I used to be awakened by the sound. A deep, raspy cough that repeated again and again. As if the lungs were held hostage. But insistent enough to puncture the wall between my parents' bedroom and mine.
In the hollow of the night, I used to lie awake and listen. Captured and paralyzed by it. Quieting my own breathing to listen, even though I didn't want to hear. When all else was silent, it sounded like a rhythm from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. At a time when we were all meant to be asleep, getting our rest after a day's worth of living.
It hadn't always been this way. There used to be a time when we all breathed healthy breaths. When we had slept soundly. When coughs hadn't raise the specter of something more.
But we saw the closed sign on Mr. Kim's dry cleaners down in Little Neck. The lights off, no one behind the counter, the sewing machine unused. The business that was now waiting to be sold. We heard about how his wife and children made the funeral arrangements. How the cancer had appeared suddenly and changed everything.
It was a word that seemed to linger on my parents' breaths when they talked about other dry cleaners they knew. Or used to know. Mr. Song who passed away the year before. Mr. Choi, just two months earlier.
They were just a few out of the many Korean dry cleaners in the area. Only three or so who died of cancer. Only three out of possibly hundreds. So we told ourselves. Only three. What are the odds?
But when my dad worked on the clothes a little longer than usual, when he hung onto the tubes of chemicals used to remove this or that stain, my mom started darting glances at him. A minute would pass. Then another. Then seconds that seemed to linger forever. And then it would all come hurling out in a fury. Why are you taking so long with that sweater. Look at the piles we have. Can't we go home on time for a change? Didn't I tell you not to stand so close to the table when you work? Do you have to breathe everything in? Did you put an ad out for someone to handle the chemicals, like I told you to?
And when the coughing started, we told ourselves it was just a cough. Must be the dust in the store. Turn up the fan. Open the front door. Ventilate the place. Keep the air flowing. That will help. Surely, it has to help.
And then there were the weird stains on his hands. Yellowish at times. An odd brownish color. Appearing randomly. Something we did not understand.
But it wasn't our prerogative to get an explanation. The privilege of having a professional examine it and determine a cause was not in our lot. We didn't have that kind of money. The thought of paying thousands of dollars to see a doctor who may or may not be able to tell us what could be causing the cough -- when it was just a cough after all -- was far too lavish. And what if they determined the cause. What would we do after? How would we pay for the treatment? There was nothing we could do. We accepted that. Just as I accepted not being able to see a dentist for over a decade. Or not having a pap smear until well into my 20s. Or anything else that involved the medical profession. Our lives did not intersect with theirs.
It was only after I graduated from college that I started arguing with my parents. It became my cause -- to convince them to buy health insurance. I screamed and ranted and cried. It seemed to be a matter of life and death, and I couldn't understand why they couldn't see that. So I dealt them the cancer card. What if you get cancer, I screamed. You won't get treatment. That's how it works in America.
They let me rant. And said nothing.
I was hounded by images of what could happen. Of what we might be forced to do. Would we sell all of our assets and gather what money we could to pay for the treatment? But our assets added up to so little. Who would want our rickety furniture and '82 Oldsmobile? Would I plead with the doctors? Or strangers who may look on us with pity and help us out? Could we find some public assistance program that could help people like us?
I looked into buying health insurance for them. And learned that I could not afford it on my $27,000 a year paralegal salary.
When I started law school, I made a list of things I could do for them when I became a lawyer. The first on the list was to buy them health insurance. And prayed that nothing would go wrong before then.