“Ralph’s”. That was the first word I have spoken in two weeks and it was said not to my surgeon or vocal therapist, not to some close family member, but to a parking lot attendant near the University of California Los Angeles in the parking lot of a grocery store. This was another instance of the deference we pay to complete strangers, as I mentioned before when recalling the accidental clipping of someone’s heel in a movie theatre. One of the most despicable elements of visiting a medical facility in the United States is that you have to pay for parking. In the case of UCLA the rate is exorbitant. However, nearby is a Ralph’s grocery store that offers free parking for two hours. Usually this lot is unattended, you simply take your ticket from the dispenser, go about your business and, as long as you stay within the two hours, away you go. For some reason – almost certainly the likes of me who use the Ralph’s lot to avoid paying the UCLA fee – there was a uniformed Ralph’s employee (an understated lightish burgundy vest over white shirt and black pants) asking people as they emerged from their vehicles where they were going. In my guilt I stated “Ralph’s”. Had I payed UCLA’s wad of money there would have been no question asked and even if there had been no guilt would have forced me to be polite, compensating for my criminality by appearing wholesome and well mannered. My silence would have lasted until my appointment with my surgeon. So, there ended my odyssey in the last of the morning shade on the rooftop parking lot of a Ralph’s grocery store in West Los Angeles in the presence of an entirely oblivious but neatly dressed employee of a large grocery chain, whose sushi counter, by the way, is very good.
I have noticed something else in all this. I refer to the woman who removed the cyst in my throat as “my surgeon”. Why do we become possessive of the people who treat our ailments? She is just as much the surgeon of the person next on the appointment calendar and yet I, and almost certainly that next person, call her “my surgeon”. Illness breeds an awful sort of dependence and sometimes a dreadful resentment. I can remember my father being gravely ill in the nineteen seventies and the futility with which he attended his frequent appointments, the quiet rage and frustration that accompanied the apparent dying of his lungs. When he changed doctors a new diagnosis cured him almost miraculously. This past Summer I went to that doctor’s practice, where my parents still go, and was told that the doctor who re-diagnosed my dad is still alive, in his nineties. Without hesitation or sentimentality I said “Dr. Williams saved my father’s life”. I imagine my father is very possessive of Dr. Williams. What that experience taught me is that doctors are mostly guessing. Informed and educated guessing, but guessing nevertheless. This is not to be resented but it should be understood and the best doctors will tell you this themselves. I am ever grateful that one doctor guessed correctly. I also discovered that the cyst that was removed from my vocal chords was unusually large, possibly freakishly large, thus the very long enforced silence. Now, the surgeon, my surgeon, had told my wife while I was still unconscious that the cyst was “bigger than expected”. Do I regard this as a lie, perhaps a white lie, used to keep me calm and collected while I healed? Is it, perhaps, simple medical conservatism: nothing is so strange that it cannot fall within the parameters of “bigger than expected”? I appreciate my surgeon’s discretion, rather like my own with my daughter whose most frequent question is: “Daddy are you lying?” To which my usual response is: “Sweetheart, all parents lie to their children all the time”. Like the wonderful medical people at UCLA I am in favor of a mixture of the deceptive and the brutal. It breeds relaxed patients and world-wise children. Though my child almost certainly knows there is no Santa Claus she’s too smart to say so or she’ll miss out on an extra present.
And so, off into the world of speech, little by little. I have photographs of my vocal chords, Before and After, and I shall keep them close.