If you’ve seen the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you will remember that Toula’s father, Mr. Portokalos, believes that Windex is a remedy for everything. If you have a cut on your arm, he tells you, “Put some Windex on it.” When Toula wakes up on her wedding day with a huge zit on her chin her father tells her, “Put Windex on it.” My own father, who is not Greek, but Italian (and therefore named Anthony, not Nicky), believes that anyone who has the slightest indication of a physical ailment must be having a heart attack. The older you are the greater the risk, and therefore if you are over the age of 40, before allowing you to apply a Band-Aid to a minor scrape, my father must first check your blood-pressure, or perhaps call 911 and take your blood pressure while the ambulance is en route to your house.
I was over my parents’ house the other night when my mom (over the age of 40) came into the kitchen with a disgusted look on her face and said matter-of-factly, “I feel like I’m gonna throw up.” This of course, immediately sent my father into Heart Attack Alert Mode and he began his health evaluation process of my mother [The text in brackets represents the nonverbal expressions my mother – also Italian – conveyed with her body language. Italians are good at communicating nonverbally.]:
Dad: Do you have a pain in your chest?
Mom: No [you idiot]. I feel like I’m gonna throw up.
Dad: Nausea is a symptom of a heart attack. Do you have a pain in your arm?
Mom (making toast): No, don’t be ridiculous! I don’t have a pain in my arm. I have acita [that’s Italian for “heartburn”] and I feel sick. That’s all.
Dad (on his way out of the room): Let me get my blood-pressure machine. I better check your blood pressure. This could be the early signs of a heart attack.
(Mom puts bread in the toaster, rolls her eyes at me, and throws her arms up in the air, as she waits for my father to come back with his machine.)
Dad: Are you sure you don’t have a pain in your chest?
Mom: Noooo! I just have kind of an ache in my back between my shoulder blades.
Dad: That could be a heart attack or your gall bladder. Maybe I should drive you to the emergency room.
Mom: Oh God, NO! [Have you lost your mind AGAIN?] I’m gonna eat my toast and drink some ginger tea. I’ll be FINE. Jeez.
Dad: Sit down in the chair. When was the last time you went to the doctor or had your blood pressure checked?
Me (in a slight panic because Mom might throw up, but trying to be helpful): My dentist takes my blood pressure every time I go for a cleaning. Does yours?
Mom: No [silly daughter]. He never does that for me.
Dad: Joyce, sit in the chair. I’m gonna take your blood pressure. My doctor said this was one of the best blood-pressure machines on the market. It’s very accurate.
Mom (sitting in a chair): OK, Tony [I’ll humor you.] (She rolls her eyes and stifles her amusement between facial expressions that look like she just ate a moldy lemon).
(Dad proceeds to put the blood-pressure cuff around Mom’s arm. He presses some buttons and waits while the machine calculates if my mother is on the verge of heart failure.)
Mom: That stupid thing is KILLING MY ARM!!! That’s WAY too tight! You must be doing something wrong!
Dad: Well, it’s supposed to squeeze your arm to get a reading.
Mom: It’s supposed to hurt like that?! That’s worse than the pain in my back.
Dad: See how good this machine is? It’s already making you forget you are sick. (We all wait in silence while the machine delivers some numbers.) I knew it! Your blood pressure is 147 over 102! I’m taking you to the hospital right now.
Mom (ripping the Velcro cuff off of her arm): That’s ridiculous. That machine must be broken. My blood pressure is HIGH because you were squeezing the shit out of my arm!
Dad: Joyce, your blood pressure was always like 90 over 60. This is way too high for you.
Me (trying to be helpful again): No kidding, Mom. That can’t be good.
Mom (clearly amused by our concern): Alright. Take it again. I’m sure it’s the machine. Maybe it needs new batteries. Tony? Put new batteries in it first and try it again.
Dad: These are new batteries. I just charged them.
Mom: Put new batteries in it.
(Dad goes to his office to get new batteries.)
Dad: OK. Try it again. (He wraps the cuff around Mom’s arm while she is attempting to eat toast and knocks the toast out of her hand.)
Mom: Jeez! Can I eat my toast?
Dad: Do you want to eat toast if you’re having a heart attack? (The machine pumps up Mom’s arm. She winces in pain.) See?! Your blood pressure is even higher this time! I’m calling 911.
Mom: No you’re not. I’m fine. I’m starting to feel better already. The toast is helping.
Dad: Fine. But if you die, don’t say I told you so.
Mom (looking at me): If I die, Karla, you’ll get a lot of money.
Me: Stop! I don’t want your money. I want you to live for a very long time so I can take care of you in your old age. Or hire nurses to do it. I don’t think I want to feed you or change your diapers when you’re 90.
Mom: Good idea. (She has finished her toast and is sipping her ginger tea.) This is disgusting. Taste it.
(Mom shoves the mug in my direction. I taste the tea, acutely aware that I am now getting her germs, hoping that she’s just having a heart attack and isn’t afflicted with a fatal disease. If it’s the latter, I hope I don’t contract it tonight. That would really mess up my plans to go out with my friends.)
Me: It doesn’t taste that bad.
Mom (sticking out her tongue): I’ll just go lay down on the couch. I’ll be alright.
Dad: Oh no. Don’t lie on the couch. If you die there it will be a lot harder for me to pick you up and put your body on a stretcher.
Mom: Why do I need a stretcher if I’m dead? Just drag me out into the backyard. You can bury me in the woods.
Dad: The heck with that. I’ll put you in my compost pile. You can feed the vegetables next year.
Mom: Last week at 1:30 in the morning YOU were convinced YOU were having a heart attack. Remember Tony? You were knocking on my bedroom door asking me if I could take YOU to the emergency room. This week, I’m the one dying… probably because I ate those meatballs you cooked the other night. I haven’t felt right since, you know.
I feel I must interject here. Even though my parents have been divorced for years, they have shared a house for the last six, (I know – just add that to the criteria that make up my high-maintenance life) and they truly care about each other’s well being. I’ve witnessed this dozens of times. They could be fighting over who’s turn it is to feed the cat, or who left dirty dishes in the sink, but the moment one of them might be suffering a heart attack, they put their differences aside. My dad will try to evaluate the urgency of my mother’s condition when she isn’t feeling well, and when my father is having heart palpitations at 1:30 in the morning, Mom will tell him, “Eat some Tums and go back to sleep. If you’re still alive in the morning, I’ll take you to the doctor.” Either way, it all works out.