Here’s how it starts. First, a person has his health. Heart. Relatively easy commute. Decent career. Sense of humor. On occasion, he eats a Big Mac for lunch. Half a pint of Ben & Jerry’s before bed. A general optimism pervades his Brooklyn neighborhood, outdoor cafes vying with baby strollers for sidewalk space. Then one morning he wakes up—and concludes the only way he’ll live another day is to do the opposite of everything that came before.
Daniel Plotnick woke up.
It was April 1996, shortly before 7 a.m. Squinting into the light, he glanced across the bed sheets at his wife, Judy, and felt a pain in his neck.
An actual lump in his throat.
His groans woke her. She stared at the swelling in his neck and reassured him it should fade on its own. She compared the lump, right near his Adam’s apple, to a pimple inside her nose that goes away. Like a sudden thunderstorm, it should abruptly give way to sunshine. He tried to convince himself she was right. The young couple, after all, was married four months—too soon, presumably, for major hiccups. But the next day, Plotnick’s family physician weighed in against his wife’s rosy assessment. After examining the lump, he advised a battery of tests, and referred him to a higher-level doctor who, in turn, diagnosed Plotnick with the condition that would ultimately send him, and his life, into literal free-fall.
At first, the newlyweds clung to optimism. And why not? After determining Mr. Plotnick had thyroid cancer, his surgeon—a stoop-shouldered old-time practitioner they’d shopped long and hard for, with floor-to-ceiling walls of certificates and diplomas, hands reputedly steady as clams—said if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid is the one to get. Ninety percent cure rate! After removing the thyroid (a pale bilateral butterfly of a gland the doctor intoned, nearly waxing poetic, whose metabolic function is easily replaced by a once-a-day pill) infuse the patient with radiation and—voila!—any stray cancer gets zapped.
And so Plotnick went under the knife to remove his thyroid, a vocal nerve, and a sliver of trachea, not to mention fifty-two lymph nodes in and around the neck, with the belief he was curable. He kept his chin up during his week in the hospital, barely able to swallow or talk, staples knitting together his grimace-shaped gash, and another week in bed at home with ice packs and painkillers. He clung to the word “curable” like a life preserver and, two weeks after surgery, nature itself seemed to throw him one.
That afternoon, as Judy drove him to Long Island for his post-operative checkup, Plotnick turned his sore, bandaged neck to see out the window. Spring was breaking out in Brooklyn! Greening boughs arched overhead like parade banners, dogwood buds were exploding into white popcorn puffs, robins tweeted, and pansies dripped like molten gold from window boxes off the sides of brownstones. Through the open door of a bakery, the aroma of freshly baked rolls wafted past his nose.
Renewal was in full bloom: Plotnick expected his winter was on the wane.
Because—miracle of miracles!—he had the curable kind.
“Spring’s finally here,” he told Judy in his raspy voice, the tumor having damaged his left laryngeal vocal nerve.
Judy gazed up from the road to meet his glance. Her eyes—even his wife’s eyes—seemed a deeper shade of green.
“Thank God,” she agreed, and went back to watching the road.
His wife pulled off the highway and parked; Plotnick eagerly staggered out. Inside the clinic, however, the surgeon who’d brimmed with confidence behaved oddly. He ushered them into his office and sat stiffly across from them. Operative reports sheeted his desk, and when he looked up from them, his eyes were gray and troubled.
“Now Mr. and Mrs. Plotnick, there’s something we need to discuss,” Dr. Douglas said from behind his desk. “Frozen sections of the thyroid excised during surgery came back from pathology. I’m afraid the diagnosis has changed. We thought the cancer was curable, but I’m sorry, it isn’t.”
Plotnick, sitting next to his wife, swallowed to coat his dry throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing uneasily under the gauze swaddling his neck. The words sounded eerie and disturbing to him and, by force of habit as a journalist, he tried to distract himself with less catastrophic usages. Bacon is cured, he mused. But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues! Still, Plotnick’s inner wordy-gurdy didn’t help much, and he felt beads of sweat spring across his forehead.
“What do you mean he’s not curable?” Judy asked, her voice tightening in sync with her grip on Plotnick’s hand.
Dr. Douglas reiterated he’d been prepared to dose Plotnick with radioactive iodine to mop up any cancer remaining after the operation. But his condition—medullary thyroid carcinoma, as it turned out—originated from a part of the thyroid that doesn’t “take up” iodine. “Frankly, I was caught off guard. Because the cancer is sporadic, there’s no traceable cause, no genetic predisposition or event like cigarette smoking that might have triggered the cells going haywire.” The doctor rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Honestly, it’s like getting hit by lightning.”
