Excerpt: 'Lessons for Dylan'

How did those cells know to become you and not a tree or an Oldsmobile? And what I really hear is John Glenn, when he looked down at the earth from deep space saying, "It's impossible to look at this and not believe in God."

August 1997

The first thing I saw after I came to was this huge Lichtenstein pop-art poster. If it had been a Raphael Madonna I might have thought I'd died and gone to heaven. But Lichtenstein? I died and went to the Museum of Modern Art?

It was the recovery room at New York Hospital, I figured that out. There was a clock near the poster and it must've been a big clock because I could read the time without my glasses, 4:25, and I wondered, "Where is everybody?"

Save for some guy at a computer terminal at the opposite end of the room I was the only person there. "I've had the only surgery in New York Hospital?" I thought to myself. "Will they still charge me extra for a private room if I'm the only patient?" I really did think these things.

I was bandaged, belted in, there were tubes coming into my nostrils and clear liquid being pumped into my arm. I could barely move but I wasn't sure I wanted to. I did wiggle my toes and they wiggled back, which is the reason this book isn't called Where's The Rest of Me.

"Hey," I shouted at the guy at the computer terminal, "where is everybody?"

Where, I wondered, was my wife, Ena? My cousin Ronnie the Doctor, an LA gastrointerologist who flew to New York to make sure they took good care of me? My friend Jerry Imber, a plastic surgeon on the staff of New York Hospital who promised to come by and make sure the scar didn't show.

"I'll tell 'em you're up," he said.

"My wife should be in the next room," I said. One of my first wife, Jane's, memories coming out of brain surgery twenty years before in this same hospital was hearing the recovery room nurses buzzing about Joel Siegel waiting in the hallway. Three years later Jane would die in this hospital, too, when her tumor came back. I tried not to think about that.

"Nobody waiting," the guy grumbled and went back to his book.

He could have told me it was 4:25 in the morning.

I'd gone in at 7, the morning before, for what was supposed to be routine colon cancer surgery. Snip out the bad stuff, check the nodes, glue the two pieces of the colon together, and he goes home in a few days as good as new.

Ena and Ronnie and Imber had been there, waiting, at 5 in the afternoon when my surgeon stumbled in, stoop shouldered and exhausted, after six hours of surgery.

The lesion was on the cusp between the colon and the rectum. There was barely enough tissue left to staple the clean ends together. To give me time to heal he had to, as they say, cut me a new asshole, a temporary colostomy two inches due right of my belly-button. There were nodes, evidence that cancer cells had escaped the initial site and might have been and probably were roaming through my vital organs, looking for a vacancy sign. If these cells grow and metastasize, the cancer would then spread, most likely to my lungs, my liver or my brain. Cancer metastasizes in organs that use a lot of blood; the lungs, the liver and the brain fill the bill. The heart isn't an organ, it's a muscle, which is why we're spared heart cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation are the guns oncologists use to kill these rogue cells to keep them from spreading and, suddenly, things weren't so simple.

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