I WAS FLYING BLIND. NOTHING IN MY EXPERIENCE gave me a frame of reference for this journey. My son Mark was dying of acute leukemia, and the two of us were racing across the margins of the Chihuahuan Desert east of Van Horn, searching for the new top leaves of the creosote bush, which when brewed into a tea were considered a cure for the disease by some Mexican curanderos. I had learned this in a letter from a man who was doing twenty years on a drug charge in federal prison. I have received hundreds of letters from people in prison, but they always wanted something from me. This guy just wanted to do me a favor. Mark and I both knew that it was the longest of long shots, but long shots were all we had.
The trip was in early March, about six weeks before Mark died. It was long and arduous, and it sapped what little strength he had left. The letter had explained that the two of us had to leave a “gift of water” for the creosote plants. We flew from Austin to Dallas to Midland, then drove 125 miles to an isolated place within sight of the Davis Mountains, two liter bottles of Evian in the seat between us. Mark slept almost all the way, racked with fever, chills, and nausea. After collecting three bags of leaves, we spent the night in a Midland motel, the kid so sick that I wondered if he’d make it through the night. I was awake until two in the morning, talking long distance to friends and family, trying to figure out our next move.
Mark’s condition was diagnosed in July 1996 at a cancer clinic in Atlanta, Georgia, the city where he grew up after his mother and I divorced and where he had lived since his own divorce in early ’94. He had undergone six intensive doses of chemotherapy, whose powerful toxins destroy cancer cells—and good cells as well. I suspect that one day we’ll look back at this wretched procedure the way we look back with revulsion at frontal lobotomies. But chemotherapy was the only treatment available for Mark’s type of leukemia. It