“Maybe I should play the Lotto,” Plotnick said, drifting from the conversation. Hadn’t he been a long-distance runner with zero history of serious illness? “I’d be a millionaire with so much luck.”
“Daniel, be serious,” Judy said, but seemed to build on this subject of odds. “What are his chances, doctor?”
Plotnick tried to turn a deaf ear and look away, twisting his achy neck best he could, but Dr. Douglas’s words broke through loud and clear. Speaking patiently and firmly, he said folks with this particular condition are given a fifty-fifty chance of surviving ten years, but then added the caveat about statistics being meaningless. He gave the expected advice to live each day with meaning. After all, Mr. Plotnick’s cancer was slow-growing—except when it behaved badly.
“You should proceed with your life. Both of you. Mr. Plotnick could have ten years, or fifty. You could be run over by a truck sooner than the cancer gets you. So, take time to enjoy!”
Plotnick met his wife three years earlier in Times Square. It was 1993, before New York City banned smoking in bars, and he’d sat alone nursing his beer in the tumorous haze, after a long day covering business news for the Associated Press. Rubbing his tired eyes, he strained to see the clues in a New York Times crossword puzzle. A shapely woman sidled near, in a black cocktail dress, having come from a Christmas office party with a friend. He was struck by her gypsy green eyes, made mysterious by dark long lashes, and her smile of evidently corrected teeth.
“Six-letter word for what are you drinking?” he remarked. She commented, later, how he resembled a slacker version of Steve Jobs, whom she greatly admired, with his rimless intellectual glasses set tight across a hawk-like nose. Before long the two fell into conversation over pink, complex drinks about Nietzsche, Harold Pinter, and Mayor Giuliani’s bad toupee, how last month it blew off in front of TV cameras on the steps of City Hall, dominating the five o’clock news, even in China.
Like Plotnick she was in her early thirties and a voracious reader (she worked as a librarian), and they enjoyed a common ethnic cynicism. One Friday after work, he visited her place in Borough Park, a Jewish neighborhood on the other side of Brooklyn from his Park Slope. Evening was descending. He gazed out her apartment window at bent old women and men hurrying down the sidewalk, limping as fast as they could to get to the Kosher butcher before it closed at dusk, or to a minion, the ten-men minimum required for a prayer service. This pre-Sabbath scene, she insisted, made her think of a Russian shtetl during the time of Cossacks. “Of course, the shtetl comparison is flawed,” he countered, as they cozied up on a sofa, sharing a bottle of Manischewitz. “All these tall brick buildings would seem out of place in a tiny Jewish village a hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. Where every mother wore a shmata and had at least ten kids.”
“Yeah, but Borough Park still smells like chicken soup and matzoh balls. You know what it’s like meeting guys around here? Not exactly an aphrodisiac. The smell is, like, forever.”
The rabbi who married Plotnick and Judy commented at the altar how healthy they appeared, hand-in-hand before God. A sinewy jogger, Plotnick squirmed proudly in his vanilla tux. “Good health and marriage go hand-in-hand!” the rabbi intoned in the reddish glow of the ceiling-high eternal lamp, as if the Higher Authority himself were blessing the rabbi’s assessment.
Mere months later, though, the doctor’s prognosis trumped the rabbi’s.
* * *
As Judy drove them back that afternoon from the doctor’s visit—speeding down the highway, it would later seem to him, as if trying to get home before something else went wrong—Plotnick gazed gloomily out the passenger window, seeing the opposite of what he’d pictured merely an hour earlier. He noticed not the perfumed flowers but the potholes in the road and graffiti slashing the sides of buildings. He heard trucks rattling and whining down the pocked streets, he smelled their exhaust fumes and—as they reached their Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope—sensed a cloud descending darkly over the outdoor cafes, all the writers and artists and other cool people, it seemed to him, letting their Lithium prescriptions lapse.
“Penny for your thoughts, Dan.” Judy reached over from the driver’s seat to touch his hand.
Had he been a more expressive person, Plotnick might have shared a couple of things. About how he already missed what might no longer be. How he’d hoped to pen a novel, in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps become a foreign correspondent, searching for adventure in exotic lands. How he wanted a couple of kids to look up to him. They’d all live in a spacious suburban house instead of the claustrophobic fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, sow seeds in a little garden plot, weed the tomato plants, and set down aluminum pie plates filled with Budweiser to drown the slugs. One day, Plotnick had hoped to retire with a full pension. But right now he didn’t feel much like talking—to Judy, or anyone. Especially about things that might not come to pass.
“Yeah?” he said, fiddling with his glasses.
“Raise it to a quarter for your thoughts.”
“I’m not thinking anything,” he said, softly, not caring if she heard him or not.
* * *
The only thing worse than being declared incurable, Plotnick realized in hindsight, were Judy’s attempts to cure him.
