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STYLE & CULTURE | Al Martinez

Profound fatalism keeps the fear at bay

March 17, 2003|Al Martinez

I check into Tarzana hospital every few years to have something removed, replaced, repaired or connected, and it's time again.

I select Tarzana because it's close and they know me. When I walk in, they all shout "Hey, Elmer" and "Yo, Elmer," the way they did for Norm when he strolled into Cheers, the difference being that they don't slide over a beer at Tarzana.

I'm beginning to feel like one of those Hollywood stars who is always suffering from exhaustion and checking into a hospital's celebrity suite for a week to dry out -- I mean rest up. I get exhausted too, but I still have to feed the dog and take out the garbage.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to spend well time in a hospital penthouse and be served Beluga caviar and oysters on the half shell and a chilled champagne. I would be pampered like I was Brad Pitt by incredibly beautiful nurses who loved me in "Ocean's Eleven," even though everyone else hated the movie.

"You and Walter Mitty," Cinelli said, referring to the daydreaming hero of James Thurber's short story. Mitty's secret life was composed of grand illusions, even when he imagined himself before a firing squad for a reason that escapes me, and declared, "To hell with the blindfold" and died like a man. Wow.

I have to have an aneurysm patched up. Well, actually two aneurysms, both in the lower abdomen. They found them six months ago. It was a shock, I'll tell you. A friend died of a burst aneurysm just last year. One minute he was drinking a boilermaker and the next minute his booze-soaked spirit was floating off like a red balloon.

He had a sense that something was wrong. A few months before he died, he even began practicing yoga to seek some kind of inner peace. That was quite unlike him. What was like him is that he gave it up when he realized he couldn't assume the lotus position and hold a drink at the same time. Poor guy.

One doctor said I could wait for surgery; the aneurysms weren't very big. The other doctor looked at me as though I were some kind of nut and said, "No! We don't wait! Why are we waiting? They're not going to go away!" The exclamation points are his. So I said, "OK, let's fix them." The period is mine.

I was stunned by the news and came home looking as though I had just seen an image of the Virgin Mary in a pepperoni pizza. I do not hide my emotions. Anger, grief, terror, confusion. They pop up when the occasion requires, stamped indelibly on my face. I don't show happiness, only because I'm never happy.

"What's the matter," Cinelli said, "somebody steal your favorite martini glass?"

When I told her, she had me lie on the couch and urged me to rest and watch my favorite Laurel and Hardy tape. I love those guys. Then she took out the garbage and fed the dog and fed me and said, "Poor little sweetheart." To the dog, not me. By then she had realized I could spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself if she went too far, so I had to get up to eat. But she did make me my favorite pasta dish, while the dog had that same old brown stuff in a can. It looked like something I ate in the Marine Corps.

I go in for surgery next Thursday. I won't be writing for a while. I asked the doctor how I'd feel and he said, "Like you've been hit by a truck." Don't they teach these guys bedside manners anymore? Lie to me, for God's sake, man. Whatever became of "a little discomfort"?

Cinelli asked if I were afraid. I thought about that one night lying in bed. Moonlight cast the world in a dreamy glow. It reminded me of standing foxhole watch in the Korean War and seeing the interplay of light and shadow moving to the slow rhythms of an ambient breeze. The shadows seemed to creep toward me, ever closer.

I knew fear in war so profound that, like a virus in the system, it created an immunity to other terrors. Shadows at night moving toward me that were real enemies. Mortars hissing through the sky and exploding around me while I hugged the earth. Machine-gun fire raking down the slopes of the hill as I charged upward.

Surviving all that has left me with a sense of fatalism that allows me to face physical problems with a lot of facial emotion but with spiritual equanimity. The man grows older. Time gnaws at the aging body like a dog with a bone and swallows it up when the bone is gone. I think about that as moonlight spreads gently over the Earth and I slip easily into sleep.

So get on with your truck-hit surgery, man. Just do it right. Do it with care. And to hell with the blindfold.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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