The CancerLand Bookshelf: Mom’s Marijuana

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Sometimes the perfect book appears precisely at the moment when you need it the most. (I just love when that happens).

Such was the case with Dan Shapiro’s amazing cancer memoir Mom’s Marijuana.

I read the book while recuperating from reconstruction surgery that unfortunately stretched into an eight-day hospital stay due to post-operative complications.

Unfortunate, indeed.  That’s putting it mildly. Afterwards, when friends visited me at home and asked about my time in the hospital, I kept using the same word to describe the experience: horrible.

It took only a few days of being separated from my home, my daily routine, my pets and my friends, to start feeling like a prisoner. And before too much longer, I began acting like one too: moody, short-tempered, angry.  What’s worse, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any sure fire way to stage a jailbreak.

Desperate times.  For eight days I walked the halls of the surgical floor three times a day. Out of my room, past the nurse’s station, down the long hallway, through the double doors of the ward.

I walked, dressed in two faded blue and white diamond patterned gowns (the first one open to the back, the other on top, tied in the front like a robe). I walked, pushing an IV pole, desperate for a good night’s sleep, a home cooked meal, a hot shower and shampoo.

The nurses repeatedly applauded my motivation to exercise after surgery.  Little did they know that in my alienated state, I was actually scoping out exit signs and stairways while slowly losing my mind.

Being in the hospital sometimes can do that to you, you know what I mean?

Dan Shapiro is my hero because he knows exactly what I mean.

Moms Marijuana
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Excerpted from Mom’s Marijuana by Dan Shapiro
NY: Harmony Books, 2000

One Monday morning a team of physicians I hadn’t met appeared in my room.  There were three of them.  Each was dressed crisply – white shirt, conservative tie, lab coat…The younger one started, “This is a twenty-three year old single Caucasian male who underwent an autologous bone marrow

transplant eleven days ago for stage IIb relapsed Hodgkin’s with bulky nodular sclerosing disease whose conditioning regimen included high-dose Cytoxan and VP-16 and…”

He was looking right at me but talking to the others…I studied their faces.  They were somber.

Professional.  Removed.  The younger one, who was talking, began describing my blood counts.

Clearing my throat, I managed to raise a voice, an achievement given the potholed state on the inside of my mouth.  “Excuse me,” I muttered.  “Who are you?”  My voice sounded early-morning low and uneven.

The older one, the attending physician, looked from me to the younger one, who appeared to be about twenty-five, a resident, I guessed.  Then the older one tipped his head back quickly, a slight gesture, but definite.  He was telling the resident to continue…He continued, “His CBC for today obviously isn’t back yet, but yesterday-“

“Excuse me?” I asked again.  Was there something wrong with my voice?  Maybe he couldn’t hear me?  “Who are you guys?” I asked.  Louder.

The attending physician scrunched up his forehead.  Then he brought out his hand from a pocket and held it up to me.  I could see his raised fingers.  He was giving me the crossing guard’s stop sign!  SILENCE! the hand said.  Then the hand turned, palm open, knuckles down, toward the resident.  Go, the hand, said to him.

“As I said…” continued the resident.

I felt the room slipping from me.  Now it was his.  With a simple gesture he had reclaimed the space.  Made it his.  But I needed it more.  Deserved it more.

“Who are you guys?” I asked again, still louder, despite the hand.  I felt a twinge of conditioned guilt.  Crossing when the guard said “Stop.”  But I did have a voice.  It was even clear and audible.

He’d anticipated me.  With the first sounds of my voice his hand shot up again and extended until it was as far away from his shoulder as it could get.  An eyebrow raised.  His lips tightened.  STOP.

I felt something…  As the resident continued, I reached for my trusty friend…

The large box was emblazoned with bold black letters, 30 FOOT SOAKER.  It showed a boy in obvious terror running for cover in the far distance.  At the top of the box, a finger squeezed the trigger of a device that looked to be the ultimate in water weaponry: fake chrome barrel, black trigger, orange tubes wrapped around the handle.

The resident persisted, “So, in summary, this is a twenty-three year old Caucasian male with – AN UZI!”

…I remember reaching for the weapon and pulling it up quickly.  Squeezing the plastic trigger, I remember a thick stream of pulsing water shooting out of the nozzle.

The rest is something of a blur.  I think there were hands raised in defense and a few sputtered utterances of surprise.  I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a wad of gray hair drooping over a wet forehead.  The next thing I definitely remember, I was alone in the room, thinking, Wow, those guys could really move…

A few days later a combed young head peeked into my room.  The younger one…was this a good time?  He stepped in, washed his hands in the anteroom, and asked if he could sit down.  “Sure, I told him.

He started by introducing himself by his first name: Joshua…