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Al Martinez

I've never really known whether Nick had the fire to scream his way out of hell. : And the Devil Blinked

June 04, 1987|Al Martinez

They don't go there to die.

They go there to fight the cancer that glows like an evil light in their bodies.

They go there to use their heads and their hearts to exorcise the demons that have taken temporary possession of their souls.

And because they are ready to fight, the small room rings with an angry hope not unlike the test clanging of swords and shields that precipitates a march of warriors into battle.

They have cancer. All of them.

I didn't know what to expect when I walked into Santa Monica's Wellness Community. I am uneasy around those whose lives have turned inward and who, despite crowds, face alone the madness of a disease whose very name saps the will to live.

Cancer. I went there with a friend (call him Nick) who a week before had been given the worst kind of news and was hanging on the edge, stunned and gray-faced.

But who wouldn't be? They opened him looking for a bad gallbladder and closed him saying there was nothing they could do.

They told him, in lacquered medical argot, that he was going to die, and they said it without warmth or compassion or even interest, then went about their business in the manner of mechanics who had just doomed a car to the junkyard.

Nick, as I said, is my friend.

We started together in this business 25 years ago, before word processors and voice terminals and paginated makeup and car phones.

We drank martinis and smoked cigarettes and ran like the wind and never got tired. We thought, like the kids in "Fame," that we'd live forever, because youth rarely troubles itself with cause and effect.

Pour the gin and hold the grin and the devil take tomorrow.

Well, this is tomorrow and the devil, damn him, is laughing his horns off at a couple of aging boy wonders who more than once kicked his tail out of bars called the Hollow Leg and the Mint Julep and Jerry & Johnny's and Hanno's.

He nailed me first with a tumor a long time ago and then, because I was still riding the fast lanes, gave me a heart problem to worry about too.

I'm not the kind to fall down and die like a dog in the street, so I turned to face him, head-on, and stared hard into those wicked red eyes to see who'd blink first. He did.

When the devil saw he couldn't nail me, he went after Nick.

I've never really known whether Nick had the fire to scream his way out of hell, so I began making telephone calls on his behalf to find out where he could go for help to stoke the flames.

We ended up at the Wellness Community in a remodeled wood frame house on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard.

Nick sat there silently most of the time, as skeptical as he's always been, waiting, I think, to feel the heat of the fire called hope in his veins.

The meeting was a "sharing group," in which those who were newly involved with cancer and those who had beaten cancer could exchange emotions and information.

At one point, Nick grumbled that it sounded like an AA meeting to him, but at least he was listening.

There were about 30 people in the crowded room. Some were elderly, some middle-aged and some very young.

One or two held hands for the comfort that touching can offer and some sat alone; more alone, I guess, than any of us could ever realize.

The room was packed because the center had been featured the Sunday before on television's "60 Minutes." Calls were coming in from around the world. Desperate calls.

"Cancer is not a fatal disease," founder Harold Benjamin was saying to the people who sat in rows on straight-backed chairs. "When you think of cancer, you don't have to think of death . . . "

I watched Nick. He nodded slightly.

There is no charge to those who come to the Wellness Community. There's no hocus-pocus either. They're not asked to dump their medication, take off their clothes, join hands in a ring and chant.

Benjamin tells them to keep up the chemotherapy if that's what they're doing. But also try stress management, good nutrition, pain control, relaxation techniques, biofeedback and a thing called guided imagery.

Try hope, he says, because life is no willow in the wind, my friend, but a howling, raging hurricane of energy that bends trees and batters buildings. Hope applies here.

"You can't turn the controls over to someone else," Benjamin said. "You've got to do it yourself."

A sign-up sheet was passed around, and each was asked the type of cancer he or she possessed.

Breast, pancreatic, brain, cervical, lungs, thorax. One man wrote simply, "It's everywhere."

"This is a place," Benjamin said, "not to die, but to recover."

I asked Nick later what he thought.

"I'm going to try it," he said.

Then he looked at me the way he used to when we were drinking martinis and being truthful and tough, and he said with a lightness in his voice, "What've I got to lose?"

I swear to God something happened at that very moment, in the shadows that surround our lives. I saw it as clear as day.

The devil blinked.

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