A Spoonful of Sugar, or Whatever


One of God's greatest gifts to mankind is the ability to swallow pills. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive The Gift until I was seven years old, so I was forced to take liquid medications up to that point. Being a sickly child for many years, I endured quite a repertoire of traumatizing antibiotics. The Pink Stuff looked pretty, but tasted like the Kiss of Death. For years, I steered clear of anything the color of Pepto Bismol. The Nectar of the Devil, a light orange mixture, ruined orange sherbet for me until I was 50. But the mother of all hellish liquids was the Please-Lord-Deliver-Me-From-Evil Cough Suppressant. The only thing it suppressed was my will to live. I did everything I could to not cough – shoved a sock in my mouth during the night, tried to sleep face-down into my pillow – whatever it took, so Mom wouldn’t know I had a cough. It tasted like the end of the world, and scorched the lining of my esophagus. I shuddered every time I watched Mom pour it into a spoon to poison me.

“It’s grape flavored. If you take it, maybe you’ll be able to sleep,” she said, as if I’d believe her that particular time. You never forget your first cough medicine. Or your first time to be snared in a web of deceit. Sneaky pharmacists added "flavoring" to many of their concoctions, attempting to lure small children into a false sense of security. I'd tasted fresh strawberries, grapes, and cherries. Fresh fruit didn’t make me want to drive my tricycle off a cliff, a.k.a. the curb in front of my house, but elixirs from Hades did. The damage done in youth can last a lifetime; Flash still hates cherry candy because his mom keep him stocked in cherry “flavored” cough drops.

When Cowboy was six, we started him on supplements to improve his health. Because he had not yet received The Gift, he had to take them in powder or liquid form. We tried to hide them in other things, but kids have a sixth sense about foreign substances being added to their food.

“Use applesauce,” his doctor told me. “It will cover the taste.” Instead, the entire concoction covered my carpet, as Cowboy gagged and spit out yet another dose.

Pudding didn’t work either. Jell-O was a no-go. We tried everything we could think of. Finally, we turned to Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. It covers up most horrible tastes. Every day, at least twice a day, Cowboy would take a shot of chocolate with a vitamin or other supplement mixed in. Unfortunately, every once in a while Cowboy overloaded on syrup, and threw it right back up. Which was nearly impossible to get out of carpet.

After two years, Flash and I decided to try again to teach Cowboy how to swallow pills. It had been fairly easy with my stepdaughter, Zelda, when she was in the second grade. I put a pill on her tongue, told her to take a huge drink of water, and then pretend she was a frog when she swallowed. I demonstrated for her, making an exaggerated gulping sound. She thought that was funny, so she tried harder. Down went her first pill. We all celebrated.

I thought I’d try the same approach with Cowboy. I put the pill on Cowboy’s tongue, and told him to take a big drink of water. I repeated the amphibious demonstration. He swallowed hard, then took the pill out of his mouth and handed it to me. After several failed attempts over the next few months, I determined that he would be 45 years old and still taking children’s liquid medications. 

One day, after I’d been out running errands, I came in the front door to Flash’s proclamation, “Cowboy swallowed a pill!”

“How did you do that? What did you do to teach him?”

“I handed him his pill, and he took it.”

Flash had worked some kind of paternal magic, and I was shockingly thrilled. But Cowboy’s newfound skill didn’t stop with taking one pill. In a matter of weeks, he was swallowing five pills at a time. Sadly for Flash, Cowboy’s skill was not inherited. Flash requires drinking a half-gallon of water for one ibuprofen tablet. When I’m in the back of our house, I can hear him trying to gulp it down in the kitchen. Intermittently, I hear gagging sounds.

“I have a strong gag reflex,” he explained, when we were still newlyweds. He used his Gag Reflex Phenomenon as the reason he couldn’t assist with several things around the house, including changing diarrhea-laden diapers, wiping up vomit from humans or dogs, and cleaning hair out of the bathroom sink drain. It has served him well.

Flash is a high-maintenance swallower. Every night, just as I’m about to cross over to Dreamland, I hear the pantry door creak or the refrigerator open. Next, an array of bags crumpling and teeth crunching fill the night air. I long for the sound of silence. Instead, I get a cacophony that renders me fully awake.

“What are you doing?” I asked last week, as I shuffled my way to the kitchen, wearing a homicidal look on my face.

