The day before I went into surgery, one of my students approached me as class was ending. Almost carelessly bright, she would smile even when she was serious. She was smiling now, and her tone was severe. I want to wish you luck, she said, hesitant. But I don’t believe in luck. So. Hope it goes well? A wry nod. Thank you. And I left to begin my fast.
I do not believe in luck either, but I keep calling myself lucky. Lucky to see the endocrinologist who found my cancer, lucky to meet the surgeon who removed it. Lucky that the nodules were so small, lucky that the disease had not spread. Lucky for my insurance, for my friends, for the kitten who sometimes sleeps on my chest. What can I call this conglomeration if not good fortune?
A few days after I came home from the hospital, a woman I have never met wrote to me about her own thyroid cancer. A different, more pernicious variety than mine, it was the product of a genetic endocrine disorder that had gone untreated for too long, leaving her with inoperable masses throughout her body. My prognosis is good, she suggested, though she didn’t say so in as many words. Maybe I heard that phrase because it’s one that keeps recurring, a sexta-syllabic balm seemingly meant to assuage the helplessly healthy as much as it comforts the interminably ill. I wrote back with empty confirmations, unsure how to comfort someone whose condition was so much more extreme than my own. She did not respond. I think of her sometimes, wondering if she is well.
The enormity of illnesses like the stranger’s renders me timid, uncommonly uncertain, especially when I relate them to my own. She had asked me about my surgery, about what might be ahead, and I struggled to tell her anything at all, anything that would not pale before what she had already experienced. I would have liked to offer some wisdom, but I know that I had little more to give than the silence of an attentive ear.
Nominally speaking, our disease diverged only at the tertiary level: Cancer, yes. Thyroid cancer, yes again. In light of these large correspondences, the scant sounds that distinguish my papillary thyroid cancer from her medullary thyroid cancer seem small things. But here language fails us, unable to efficiently capture the vast difference between our distinct ailments. My good fortune divides me from the stranger, places an ocean between us.
This lonely asymmetry returned to me weeks later as I spoke to a colleague about the death of his father. Similarities to the stranger’s illness came back at first: A growth on the brain, a swelling that surrounded it. Wanting to commiserate, I could once again only listen, head nodding. Until this: My father did not die of cancer. It was the diabetes. Diabetes, a disease he had regulated for years, decades maybe, with diet and exercise, made suddenly unmanageable. By what? By the very drugs he was taking to treat the cancer.
My colleague’s office window was open, and he occasionally let something outside catch his attention as he spoke. I can’t say when I started to tear up, but I was glad he couldn’t see me when I began. It seemed somehow unfair to cry over the story of another’s loss, and he had lost so much during my own cancerous summer. I was ashamed, ashamed not because I was crying, but because I was crying over events that my colleague must have felt more deeply than I could know.
In his story, though, I found an unexpected congruence with my own, as if I was looking into a warped mirror that showed me myself larger. Listening, I thought of the fuzzy days after my surgery, of the way my blood sugar levels kept climbing. No amount of insulin seemed sufficient to contain them. Convalescent, already helpless, I had felt my everyday regimes of self-care crumbling. I remember briefly thinking the surgery hadn’t been worth its consequences. But my own glycemic crisis was ultimately brief, survivable. A single week bound its horizon. Nevertheless, in this story I saw my own queasy loss of control play out on a more sorrowful scale.
Decades before, my colleague’s father had moved to western Ireland. On Inis Meáin, the middle of the three Aran Islands, he had helped to establish a textile mill that still stands today. I had hoped to visit it, but the unamicable Atlantic had made the trip too difficult, leaving me to explore Inis Mór for another day. Had the rough terrain of the islands spoken to my colleague’s father as it had to me? I know this: On Inis Mór’s towering cliffs I had learned how small I am. I learned this lesson again in my colleague’s story. Smallness is a vantage: To know yourself small is to observe the world moving around you. Watching giants stride, I think myself not lucky, but grateful.
Still, call me lucky if you like, but not just because I am healthy. Call me lucky because my story is so small. If I am a creature of good fortune, I must still admit that my fortune amounts to a paltry sum. I could not, would not, will not ask for more. I want only to stay small, to keep telling small stories, stories like pebbles on a rocky beach, pebbles made smooth by the force of a rougher sea.