much more hardened to my mother's schemes these days. We canceled our train tickets and rented a car, since Amtrak doesn't allow pets. Mimi refused to take in the dog, and my mother lived on Roosevelt Island, a dog-free environment. It therefore fell to me to take the newly christened William (Williamsburg, get it?) to my co-op apartment on West 16th Street. By the time I got him there, I already had a message on my answering machine from his irate owners demanding his return. The next two days were spent getting William vaccination certificates and escorting him to LaGuardia Airport for his flight back to Virginia.

That was the last time I vacationed with my mother until Key West a decade later. But that's a hellish story for another day.

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