"Did you hear about Cousin Sadie? It was the size of an orange!"
"And you know that nice man, Mr. Friedman, with the shoe store? In his stomach. A baseball."
"Oy! Like my Aunt Sophie-a papaya."
But cancer was a disease for other people, older people--sick people, for God's sake. I was thirty-seven and in good health, so it wasn't even a possibility lurking in the corners of my imagination on that hot July afternoon, my son's fifth birthday. I had placed five candles on the cake and was just putting on the sixth for good luck when the phone rang.
"I'll get it!" I said, licking chocolate frosting from my fingers.
"Let the machine get it," shouted Taly from the other room.
"But it's probably my mom," I said, picking it up. "Elijah-remember, Grandma Gladys has trouble hearing, so speak loudly and clearly. Okay?"
"Joel?" It was Ishmael. "I've got news. I'm afraid you're one in a thousand."
He talked for several minutes, but I only absorbed a few words here and there.
". . . papillary thyroid cancer . . ."
". . . partial versus full thyroidectomy . . ."
". . . five years, disease-free survival rate . . ."
Taly had lit the candles and was motioning me to get off the phone. Then she saw the look on my face.
I stared at her blankly, trying to come up with another word for "cancer."
Finally, I gave up and brushed the question aside. "Nothing, really. We'll be fine. C'mon--before the candles burn down!"
That night, I tucked the kids in and told them their bedtime stories, as always. Then I went downstairs, where I found Taly waiting for me, pacing.
"Joel, what is it?"
I thought humor might be the best way to break the news to her. "Do you remember that line in When Harry Met Sally? Where Billy Crystal says, 'Don't worry, it's just one of those twenty-four-hour tumors'?"
Her face went pale. "A tumor? Cancer? You have cancer?"
"Just a little cancer. Thyroid cancer. But the doctor said that if you have to have cancer, this is a good kind to have."
She looked baffled. "Good cancer? What are you talking about?"
I fumbled for an explanation, but the words would not come. Looking in her eyes, I could see she was terrified, but she tried to comfort me.
"But it will be okay," she said, nodding.
"Won't it?" I nodded back. "This is treatable, right?" Cancer had long been her greatest fear. "You'll be alright. And we'll be alright. Right?"
"That's right," I assured her, regaining my footing. "A blip on the radar screen, nothing more."
Surfacing from general anesthesia felt a bit like waking up with jet lag after a long trip. For a moment I lay there, my eyes closed, no idea where I was, nothing but that strange disorientation and sense of anticipation that comes with the start of an adventure. Keeping my eyes closed tight, I wondered what world awaited me--Budapest? Katmandu? Shanghai? When I opened them, I noticed the machinery, saw tubes in my arms, and felt pain everywhere.
"Some adventure this is . . ." I started to say. I stopped. Something was wrong. I tried again. "Some adventure . . ." Nothing came out.
Again and again I tried to say something, anything. I tried to call out for Taly. A wave of panic surged through me and my heart began to pound. And only then did I realize what was happening. It was a dream, of course, nothing more. I'd often had dreams like this, usually before a big performance, where I found myself suddenly unable to talk. I would be standing before a large audience, trying to tell a story, and no words would come out of my mouth.
What a relief. A nightmare, nothing more. I tried to remember what performance it was, but couldn't. So I did the only thing I could do and waited for the dream to end.
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.
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