When, at age 10, I developed a bad cough again after a summer trip to England, she grudgingly brought me to a CF specialist. The woman reconfirmed the diagnosis and gave me a life expectancy of age 15.
“That woman doesn’t know her head from her ass!” my mother said to me in the hallway moments later, eyes flashing. Then she twirled her finger in the air by her ear, to indicate, “What a loonie!”
I giggled and felt relieved. Mom and I had a secret and seemed to know what the well-intentioned doctors didn’t: There was nothing seriously wrong with my health.
* * *
Ironically, Mom was a registered nurse, but although she worked long hours in the local hospital, she did everything in her power to ensure I never stepped foot there, beyond regular check-ups. We tried everything from homeopathy to reflexology, and in the end, it was Ayurveda that seemed to yield the most positive results.
Ayurveda, which means “the science of life” in Sanskrit, employs herbal supplements, dietary recommendations, and hands-on treatments to treat and prevent illnesses. My best friend, Stacey, grew accustomed to seeing me take daily breaks from our invented dance routines to inhale the soothing steam of eucalyptus, camphor, and menthol. After, I’d lie on the couch, head tilted back, and inhale herbalized sesame oil that Mom squeezed into my nostrils from a dropper. It was a big messy hassle and I had to be coaxed to participate, but I always breathed much easier afterward.
The herbal remedies were just the beginning. We also took trips to the Ayurvedic spa in Huntsville for weeklong, in-residence cleanse programs called panchakarma. These stays involved warm oil massages (abhyanga), along with herbalized steam baths (swedana) and other treatments.
I remember shying away from something called netra tarpana, in which you lie on your back as a soft circle of dough is placed around your eye socket and warm ghee, clarified butter, is gently poured in. Then you open your eyes and look around, as the oil, theoretically, removes impurities.
“It’s like swimming in gold!” my mother enthused.
Naturally, I wasn’t about to miss out. I lay on my back and blinked into the warm oil, imagining myself diving deep into a golden stream that could cure my cough.
“You always seemed to shine and glow after your panchakarma treatments,” my father recalls. Mind you, this is Dad the skeptic. Dad with the Ph.D. in physics, Dad who needs hard and fast evidence to be convinced of anything.
He and Mom split when my sister, Janet, and I were little, but he is a wonderfully supportive father and always bankrolled our Ayurvedic adventures.
* * *
When I was 14, my mother, sister, and I moved to Fairfield, Iowa, a town of 10,000 where 3,000 people practice transcendental meditation with earnest hopes of creating “heaven on earth.” In Fairfield, I regularly saw vaidyas, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine who made dietary or herbal recommendations. Sometimes they were visiting experts from India accompanied by a medical doctor, and other times they were themselves American M.D.s who had set aside lucrative mainstream medical careers to prescribe herbs instead of pills. That’s not to say they countermanded any traditional allopathic advice, or shied away from prescribing things like Tylenol Sinus or antibiotics. But if a paste of honey and turmeric could clear up my congestion, or simple herbs could improve my digestion, that’s what they’d recommend.