Looking for strength in a family crisis


I met Cindy in 1952 on a rainy night at the San Francisco airport.

She was a bundle of warmth, not quite a year old, born two months after I was shipped out with the Marines to fight a war in Korea.

“Meet your daughter,” Cinelli said, handing me the tiny girl who studied me through large and wondering eyes. I held her cautiously, shifting her to a secure position in my arms.


For more than a year I had been carrying the metals of combat through the hills of Asia: a rifle, a bayonet, hand grenades, bandoleers of ammunition and a .45-caliber automatic. They were meant for killing, not nurturing.

And now I was holding the soft and vulnerable baby I had helped create.

We were standing under an awning where Cinelli, Cindy and a friend had been waiting for the plane to arrive from San Diego. I had been mustered out of the Corps at Camp Pendleton.

The rain began beating down harder, drumming the memory of that moment deep into my consciousness. I was a father. Now I knew it for sure. Overseas, Cindy had been only a baby picture.

We were in battalion reserve when a Marine Red Cross representative found me in the Fox Company bivouac area and informed me of my paternity.

“You Marteezee?” he asked. In the 1950s, the Corps was emotionally incapable of dealing with even the simplest ethnic names.

“Yo,” I said, meaning yes. Yo was a multiple-use response. Yo, I’m here; yo, I understand; yo, I’m hungry; etc.

“You married?”

Years later I would ponder the question. What difference would it make to him whether or not I was married? Was there some sort of moral judgment involved here? Would he refuse to feed me or cut my pay if I were not?

“Yo,” I said. I was indeed married. We did that sort of thing back then.

“Well, your wife had a baby. Sarah I think her name is. Congratulations.”


It wasn’t until weeks later that I learned her name was Cinthia, but I still call her Sarah occasionally; it’s a joke we share, Sarah and I.

I write about her today because she, and all of our family, is involved in a different kind of war; more insidious in a way. Cindy has cancer.

It was discovered some weeks ago, a finding that took a part of her large intestine during subsequent surgery. The surgeon noticed that it had spread to her liver. Soon chemo will begin to shrink the tumor, and then it will be removed.

We discover in adversity what we are composed of. We suffer the shock of painful news, cry tears of self-pity and then, if there is steel in us, we march on. Cindy is going forward like a warrior into the fray with a toughness that I had expected from her. I know this girl.

I have always had a special bond with Cindy. “She’s the only one in the family who understands your sense of humor,” Cinelli says. True. The strange and offbeat elements of my nature are never a surprise to Cindy. Nor are the flashes of temper or the challenges to compete on any level.

I charted her growing-up years in columns for the Oakland Tribune. Cindy and her siblings, Linda and Marty, became the children of the city, integral elements of suburbia, playing, learning and then going off to beat the world.

Because Cindy was the eldest, full of curiosity and creative energy, I could take her places with me. For her 16th birthday we saw the final performance of the Kingston Trio at San Francisco’s old hungry i. She wore heels for the first time, a growing-up little girl wobbling with her pop through the streets of North Beach.

Two years earlier, it had been a concert at the Cow Palace, and she came away with a Ringo Starr autograph, an achievement that forced her to fight off a screaming crowd of teenage girls trying to take it from her. She resisted the mob, held on to the signature and probably still has it.

She loved being a part of my column during the Tribune years. She saved every essay, and then every book and magazine piece I ever wrote. She parted with them only when they were collected at the Huntington Library.

I’m putting her name in print today so that you can tell me stories of your own fight against cancer; so you can help our family find the strength and courage to defeat the enemy within. We’re all family in a way, you and I and Cinelli and Cindy and the rest. We share a mutual village.

Cindy was handed to me a long time ago and occupies a special place in my life and in my heart, and I’m not about to hand her back.