It was a few days after his neck bandage came off; Plotnick sat slumped at the kitchen table taking a stab at The Sunday Times puzzle, trying to distract himself from the futility of it, from the inept medical profession, from all those high-paid physicians who seemed no more effective than a witch doctor rattling dried seeds over a comatose snake-bite victim.
Judy burst through the door laden with grocery bags. He glanced up. The sun, coming low through the window, slanted crazily across her pink flushed face as she removed item after unfamiliar item from the bags and set them before him on the table. She pulled out handfuls of dark green leaves. A jar labeled “flax.” A half-pound of green tea, a bag of wheatgrass, three vials of primrose elixir, ground up almond butter with natural oils. She’d weighed out pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, dried pomegranate. The kitchen filled with the ripe odor of vegetables and nuts and fruit on the verge of turning. Plotnick gazed back down at the crossword puzzle to divert his attention from the hub-bub, but a large kale leaf blocked the Across clues.
“We need to talk,” she said, grabbing the crossword from him.
Plotnick threw his pencil to the table in frustration. Couldn’t a man with a death sentence do the puzzle in peace? But Judy set down the remainder of her purchases, put up a pot of green tea, and for the next fifteen minutes paced the room and spoke. She told him she had found herself, literally and figuratively, in the largest health food store in Brooklyn. “Like I almost lost consciousness. I mean the answer was right there in front of me!”
“Answer to what?”
She ignored the question and bull-dozed onward to tell of her feeling of self-blame that had its roots in girlhood—a feeling very much like oops! At the age of nine-and-a-half, playing in her basement, Judy clumsily jump-roped through a house she’d built of toy wooden blocks for her pet hamster, crushing its furry little body. Even though it was an accident, her mother, a member of PETA, banned her from owning a hamster ever again. Things worsened when Judy became old enough to drive, which was shortly after her mother rescued a cat from the animal pound. Backing out from the driveway one moonless night in her mother’s car, she heard a brief but desperate feline squeal. By then head of PETA for the entire Northeast, her mother revoked her car privileges and gave her the evil eye until she was twenty-one. Afterwards, whenever someone in her life became gravely sick or died—a dog, say, or a grandparent—Judy felt as if she’d committed a punishable act. She felt like the kiss of death.
As Plotnick listened, his fingers worried his scar. The story sounded, frankly, like one of those crazy stories you hear on Dr. Phil. “I’m surprised you never told me this before, Judy,” he said. “How long have you had these issues?”
Sniffling, she handed him back the crossword puzzle and grabbed a tissue. “If you must know, I didn’t bring it up sooner because I didn’t think it was relevant. It sounded so stupid, besides. But then this incurable thing happened. I know intellectually I didn’t cause you to get sick, of course, but psychologically…”
“Aloe!” Plotnick blurted out, scratching in the word.
“Are you listening?”
“Of course. My brain works on two levels.” Plotnick put down the pencil and held up his hand like a traffic cop. “Judy, listen to me. Much as I respect Freud and Jung and that whole fruitcake profession, this isn’t about you, or them. I’m the one who had the operation. This hamster thing happened, like, twenty years ago. No reason to let guilt eat you up.”
Judy stared at him. “I get what you’re saying, Daniel. But you need to understand what I’m saying too. My condition and your condition…we’re made for each other!” Everything in her life up to this point, she went on, felt like practice. It was bottom of the ninth, two strikes, two outs. Gripping the bat handle, she stared hard at the pitcher motionless on the mound, a pitcher who threatened to strike them out. Turn their lives into a cosmic joke. A joke that began, like so many, in a smoky bar. A woman gazes into a stranger’s eyes, lets him buy her a drink. Existential philosophies and phone numbers are exchanged. After several adventures, she hitches a ride on his star. But the star goes nova.
Judy resumed cramming vegetables and grains into the refrigerator and closets.
“I still don’t get what you’re doing with all this stuff,” he said, gazing blankly at a box of gluten-free pasta.
“Five-letter word for plant-based balm.”
“Er, aloe has four letters.”
“Five-letter word for plant-based balm,” she repeated. “I’m trying to speak your language, Mr. Puzzle Man.”
“Wait ... got it! V-E-G-A-N.”
She nodded at him supportively, as if he were a toddler taking his first jerky steps. “To help you recuperate,” she said in a nurturing way. “To make sure everything doesn’t become a joke.”
He took a moment to do the math. “Fifteen letter word for ‘I still don’t get it.’”
“Listen, buster,” she said, “vegan is part of a cleansing diet that strengthens the liver and purifies the body of free radicals to reinforce the immune system. And your immune system desperately needs reinforcement to fight those stray buggers surgery missed. Now which syllable of ‘vegan’ don’t you understand?”