Excerpt: 'Lessons for Dylan'

I had radiation the next morning, an interesting concept. Lie here motionless, we're going to burn your insides, make you sicker than you've ever been in your life, zap your gonads with so much poison that if you are able to have children they'll look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and we expect you to wake up early, hail a cab, and come in every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the privilege.

That morning I told Dr. Minsky about the marijuana.

"You know," he told me. "The laws of the state of New York don't allow me to mention marijuana, but it is the best drug we know about for the side-effects of chemo and radiation."

I smoked only when I needed it. I'd lost so much control over my body — my hair was falling out, I couldn't control my bowels — I didn't want to give up any more. In fact I never finished the three joints.

The second time I smoked dope the phone rang and it was my cousin Felice. Felice is a customs officer, she carries a gun, she and her husband are building a log cabin in the high desert south of Tucson. You didn't think nice Jewish girls did this, did you? In the family we call her "Felice de Police." I've never asked her exactly what it is she does for the Treasury Department but, well, she was raised in East LA with a bunch of kids who speak Mexican Spanish, she's dark complected, she lives near the Mexican border, you figure it out.

I talk to Felice maybe once every couple of years and I was stoned out of my mind when I picked up the phone. When I heard, "Joel, it's your cousin Felice," it was all I could do to keep from shouting, "It was Jerry della Femina! It was Jerry della Femina!"

Then I got too sick. I don't know how Ena got me off to radiation or to Tepler's but both doctors agreed it was dangerous for me to continue treatment. Tepler took me off the chemo, the pouch was gone, they kept the port "just in case." (Just in case, even in my altered state I understood, they ever needed immediate access to my jugular vein.) Minsky told me I needed a few weeks away from radiation. I wasn't so worried about that. The radiation schedule had built-in hiati, the docs and technicians would take Labor Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas off and Minsky showed me the numbers, a significant number of patients needed time off and it didn't seem to effect the cure rate. But the chemo was something else. Tepler had told me that it would be easy, he'd told me many people got through it with no side-effects, that the odds were my hair wouldn't even fall out. So I figured, My God, I'm too sick for the treatment, I'm going to die. When he about-faced and tried to convince me my reactions to the chemo were normal I not only got mad, I got an apology.

"Just tell me the truth," I told him.

"Look, if you were climbing Mount Everest would you want the sherpas to tell you, 'This isn't as hard as it seems. If you can do two miles on a treadmill you'll make it easy'? Or would you want them to tell you, 'This is probably the hardest thing you've ever done but we've been here before so listen to us and we'll help you make it.'"

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