Sunday, May 05, 2002

Word has power to give back life




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        Here it is, the best word in the English language: benign.

        Benign is the mother of all good words.

        Without benign, there is no joy. No happy, no peaceful, no content, no fulfilled. No life. Benign begets all the other good words.

        Here's how it happens: One day you have a perfectly good neck. A little long, maybe, a little thin, but otherwise serviceable. The next day you've got a little bump on the left side that looks like a fat comma. What the hell is that?

        Soon enough, it grows into something else and your friends start calling you Igor. The comma looks like an eggplant. Maybe it is an eggplant.

        Strangers guess you are part of a weird and tragic experiment involving radiation. The cow in your study group grew another head; you got an eggplant in your neck.

        It grows, over time, from 3 centimeters to 10. Three centimeters is noticeable; 10 is big enough to saddle and ride.

        You start imagining stuff. Worst-case scenario scenes. Why does my left shoulder hurt? How come my left ear's always clogged? I know why. It's the eggplant. The eggplant is killing me.

        You hate doctors, but not as much as you hate hospitals. So you resist getting the thing checked out. You are one of those people who would rather not know. I'm fine, really. Except when I look in the mirror.

        Finally, you go see a specialist. He walks into the examining room and looks at you like you're Janet Leigh about to get knifed in the shower. “That's big,” he says.

        The doctor calls it a lipoma, an evil-sounding word that only rings appropriate when spoken by a physician. Nobody else uses that word.

        You look it up. “A fatty tumor,” is the dictionary definition. Fatty's OK. Tumor?

        You get your neck CAT-scanned. You lie on a table in a room with all the personality of instant mashed potatoes. They shoot iodine into your arm, which makes your body feel like five-alarm chili. A machine circles your head and takes pictures. Pictures of the tumor.

        The results are supposed to be ready in three or four days. A week passes. You call and leave a message for the doctor. He calls when you're out, leaves a message of his own.

        The doc's voice is grave and halting. At least that's how you're hearing it. “I'd like to speak with you about these results. Call me as soon as possible.”

        A little tingle runs up your body, toe to head, like a live wire. You walk into the bathroom, check yourself out in the mirror. “Doesn't look as bad today,” you say, even though it looks the same. “Nothing to worry about.”

        Your wife calls. What did the doctor say? You surprise yourself with your nonchalance. The live wire subsides for a minute. “No problem,” you say.

        It's amazing how you can suspend your emotions when you have to. You can summon this Gary Cooper, High Noon-strength when you need it. I didn't exhale for a week but only I knew that.

        “Nothing unusual” was what the doctor finally said, when we talked 10 days after the CAT scan. They'll be removing the tumor, though. No human being should have to go through life with a vegetable in his neck.

        They'll knock me out, cut me open and surgically excise the lipoma. I'll have to walk around with a piece of gauze on my neck for awhile, which is almost as bad as having the lipoma. I prefer to move anonymously across the days, unless someone is applauding me or handing me a check.

        But given the malignant alternative, gauze and stares are just fine.

        Benign. What a great word. Beautiful, really.

        E-mail: pdaugherty@enquirer.com.

       



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