I belong to a cancer support group. My wife, Shirley, has ovarian cancer, and I am her care-giver.
The group meets every Monday afternoon in a long, narrow room at Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. Directly across the street on Buena Vista Avenue, we can see the new Disney headquarters being built. We mark its progress from week to week, the harsh reality of cancer juxtaposed with the fantasy world of Mickey Mouse.
In the time we have been together, chairs and tables have been added and taken away as our number expands and contracts. Recently, within a single month, three members died.
The likelihood of death hangs over the group like an unseen presence. Everyone knows it, yet the nobility of the human spirit, coupled with the collective caring and support, undergirds the meetings with a palpable sense of stability.
We are there for one another. New people show up, tentative, embarrassed, afraid. They either sit quietly in a corner, saying little, or unload almost immediately their private torments of hell and fear.
Articles and books are passed around and discussed. Nancy's fictional bout with ovarian cancer on the TV show "thirtysomething" draws interest.
There are no atheists in the support group. Each meeting closes with a prayer, all of us joining hands around the long table. God is a viable presence in the room.
We celebrate life, stripped of its upscale trappings of clothes, houses, cars and status. We are reduced to basic human needs, survival and understanding.
Although we may be coming off a rough week, our attention is focused on the one who had a rougher week. We are told often, "I don't know how I could have made it without your love and support."
A private person becomes quite public within the safe confines of the support group. There are no rules, no format to inhibit the free expression of need and the immediate response to fill that need.
There are tears. And no one is embarrassed by them. There are frustrations and anxieties. Hair loss caused by chemotherapy is one. My wife has a flair for style. She can take a simple turban, enwrap it in a color-coordinated scarf, and emerge with a head covering that is attractive and practical.
There is tenderness in the support group, unpretentious and unencumbered by popular fashion. Several members are in remission from their cancers. Some have been cancer-free for years. Yet they still come each Monday.
Jim is one of them. He is tall, broad-shouldered, the picture of vibrant health. Jim is 71, had lung cancer, and is in remission. He used to be a heavy smoker. Now he chews gum incessantly. He spends many hours each week at the cancer ward, visiting patients, fetching magazines, flowers, toothpaste.
John is in his late 60s. He recently learned that his cancer has metastasized to his brain. His wife Joyce is his care-giver, and John writes elegant love poems to her.
Joanne had ovarian cancer. She is also in remission. She bubbles into the meeting room spreading kisses and hugs. Recently, she arranged and coordinated a dinner party at a trendy Los Feliz area restaurant for our support group and guests. There was only one rule: No table talk of cancer!
Jerry is 71. He's a harmonica virtuoso, a legend in his field. His home study on a quiet tree-lined street in North Hollywood is adorned with photos of the greats of yesteryear. There's Jerry, looking incredibly young, in his GI khakis, with Rita Hayworth, Linda Darnell, Marlene Dietrich, George and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson, Betty Hutton . . . Jerry has been a top-ranked entertainer for more than 50 years.
Now he's a care-giver like me. He worries about his wife's pain, her hair, and his own ability to be all that he wants to be as a husband . . . "in sickness and in health."
Lin is in her 40s, tall and strikingly attractive. She is the mother of a 3-year-old and a teacher. When she glides into the room, clothes perfectly coordinated, heads turn and people guess that she is a model. She had been told that she had inoperable lung cancer. She wears stylish wide-brimmed hats that frame her oval face and artfully conceal her thinning hair. She had been sent home to "put her personal house in order." She refused. Through personal determination and deep faith in God, she says, she beat it. Then she found out that the cancer had spread to her brain.
Ormond is a large, imposing man in his late 70s. He wears wide-lapel, double-knit jackets and always sports a USN stickpin on his wide, colorful ties. His wife died after a valiant and uncomplaining struggle with a variety of cancers. She was a woman of great dignity, although always in great pain.
On the Monday after she died, none of us expected to see Ormond.
But he came, a little late, carrying a large tray of freshly baked coffeecake he had made the night before.
"I thought maybe you'd be hungry," he said.