“Getting something to eat.”

“It’s midnight. I thought you were coming to bed.”

“I am. I just need something to eat, to make my sleeping pill work.”

“Food is going to make your pill work?”

“Yes, it pushes it down and makes it work better.”

“It pushes it down?”


“Because otherwise, it floats in your esophagus indefinitely?”

I won’t repeat what I heard him think, dear reader; I try to keep my writing family friendly.

Eventually, after a six-course meal, he stumbled back to bed, and I finally fell asleep. Until he bolted upright, making funny hacking noises.

“What now?” I asked. “You forgot dessert?”

“My pill is stuck in my throat.”

“I thought your midnight buffet pushed the pill down.”

“No. I need something heavier. More substantial.”

Last week, I walked into the kitchen at 2 a.m. There he was, eating a BLT on toast and a side of fries. Last night, he must have needed to push down an entire bottle of pills. I saw two empty Pizza Hut containers and a Dunkin’ Donuts box in the trash this morning.

And his pill drama has affected other members of our family; it’s contagious. Once a month, I give our dogs, Bobbie Sue and Pete, their heartworm and flea preventative chewable pills. At first, I simply held the pill for them to take out of my hand. After that failed, I placed it on their tongues, waiting for them to chew, like good little pets. That didn’t work either. After my ninth attempt in one day, I resorted to begging. “Come on, guys. It tastes like chicken.” They weren’t buying it. They caught on to the “flavored” conspiracy much sooner than I had. I felt their pain, but was running out of options.

Finally, I pulled out the high-priced, nitrite-free lunch meat that I’d bought for human consumption. Carefully, I camouflaged each pill in thin sliced turkey. Who wouldn’t love that? Pete swallowed the entire wrapped pill in one swoop. I was so proud, praising him as if he’d caught his first squirrel.

Then it was Bobbie Sue’s turn.

“Here, girl. Come get your treat.” As soon as I say “treat,” both dogs run to the pantry door to see what delights await them. If I want to use the word in a context other than feeding them, I have to spell it.

Bobbie trotted over, wagging her tail as she saw the turkey wrapped delicacy. I place it in her mouth, waiting for her to swallow. Instead, she chewed the lunch meat, then spit the pill out onto the floor.

“Bobbie Sue! You’re supposed to eat all of it.”

She grinned like a Cheshire cat, then turned to walk away.

“Get back here young lady,” I said.

She came back, ecstatic as she watched me wrap her pill in another piece of turkey. Of course, I had to give another slice to Pete. After all, how could I discriminate against him, when he had succeeded the first time? You can’t punish the competent.

Again, I went through the steps with Bobbie. And again, she spit out the pill.

You know you’re on the brink of insanity when you’re on your kitchen floor, holding your dog like a baby, prying her teeth open, and trying to coax her to keep a pill in her mouth. It was mom against beast, and the beast was winning. After the fifth turkey attempt, I quit for the day. Bobbie walked to her bed to take a nap, her tummy sufficiently full.

Well played, my dear, I thought to myself.

When Flash came home from work that night, I told him about the entire ordeal. “Maybe you can try,” I said, knowing it wouldn’t work. The dogs trust me more than they trust him; they know I do the grocery shopping for their snacks.

I walked to the mailbox and back in 40 seconds. As I entered the kitchen, Flash announced, “She took it.”

“How did you do that? What did you do to teach her?”

“I put the wrapped pill in her mouth, and she took it.”

My efforts to teach Cowboy and Bobbie Sue to take pills remind me of trying to take the lid off a new jar of pickles. After using a rubber jar opener, tapping the lid with a knife to help loosen it, running the jar under hot water, and praying to the God of Difficult Lids, I often hand the jar to Flash, who opens it with one swift movement. I do all the hard work; Flash reaps the rewards of success.

I guess those who can’t do well, really do teach. The Gagger still has trouble with his own medications and vitamins. If it’s bigger than a coated ibuprofen tablet, it might as well be the size of New England. I still hear distant “gork, gork gork” sounds from the kitchen, occasionally. On any given night, I expect to walk in on Bobbie Sue wrapping Flash’s sleeping pill in deli sliced turkey meat, as Flash wags his tail and waits for her to place the morsel on his tongue.

I’m all for their little arrangement. Whatever it takes for me to get some sleep.