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I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE.

Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone.

I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise.

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“Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

I would be stoical, of course. I’m from Minnesota and stoicism is our preferred mode, living in an icebox state among emotionally repressed Andersons and Olsons, but I decided that on this world cruise, I’d write the erotic novel I’ve been eager to write ever since I read Henry Miller in high school, a novel with gasping and thrusting and throbbing and the woman crying out, “Oh my God” over and over and over, and the shudder of ecstasy and two bodies locked together in a chain of climaxes making your ears pop and your teeth chatter.

And then the doctor came in and looked in my mouth and said, “That’s a common growth on the hard palate known as the torus palatinus, and if it doesn’t hurt, we tend to leave it alone. In any case, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. You could see an otolaryngologist but it’s apparently not infected and not cancerous.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and patted my back, and I took a cab home where the birthday party was winding up and people were still laughing about the Mad Libs and the barfing and pooping and all. I was stoical for their benefit, didn’t mention Dr. Carson’s advice about the Queen’s suite with the balcony and the burial at sea. I was quiet at supper. My wife asked if I was okay. “Of course,” I said.


I realized that if I had googled “hard lump on roof of mouth” I could’ve learned about the torus palatinus and skipped the anxiety and the cab ride but on the other hand, it was fear of mortality that inspired the idea of two bodies interlocked, her skin against mine, various protuberances hard or soft, lips and roaming hands and her crying “Oh my God” and a person doesn’t need to book passage on a steamship for that, it’s available in the next room, especially now that she has imagined my demise and I notice her standing behind me, her hands on my shoulders, kissing the side of my neck, her beloved face next to mine, and I reach back and find her leg and now I am putting paper and pen away, I shall save the rest for the novel.

Garrison Keillor

Republished with permission from Prairie Home Productions.