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One Day at a Time

TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

November 21, 1997|AL MARTINEZ

The motel room is right on the beach, its sliding glass door open to allow in the rush-and-roar of the surf and the occasional call of a sea gull.

There is also the sound of traffic on Pacific Coast Highway and even the thrumping of a passing helicopter, but it's the surf that dominates.

Mara Marken, for a moment, seems to be an integral part of it, alternately rushing forward and receding, both strong and whispery.

Ill with cancer, oxygen tubes in her nostrils helping her breathe, there is nonetheless an energy that seems to radiate from her, the way embers glow at the root of a fire.

"I'm much better," she says, managing to smile despite it all, turning for a moment to look at the ocean gleaming in the sunlight off the Malibu coast, an affirmation of life both inside and out.

The words are delivered matter-of-factly and, given the circumstances of her illness, could just as easily be dismissed as the last, desperate hope of a dying woman, a reaching up for help that doesn't exist.

But in Marken's case, there is history to justify her optimism. Three years ago, at age 45, she was given six months to live. Cancer had already necessitated a mastectomy and was eating into her liver.

Marken recalls the moment with hesitation and then with a quick smile. When a friend offered help, she resisted. It was, she decided, her time to die. Her mother had died of cancer at 47. An aunt and uncle had also died of the same disease. It was in her genes, a part of her destiny.

But what Marken's friend was offering was unique. Her friend was offering "mass visualization." Her friend was offering prayer.

*

Marken was staying at the motel for a few days as a part of a reunion with her brother, sister-in-law and two nieces. Visiting with them gave her strength and allowed time for her Topanga house to be fumigated before her next medical regimen began.

The ocean also shared its energy with her. She was able to disconnect from the oxygen occasionally and walk in the surf, feeling the cool fingers of nature against her pale skin.

The touch was important, the sun was important, the breeze that caressed her face was important. They were sensory confirmations that Mara Marken was still here and would be for a long time.

Three years ago, with degrees in education and psychology, she was a research scientist working for both military and civilian organizations, helping design training programs for flight simulators.

"The job was wrong for me," she says today, brushing a hand through her short blond hair, remembering. "I was physically off-balance. The poetic side of me was dying."

She makes no effort to associate that with her illness, only mentioning that a lump in her breast, discovered during a downside in her life, proved cancerous. And an oncologist told her she was dying.

It was then that the friend, whom she identifies only as Anna, gathered a dozen meditators at the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple at the foot of Sunset Boulevard and began visualizing the destruction of Marken's cancer and praying for her recovery. Marken had already begun instructions in yoga.

A short time later, Marken says, she felt a soothing, warm glow come over her face, settling in her chest "like a setting sun." A subsequent examination revealed that the tumor in her liver, the cancer that would take her life, was gone.

*

The "miracle" was a front-page story in the biweekly Topanga Messenger. Marken wrote about her 12 saviors, the change in her diet to organic food, her own meditations and the weeding out of the "negativities" in her life.

"I could not have made this journey without a spiritual foundation," she says this day as we sit by the ocean, listening to its eternal roar and whisper. And this is when she tells me the journey isn't over.

Two months ago, when her breathing became difficult, her doctor discovered a new tumor, this time in her lungs. She began undergoing chemotherapy and says that tests have shown the tumor to be shrinking. The oxygen is to help her breathe.

"The 12 are praying for me like mad," she says with a laugh. The smile is quick, but there is trouble in her eyes. "This is taking me to a different spiritual level."

She pauses and listens to the surf for a moment before saying, "Until you've lived this disease, you can't understand it." Then her mood changes abruptly. "Positivity" kicks in again. "I still believe in miracles," she says. "I'm going to be around for awhile. I have work to do!"

Her savings gone, broke and in need of funds, Marken understands what it's like to be heavily burdened with a terrible disease without the means to fight it. Her goal is to establish a Mara Fund for those in that same situation. Then she wants to write a book, and then . . .

Who knows?

After we part, I find myself wondering about life, miracles and the rhythms of the universe. I stand by the ocean for a while and watch it surge against the shore, showering the air with shards of gleaming crystal. And I watch them settle back into the surf, drop by drop, to become an essential component of Earth's great beating heart.

*

Al Martinez can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com

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