The Incalculable Life Gesture

Lasdun, James

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Feb-17-2010
  • Last revised: Feb-16-2010


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.


Three different doctors - a family physician, a radiologist, and an otolaryngologist - don't pass muster with the protagonist of the story. The patient prizes communication, time, and honesty. None of his physicians give Richard what he needs - sufficient hope and compassion. He becomes frustrated, worried, and paranoid. Who can blame the poor guy? At one point, the ENT specialist yawns while speaking to the patient. The radiologist turns away from him and tells Richard that she doesn't interpret scans.

Possible bad news sets the tone of the story. The art of medicine is conspicuously absent. As he copes with the uncertainty of his diagnosis, Richard imagines the worst scenario possible. He begins to think of himself as "tainted" by the change in his body. Richard exists in a "daze of fear."

Primary Source

It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories (pp 50-63)


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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