Always leave them laughing

Thumbnail image for al-martinez-sketch.jpgWhen I was young and thoughtless and possibly even piggish, making fun of the handicapped was both satisfying and acceptable. Jerry Lewis, full of sobs and tears when it came to his telethons, made a career out of poking fun at the mentally and physically disabled, especially those who walked around with tubes hanging from their noses. I laughed right along with everyone else.

But I don't anymore. I'm one of them.

The tubes carry oxygen from portable units to the user provided through tubes that enter the body through the nose. That allows those suffering from lung or heart problems the freedom to maybe see a movie, visit an upscale restaurant or take a walk through the woods, where only the wind blows and there is no laughter.

I first encountered the nose tube when my brother-in-law, the fun-loving Robert N. Johnson, was told that he was dying of lung cancer. After the tears were all shed by his wife and kids, and alternatives to death abandoned, he said "To hell with it, Martinez, let's just go have us a drink." It was not so much that he was giving up, he was just looking for ways to make better use of the time remaining.

He looped the oxygen tube over his head, stuck the end up his nose, grabbed a portable unit he had purchased, connected the tube to the unit and off we went, as mobile as the guy next door. Destination: one of my favorite bars, the Red Dog, about a 10-minute walk from the old Times Mirror Square. It was actually called the Redwood House, but no hard-drinking journalist would drink at a place with that kind of name so we re-named it the Red Dog.

I noticed how many people pointed at Bob swinging along with a tube up his nose and a portable O2 tank slung in a carrier over his shoulder; they weren't laughing, just wondering. Same as in the bar itself, where the only guy to say anything at all, pointed at the tank and slurred to the bartender, "Fill 'er up, Jimmy." No one laughed harder than Bob.

He died about two weeks later and I regretted not being there with him to provide whatever comfort I could, and to tell him how good a friend he had been; how much we all loved him, and how we still did.

Now I walk along with tubes up my nose carrying a small canister of O2, the result of having COPD, knowing my own days are limited, but grateful for the freedom the tube and the tank have provided. When I do stop for a drink, I slam the tank on the bar and holler, "Fill 'er up, Jimmy!"

Everyone laughs.

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