When I deliver talks at academic conferences, I almost always begin by acknowledging that what I’m about to present is a small thing, a very small thing. At first, I would offer this disclaimer as a sort of apology. Where those around me were speaking in broad and rich terms about Husserl’s transcendental epoché or the Heideggerian hermeneutic circle, I was often offering little more than a close reading of a single text. If my analyses had father reaching consequences, they rarely had time to emerge in my allotted twenty minutes. A small thing, then. What more could I offer? What more should criticism be?
On Tuesday, I met a different sort of small thing. Weeks before, an ultrasound had revealed two small nodules on my thyroid, neither of them larger than a centimeter. Small things. My endocrinologist seemed unconcerned. They were, she suggested, congruent with expectations for Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that I had developed in my mid-twenties. As diseases go, Hashimoto’s is itself a small thing: I take a pill each morning before breakfast, have my blood drawn once a year. Little more.
The nodules, then: Little things, small things, but things that called for biopsies all the same. On Monday, a calm and patient doctor prodded at my neck with a thin needle. Later, I posted a picture of myself on Facebook with two Band-Aids on my neck. In the comments, I assured my friends and family that everything was fine, that the procedure had been routine. My results came back quickly: The larger of the two nodules was normal, the smaller, less so.
Cancer. Thyroid cancer. Slow growing stranger. A small thing, a very small thing.
Next month, a surgeon will remove my thyroid from my neck, leaving me with a scar just as broad as the absent organ. Though the prognosis is good, I remain shaken.
These days, I still refer to my talks as small things, but I no longer treat the pronouncement as an apology. Cancer is a small thing, and no less deadly for it. Criticism is a small thing, and no less powerful for it. I will live with both.