James Lasdun

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The Incalculable Life Gesture

Lasdun, James

Last Updated: Feb-16-2010
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story


Richard Timmerman doesn't see eye-to-eye with his sister, Ellen. After their parents die, the siblings inherit the house. Richard wants to sell his share of it, but Ellen won't budge. She and her son continue to live in the home. As an elementary school principal in upstate New York, Richard already has a lot on his mind.

He notices a swelling under his chin. Three weeks later, the lump is still there. He visits Dr. Taubman, but the family physician is uncertain of the diagnosis. It might be a benign enlarged lymph node but a lymphoma cannot be ruled out. Richard focuses only on the possibility of cancer. A CAT scan is scheduled along with a referral to an ENT specialist for a biopsy.

Richard questions the radiologist supervising the scan about the results. She will not tell him. He suspects that she is holding back the truth. He next sees Dr. Jameson, the ENT specialist. The young physician examines Richard and then reviews Richard's CAT scan. The doctor's verdict is a salivary gland stone (sialolithiasis) that will likely pass on its own.

At first, Richard is angry with his family physician for not making the correct diagnosis. Soon his irritation gives way to relief. Richard has received a medical reprieve. There is no lymphoma. No treatment is necessary. Life is suddenly glorious. Richard's joy is transient. He telephones his sister to announce the good news and to patch things up with her. Ellen is unimpressed by Richard's recent scare and his magnanimity. The phone call leaves Richard uncertain and fearful about his future.

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