It would come without warning, often after dinner and just before bedtime. My elderly mother’s response would depend on whether we were sweating in the usual city-wide blackout and struggling to sleep in the late night’s heavy heat. Made worse by locked windows and barred doors, the atmosphere inside was taut as she added rows of glass bottles along our barricades as a homemade burglar alarm and a feeble acknowledgement of the clear and present danger from prowling bandits.
As the few flickering candles or lone oil lamp threw strange shivering shadows on the walls signalling us to interpret their frightening figures that seem to crawl closer in the small room, she would grimly start off rapid treatment with a small glass of water, followed by a bit of brown sugar.
Most times it would fail, and she would be forced to summon emergency measures while the smoke slowly slithered to the ceilings and my head spun. “Call someone’s name!” Mom would order, in keeping with the old Indian belief that hiccups occur when you are being talked or thought about. If you are able to name the culprit, the hiccups would stop. By then my nose and eyes burning, I would frown, trying hard to concentrate in the coughing haze, and to recall all the names and smirking faces of my guilty friends. “Abe…” I would stutter, “Abigail, Basil, Chabidai, Dennis, Esther, Francis, George…”
This was the alphabetical method. I never made it to “Z” and the end, because I did not have 26 pals and I knew no one whose name began with that last letter. If I was lucky, I would be exhausted and experiencing the other “zzzs” long before “Martin” and “Michelle.” However, if this failed, reinforcements were required, and she would go about it with military precision. A true believer in the doctrine of rapid dominance, or the use of overwhelming power and spectacular force to paralyse the enemy and destroy its will to resist, my mother would make me gasp repeatedly, not with the impossible recommendation I stand upside down and attempt the gravity-defying trick of drinking water, but with her increasingly outrageous allegations.
For instance, why had I skipped school and gone to the cinema? The ubiquitous village police of the “Aunties” squad had complained I was seen hanging out with bad company no doubt handsome boys of ill-repute and worse intentions. All “shock and awe” she would deploy deadly weapons of mass distraction, ignoring my indignant denials, until I ran out of breath and there was sweet and sudden silence. “Ahha, see it worked!” she or my older sister would declare in triumph, oblivious to the serious psychological damage inflicted on their traumatised subject. In our superstitious Guyanese society, it was common to see nursing mothers stick a piece of thread or a “tikka” or “kajal” dot on to the foreheads of afflicted babies already wearing the compulsory black band of beads or cloth, make the sign of the cross over a remedial cup of water, and hide a small silver knife or scissors under children’s pillows to keep away malignant spirits and the “evil eye.”
Hiccups were called yox, hickot, hickock, hitchcock, and hiccough in the days of old English. Today it remains a mystery defying explanation and evolution. French scientists have proposed that hiccups, known medically as a “synchronous diaphragmatic flutter,” may be linked to the fact that our ancient ancestors lived in the sea and bore gills similar to those of tadpoles, that helped them breathe. Since the brain circuitry controlling gill ventilation persists in modern mammals, even young human fetuses hiccup in the womb before any breathing movements appear.
Some 370 million years after animals started hauling themselves onto the land, biologists think the hiccupping habit has survived and adapted to a new use, helping mammal babies learn to suckle. The sequence of movements during suckling is similar to hiccupping, with the glottis or vocal chords closing to prevent milk entering the lungs
Over the past two weeks, our lives have belonged to “singultus,” the Latin term for the sobbing sound when we try to breathe in, but an involuntary diaphragm spasm causes the glottis to snap shut, producing the onomatopoeic “hic.” Struck by severe flu, my husband, Tony unexpectedly developed a continual attack of hiccups, a “protracted” outbreak during a demanding fortnight that has seen us in and out of doctors’ offices, pharmacies and emergency rooms, at all hours. The absence of a cure, the conundrum of the condition and the disruption to daily life have left us wanting to cry in between gasping for air and hope, on the way to the bank and the asylum. Thankfully he does not work as a surgeon and has stopped shaving for the while. The only thing sharp remaining is his sense of humour, as when he advised I call him “Wild Bill Hiccup” in between telling me of rare fatalities like Pope Pius XII, whose hiccups in 1954 were linked to the gastritis that led to his death four years later.
I feel like the desperate sleep-deprived woman who stumbled into yet another drug store and asked the pharmacist for a cure for the hiccups. Instead, he came out from behind the counter and stomped on her feet. “Why have you done that?” she asked. He replied, “Well, you don’t have the hiccups anymore, do you?”
“No,” the woman answered, “but I’d bet that my husband out in the car still does!”
Yet, he can hardly complain given the recorded case of the astonishing American, Charles Osborne who had hiccups continuously for 68 years, from 1922 to 1990, and was entered in the Guinness World Records as the man with the longest bout, an estimated 596 million hiccups! His affliction started as he weighed a fat pig for slaughter one spring afternoon. “I was hanging a 350-pound hog for butchering,” he recalled in an interview, years later. “I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.”
The experts determined he damaged a small part that inhibits the hiccup response.
The Iowa farmer tried everything including the conventional, guzzling a glass of water while biting a pencil, choking down a spoonful of sugar, and breathing into a paper bag. According to a 1982 People Magazine profile, thousands of people, each with a “cure all,” reached out to Osborne. From massaging the fingers to pressing the right side of the chin, none of the home remedies worked and he learnt to dismiss each suggestion with a curt “Tried that.”
Continuing to work with pigs, first as a hog auctioneer, and later as a farm machinery salesman, in between burps he married twice and fathered eight children. Bizarrely, Osborne’s hiccups completely stopped in 1990 but a year on he passed away due to natural causes – age 97.
ID comforts her spouse with the Yoruba word for hiccups, “òsúkèsúkèsúkè,” and the Bengali equivalent “hikka”. She tells him about the 16th century elfin origin of the term and explains that a hiccup nut is not what he thinks but rather the seed of a beautiful Southern African red-flowering shrub (Combretum bracteosum).