81: Cotton Balls

81: Cotton Balls

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Cotton Balls

The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.

~G.K. Chesterton

My mother calls from Florida every day. Today she asks, “Are you okay? Are the kids okay? Where are they?”

I make the mistake of telling her the kids are playing outside. Now she calls every five minutes. “Are they back yet?”

“No, Mom, they’re still outside.”

“Can you see them?”

“No, but they’re fine.”

“You can’t see them? They’re in the woods? With the bears?”


We hang up. I am trying to read, but it’s hard to concentrate when I’m constantly interrupted. The phone rings. I sigh and put the book away.

“Are they back YET?”

“I can see them, Mom. Sophie is by the pond. Max is on the swing.”

“The pond? She’ll fall in! Go get her.”

“Mom, she’s fine.”

My kids are ten and twelve. Not likely to fall in ponds, get lost in the woods, or be eaten by bears. But she worries. She worries about us, but even more, she worries about herself.

“I ate a banana!”

“That’s great, Mom. Hold on.”

Now I am trying to help my daughter with her math homework while holding the phone and stirring a pan of veggies.

“I can’t remember how to do that long division, Sophie. You’ll have to ask Daddy when he gets home.… Hold on, Mom. Max, no computer until you finish your spelling. What was that, Mom?”

“I said I ate a banana!” Her voice is high, like it gets when she is anxious.

“Yeah,” I say, “a banana. And the problem with that is…”

“I’m allergic to bananas!”

I want to say, “Then why did you eat it?” But I bite my tongue and say, “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. My stomach hurts.”

Her stomach hurt for a week after that, but I am pretty sure she isn’t really allergic. She just scared herself into believing she was.

The next week, it was a peach. “I ate a peach!”

“Are you allergic?”

“No, but the peach was on the counter, and I had just washed dishes. I think some dish soap got on the peach. Do you think it will hurt me?”

“Dish soap on the peach?” Now she’s caught us in the middle of a rip-roaring game of Monopoly. I’m beating the pants off the kids, and I want to keep it that way, but I just landed on Kentucky Avenue and Max has a hotel on it.

“Hold on, Mom.”

“Ha! Pay up!” my kid says. I don’t want to, but I hand him the money.

“You’re not listening to me!” my mom yells. “I ate a bottle of dish soap! I’m going to die!”

“You ate the whole bottle? Sophie, your turn.”

“You’re not taking me seriously! I’m going to call Poison Control.”

“Okay, call me back.”

Poison Control tells her she’ll be fine. That’s what they always tell her. She calls every day. It’s often a dish soap kind of thing, but sometimes it’s that she got some face cream on the side of her mouth and may have licked it. Many times, it’s the chicken. She calls Poison Control because after she eats chicken, she thinks she might remember having seen a slight blue tinge on the tip of the wing. “When in doubt, throw it out,” is their motto, or so she tells me, which means more than half her groceries end up in the trash.

The phone rings while my family is eating dinner.

“The cotton ball is missing!” my mom cries.

I had just dropped a beautiful chunk of butter on a steamy mound of mashed potatoes. With a sigh, I leave my plate of food and my family, and take the phone into the living room.

“Cotton ball?” I say as I plop onto the couch.

“It’s gone!” Her voice is near hysterics. I pet the kitty, who rolls over for a tummy rub.

“It was a new bottle of medicine,” she says. “You know how they have the cotton in them?”

“Yeah?” I haven’t heard this one yet.

“The cotton is missing!” I can tell she is pacing her kitchen, going back to the bottle of medicine again and again, looking for the cotton.

I change the phone to my other ear. “Okay, so maybe this bottle never had the cotton in it.”

“It had the cotton!” she practically yells at me.

“But if it’s not there…”

“It’s not there because I ATE IT!”

My family hears her yell through the phone. My husband raises his eyebrows, while my daughter points to my mashed potatoes and rubs her tummy. “Yum,” she mouths. I shake my head.

“You really ate a cotton ball?” I ask.

“It’s not in the bottle, is it? So, yeah, I must have eaten it!”

I take a deep breath and wonder what it must be like to worry so much. I also wonder what it must be like to have a normal mother, or at least one who doesn’t think she eats cotton balls.

“I gotta go,” she says. We hang up. I go back to my potatoes, which are cold. The butter is congealed, but I eat them anyway. The phone rings.

“Hi, Mom, what did Poison Control say?”

“They said that if I ate a cotton ball, I’d know it.”

“And do you think that’s true?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

She once asked Poison Control if she was their craziest client. They told her no, that there was a man who called every day, convinced that his dog was trying to poison him. We had a good laugh about that.

“I better go,” she says. “My stomach feels funny.”

So does mine, but I finish my cold dinner knowing the phone will ring again in a few minutes. And who knows what it will be this time?

~Lava Mueller

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