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Friday, May 14, 2004

Today started badly.

First call (just after eight o'clock) came from my mortgage company informing me that my last check had been returned. Scary. Even with everything working at top speed, our proposal for the Convention Center management won't be acted upon until mid-June, probably. The fiscal year will begin on July 1st, and it will take time for our contract to be acted upon.

As of today I will begin to live on my credit cards, something I've never done before -- nor has it been required of me. Fortunately, my credit is fine and -- having lived past the age of acquisition -- I have all of the creature comforts needed to survive fairly well without too much difficulty. My wants are modest and lifestyle easy to maintain. Wisely, I've invested in mutual funds that were intended for my retirement (if ever that happens), so all is not lost. My safety net is a modestly constructed, but if and when I feel the need, I can liquidate. It was not always that way. There is a familiarity to this feeling of financial insecurity. I've certainly lived it before, but not for a very long time.

Back to the Seventies:

It was a quiet day at Project Community. By now I was married to Bill and living the new and fascinating life of a faculty wife at the university. The old world had melted away. Walnut Creek had faded into the past, and adjusting to the intellectual richness presented by this new environment was all-consuming. It was soon destined to change irrevokably, but of that I was unaware. I'd had enough time to feel some regret about having dropped out of the lives of most of my family and friends -- two tiers, both those of my childhood, and those of the most recent quarter century of suburban life, but there was little time to give that too much thought, until this day:


It was Rick on the phone. "Mom, Dad is lying on the floor in the back office (of the store) unconscious. I can't rouse him! Please come!" Dropping everything, including the phone, I dashed for the parking lot and drove recklessly to our South Berkeley store. I'd instructed Rick to call an ambulance immediately, so I knew that Mel was being cared for. It was my son who drew me to where he was. I knew that Rick was fragile, and an alcoholic. Of course I was wrong. He'd ridden in the ambulance with his father, and I arrived distraught and frustrated to a place I'd not seen for years. The street and this once quiet blue-collar neighborhood had changed dramatically. Our store reflected the downward spiral that had occurred in the six or seven block area that made up the black community.

I walked around the shop for a few minutes, trying to re-orient myself to this business Mel and I had founded many years before finding little to connect with.

But this was surely not the time for remembering. I needed to go to the hospital to fulfill whatever role it was that former wives fulfill at such times, when you're caught up in the need to respond to a parental role -- one abandoned long ago. For Rick and my other sons, I instinctively knew that my current marital status would have to be set aside. It was "family" time. Dad was critically ill. Wherever the fault lay for the disintegration of our clan, family is what we had to be now; and we were.

Upon arriving at Herrick Hospital, I learned that Mel was in a diabetic coma (I knew nothing of his diabetes) and that he would have to have his left leg amputed at the knee in order to save his life. He'd apparently ignored his condition for years, had continued managing the business -- with Rick's help -- despite failing eyesight and no medical attention.

It was even more dire than this. He'd also been suffering a major mental depression for ages with no one aware of it. His need to fight the street had taken its toll. The streets were filled with those plying the drug trade. Prostitution was not only visible but blatant with little police control. When he'd complained at city hall that little was being done to protect the community he'd been told by the department, "...when things happen in other parts of town, we usually know where to pick up the perpetrators." This community was being used as a containment basin for the rest of the city.

This was 1978, and the year prior, 25% of the homicides that occurred in the city happened within the block upon which our building stood. According to Rick, the store had been broken into on a 3-month regular schedule. Mel by that time no longer lived away from the store, but had been sleeping on an old mattress in a back office with a rifle within easy reach. His life and business reflected the life on the streets. He'd become a lost soul. This good man who'd given his all for me and the kids in the early years was gone. In his place was this desparate soul who was no more than a shadow of the man I'd married long ago.

The discoveries of that morning changed my life for all time, and started a new cycle that came with its own set of learnings, values, and demands, some in direct conflict with the sophisticated and erudite life of the university culture. That morning ushered in life of a dramatically different kind, a life that introduced me to the underbelly of urban existence at a time when I was wonderfully prepared for what I was to find. I was psychologically ready to take full advantage of it, and did.

It was that evening that my husband Bill and I stood at Mel's hospital bed in ICU waiting for him to recover to find his left leg missing. This was to be their first meeting. Bill was at his professional best. He'd brought all of his psychologist self to the forefront while setting aside his Betty's husband self. It was a delicate moment for us all, but we survived it. It was good to have our sons witness this coming together beyond boundaries. It opened the door for the re-establishment of the friendship I'd shared with Mel, and in the days that followed to take him for his medical appointments, see to his care as we moved him into a retirement home after surgery, arrange for services and even handle his day-to-day shopping for most of the rest of his life.

The next step was dealing with the state of the business we'd created so long ago, and of discovering the depths of the disintegration of the assets we'd worked so hard to create for our children.

That would have to wait until tomorrow ... .

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