"No problem. I'll tell them the story of Hillel." Hillel was a great Jewish scholar who had once been challenged to explain all the teaching in the Torah while standing on one foot. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he said. "The rest is commentary." She didn't buy it. With a sigh, I took off my hat, put down the costumes, and stood on both feet, balancing to show I was fine.
Before she could make her point, our two-year-old daughter, Michaela, made it for her. Running up to hug me good-bye, she stepped on my right toe. I howled in pain, dropping to the floor. Taly helped me up and handed me the phone.
The advice nurse heard my story and didn't miss a beat.
"Gout," she said.
"Gout," she repeated. "It's called the 'rich man's disease.'"
"I know what it's called. My father had it."
Among his constellation of illnesses, gout had always struck me as particularly unfair, precisely because of the moniker. It was a disease from another era, befitting wealthy statesmen in colonial days, back when there was nothing you could do but prop up your foot and moan about King George. Now, I learned from the nurse, there was a pill that would make it go away in a matter of hours. She had a doctor write a prescription, faxed it to the pharmacy, and scheduled a follow-up appointment. I took the pill and, sure enough, the gout vanished as quickly as it came. It has never bothered me since.
I didn't give the gout another thought until June, when I found myself in a doctor's office for the follow-up appointment. I sat on the paper-covered patients' table, smiling at the doctor, who smiled back at me. He was a soft-spoken Arabic man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who, I saw on his diplomas, bore the name Ishmael. I liked him, despite my misgivings about doctors. I've spent hours drinking mint tea and discussing philosophy with Arab merchants in the marketplace in Jerusalem, and his office reminded me of that, except instead of trinkets and rugs, it was filled with brochures on topics like "You and Your Prostate." As neither of us could figure out why I was there, he went to the computer and punched in my record number. "Gout?" he said. "You have gout?" "I had gout. Once. Last March. It only lasted a day." Once he got to the medical questions, I started to fidget. It was the same in the marketplace, when the topic of "rugs" would inevitably come up. "Well, as long as you're here, let me examine you." He began to feel my neck. "I don't think that's my foot," I said, "but you're the doctor." His hand was warm.
"There's nothing to be done about your foot. The gout is gone. But I'm an endocrinologist. Necks are my specialty." "Good thing you're not a proctologist!" The idea of an exam made me nervous, and I began making jokes. "Say, can I call you Ishmael?"
"Call me what you'd like," he said. He paused at one spot and probed a little deeper, looking away, concentrating on what he was feeling. "Did you know you have a little bump in your throat?"
"I have lots of little bumps in my throat. That's what a throat is."
"But you have an extra bump that shouldn't be here."
"I shouldn't be here, doc, the gout is gone . . ." I stopped speaking when he opened a drawer and pulled out a tray filled with medical implements that looked like something from a horror film. "Given your age and general health, chances that it's anything to worry about are one in a thousand," he said. "Just the same, I'd like to aspirate it. To be on the safe side."
He held up a hypodermic needle the size of a turkey baster.
"That's your idea of 'the safe side'?"
There are some words life does not prepare you to hear, words like, "You have cancer."
I had heard far too much about the disease as a child, as family friends and relatives were afflicted. Grown-ups spoke of it in hushed tones, and the softer they spoke, the closer I listened. I noticed that women's tumors were described in terms of fruit, men's in terms of sports.
Excerpted from The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness. Copyright © 2003 by Joel Ben Izzy. Reprinted with the permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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