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DEAR DYLAN MESSAGES FROM ENTERTAINMENT CRITIC AND CANCER PATIENT JOEL SIEGEL TO HIS SON

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by Joe Lugara

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"I feel great," says Joel Siegel. One of the most recognizable faces and voices in New York television, the entertainment critic for WABC's Eyewitness News and Good Morning America knows just how much physical and emotional labor packs itself into a little sentence like that. Four-and-a-half years ago, at the age of 54, he learned within the space of a week that he was going to be a father for the first time — and that he had colon cancer. Two surgeries later, and with a third one scheduled, Siegel addressed his illness publicly, on the air, with his friend, Charles Gibson, host of Good Morning America. He talked about his then 3-year-old son, Dylan, and discussed why he would tell his son about his illness, what he would tell him, and how. Two surgeries later. It took an impending third surgery before the good-humored and buoyant Siegel began to feel that he just might not make it. His on-air appearance with Gibson, he reports in his first book, Lessons For Dylan (PublicAffairs, $22.95), generated more than 3,000 pieces of email and, he writes, "dozens of letters, more than fifty, from grown-ups who hadn't been told their parents had cancer when they were kids. Some had a parent who had died, who went someplace, they were never told where, and never came home. They never forgave not being told and never forgot not being able to say goodbye." Lessons For Dylan is Siegel's way of supplying the son he believed he would never get to know with such information — and more. Information about family, about his three marriages, his likes and dislikes, his meeting the Beatles (individually), his knocking out jokes for Robert Kennedy, various recipes (including one for a Romanian omelet: "First, steal three eggs"), and what he said in 1965 when he presented $800 in donations he collected from his fellow students at UCLA to Martin Luther King, Jr., for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference: "Dr. King, I've come with dessert." There's also "A History of the Jews in Four Jokes," each fully explained — and, naturally for an entertainment critic, a section titled "Movies I Want To Watch With You," an eclectic mix that includes Citizen Kane and Field of Dreams. "Becoming a dad is something that I really wanted to do," Siegel told Big Apple Parent, while setting Dylan up with some diversion in the form of the movie Yellow Submarine. "It's not that I waited." The prospect didn't occur until his third marriage. Siegel's first wife, Jane, died in January 1982 of brain cancer. His second marriage was victimized by what Siegel calls “the most important thing in comedy" — timing: Siegel was 41 at the time, his wife 21. His third wife, Ena, became Dylan's mom after a long in vitro process. But then Siegel was diagnosed with cancer, which prevented him from participating in the pregnancy. Later, when the cancer had spread to his lungs, necessitating two more surgeries, it cost him again, making him unable to participate in Dylan's earliest days and eventually damaging his marriage to Ena. The book, Siegel is careful to point out, is not an autobiography in that its details are not complete. Most of its chapters begin with the salutation "Dear Dylan," giving readers the distinct — although never uncomfortable — impression that they're overhearing a father's words to his son. Knowing that even in good health he was going to experience some disadvantages as an older dad, Siegel admits, "I had concerns that I wouldn't live long enough to be a grandfather, or be able to play ball with my kid." But after his illness put his future with Dylan in genuine jeopardy, and cherishing as he did his vivid memories of his own father, Siegel began to put as much as he could on record. "I wanted Dylan to know about our family in Israel,” he says. “I wanted him to know about my wife Jane, and I really do want to take him to his first baseball game — not just to bring him as a small child, but to bring him at a time when he'll be old enough to remember it." A chapter near the end of the book is all about the experience of baseball. "And if he couldn't have those memories firsthand,” Siegel continues, “he'd have them secondhand. I know it's a bad joke, but doing the book gave new meaning to the word deadline." Siegel hopes that the stories and anecdotes about his family will give Dylan not only an emotional understanding of his background, but also something of a practical one. "There's no reason for anyone to get colon cancer," he says. "If I'd known that colon cancer was on both sides of my family, I'd have gone for tests sooner. With the information Dylan gets, going through the family photos someday, hopefully he won't see anything he'll be shocked or surprised by." The city's ethnic variety is another factor in Siegel's drive to pass his family background along to his son. The man who loves to quiz cab drivers about where they're from says, "The diversity in New York is just unbelievable, and that makes it more important, I think, to know who we are and where we come from. There are eight million reasons to be proud here." Of cancer in general, Siegel is both candid and philosophical, even when it comes to the fatal blow it delivered to his marriage to Dylan's mom, with whom he remains friendly. "Part of the problem with cancer is, it hits ugly parts of the body. If people got cancer of the dimples, they might not mind so much talking about it. But when you get something like colon cancer — it's ugly. Ena and I, we'd just gotten married, we tried to get pregnant, then the in vitro, then I got sick — there just wasn't enough time. She really got cheated. She got cheated out of the 'How are you feeling?' and 'What can I get for you?' phase." As a journalist, Siegel was lucky to benefit from the knowledge of his associates, notably Ann Pleshette Murphy, Good Morning America's resident specialist on child psychology, who, on the eve of one of Siegel's surgeries, made such suggestions as changing Dylan's bedtime, and reading books such as Goodnight Moon and A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital. The topic of death was addressed in numerous incidents. As Siegel recalls, "He asked me, 'Why don't you ever call your mommy?' I said, 'My mommy's dead; she's buried. She can't talk,' and that was that. Another time, we were listening to the Beatles' Rubber Soul, and he asked me what ‘soul’ meant, and I explained that some people have an essence, something inside them. Then we had a situation where we saw a dying moth, and then we had The Lion King, with the father explaining the ‘Circle of Life’ — very basic stuff. Then one day in his school they were talking about pets dying, and Dylan said, 'My dad might be dying.' And that was my motivation for this book. If I died, I didn't want his memories of me to be of my dying. I wanted him to know me as someone who spent his life living. My best memories of my dad were of him laughing."


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