Members of my feminist generation have performed tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights and have paved the way, not only for Hillary’s race for president, but for womens’ entrance into politics and the professions in larger numbers. However, our feminist generation has also been dying out, one by one, for over the last quarter-century.
The first time I co-officiated at a funeral service for someone of my own generation was in 1987 or possibly 1988 and it was for my dear friend and colleague, Ellen Frankfurt who had committed suicide. I remember the vast crowd that had gathered in the courtyard of a West Village artist’s complex. We looked as if we had all seen a ghost; it could have been anyone of us although of course, that was not exactly true.
While there were some millionaires in our midst, most of us were bohemians who lived on the creative edge and prided ourselves on not planning for the future. (Unconsciously, perhaps, we thought that if did our world-work well, we were supposed to die young–or, that the future would take care of itself). Nevertheless, aside from the unpublished poets and novelists, we were professionally, maritally, or economically middle or upper middle class. We had safety nets of one kind or another. Ellen, feminist author and health activist, was heavily addicted to dangerous pills and might also have been genetically predisposed to suicide. It seems that she had a twin sister who had already committed suicide.
Since then, I have conducted mourning rituals for many New York area feminists and have attended Memorial Services, funerals, and speakouts for many more. The list includes: June Arnold; the poet, essayist and civil rights activist Barbara Deming; the author Elizabeth Fischer; Carolyn Heilbrum; Dr. Ruby Rorhlich; the poet, essayist and activist, Audre Lorde; the architect and activist, Phyllis Birkby; the pioneering gynecologist/obstetrician, Marcia Storch; the novelist Alma Rautsong; the activist and lawyer Flo Kennedy (who had three funerals); the novelist and professor Bertha Harris; politician Bella Abzug; the novelist, essayist, and activist Andrea Dworkin; activist and author, Betty Freidan; my dear friend, the art critic Arlene Raven; journalist, teacher and activist, Ellen Willis; and my very dear friend, the health activist and author Barbara Seaman.
These are all women whom I have known and with whom I have worked or partied for more than forty years. And, this is only a partial list.
And now, there is one more name to add, that of Dolores Alexander, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, a journalist, copy-editor, and visionary co-founder, together with Jill Ward, of the feminist restaurant Mother Courage. You may read her Obit HERE. But there is something more, something from which we may all draw courage.
When Dolores knew she was actively dying, she turned to two of the most spiritual and moral of feminists: Linda Clarke and Joan Casamo who now live in Florida where they have continued to perfect the art of gracious living and southern hospitality. Dolores wanted to live and die in the sun and she wanted to be near her friends who have made a calling of “being there” for those whom they love and admire. Linda and Joan have written a touching account of Dolores’ last days with them which follows below.
Our Last Days with Dolores Alexander
Apparently, the memory of sun and lovely white birds floating over water compelled Dolores to leave everything familiar: home, friends, family, community, NFWFWF (North Fork Women for Women Fund), therapist, doctors, banks, not to mention the comforting view from her house on the Peconic Bay and that beloved green kayak. Everything that had been close, intimate, comforting, left behind.
This precious memory of sun and its life-affirming warmth persuaded her she could endure a car trip that would take her away from the cement skies and the freezing cold hopelessness of a New York winter, to the miraculously free and unburdened west coast of Florida where great white herons feed undisturbed in the back yard and rare wood storks fly and swoop overhead, their black and white wings breathtakingly beautiful against the blue cloudless sky.
For some reason, Dolores felt she could survive such a trip despite being unable to breathe without oxygen tanks, walk without support, or live without 24 hour care. Her comrade and heroic friend, Jill Ward (who does not fly), drove for two arduous weeks and they got as far as North Carolina before Dolores knew it was impossible and arranged to be medivaced to our home in Clearwater. Jill and Dolores founded and ran the internationally known feminist restaurant, Mother Courage, in the West Village for five years. Now, forty years later, they were coming to Florida.
Seeing Serena, Roger and Raffa play at the Sony Ericsson tennis open, discovering South Beach, Coral Gables, the galleries and the magic of Miami with dear friends, and reveling in the glory of the mansion and grounds of Vizcaya, had us in a particularly delirious state. Clarkie stopped to sit for a while in the orcidarium and checked our phone messages. ‘Clarkie, Joanie, this is Dolores. Call me on my cell right away. It’s urgent.’ We hadn’t heard from Dolores since February when she had tried to arrange a Florida stay for the rest of the winter. Plans had fallen through and we’d heard she was back in the hospital. I waved a suddenly troubled Clarkie over to join us in a photo and she held the phone down and said Dolores needed to be medivaced from North Carolina to our home ASAP. The details were unclear, but she was not in good shape. Flooded with a myriad of questions and apprehensions, we were also struck with the surety that it would all be fine. ‘Come. We’ll be home tomorrow by 5. We love you.’
Dolores had once told Clarkie, ‘I just start laughing as soon as I hear your voice. I don’t know why.’ And then she laughed. Somehow it would all be fine.
Arriving at night on a stretcher, the red lights of the ambulance flickering ominously in our driveway, she was wheeled down the narrow hallway inside our house, trailed by the cumbersome oxygen machine and plastic hoses and several exasperated EMT people who seemed to resent the fact that such a fragile and delicate person was still very much in charge. The robust Medics had no idea what kind of triumphant stubborn willfulness they were dealing with in this frail sweet-faced woman.
In her youth Dolores had been loved by many cadets at both West Point and Annapolis, and she carried with her a heavy bag of their letters to reread in the Florida sunshine. As a sophisticated glamorous reporter for Newsday she interviewed Andy Warhol and other celebrities; and later still she helped to push through the integration of ads at the NY Times, eliminating ‘Help Wanted – Male, Help Wanted – Female’. Later with Susan Brownmiller, she confronted the condescending and overconfident pornographers in Times Square, giving them such a fright by striding indignantly into their little peep hole rooms, before eventually closing them down. After all, the displeasure of these distracted medics at her strange authority over them was nothing compared to the irascible and tyrannical Betty Friedan with whom she worked as the first national executive director of NOW, the National Organization for Women. How could they ever know, these callow fellows, that their struggling patient had quashed anti-female prejudices wherever she found them, like so many annoying ants, before they were even born.
Now here she was at 76, sick, exhausted and disheveled, sternly instructing these bewildered young attendants to find her large black bag which they insisted was not in the ambulance, exhorting them with all her remaining strength to FIND IT! And once at the door of what was to be her own room for a few days, she icily commanded them to stay out while she used the new commode we had set up. With much grumbling, they found the black bag, assured us the oxygen machine was working despite Dolores’s protestations, and fled.
As neighbors watched warily, the ambulance attendants wheeled Dolores into our home. We congratulated her on the most dramatic arrival of a guest. One of the EMTs put a screen in front of me and told me to sign. A page of writing flashed before me and then a signature page. I told him I would like to know what I was signing and he assured me ‘It’s nothing – just like getting a package from UPS.’ I was telling him how inappropriate that was when Clarkie called me to Dolores’s room. There another attendant had set up the oxygen machine.
Nothing to it, it’s all set.
I can’t breathe!
Don’t yell at me, Ma’am.
Please leave the room.
Next attendant – It’s working fine – just relax.
The bag in front of Dolores’s face was flat, but I was not concerned having heard repeatedly on planes that ‘the bag does not have to be inflated to insure the flow of oxygen.’ Dolores was duly agitated and insisted she couldn’t breathe. CALL JILL! As we did, the ambulance pulled away. Jill told us that this bag would be inflated if oxygen was flowing. She had us working the machine in less than a minute.
Finally, sitting on the end of the bed in our guest room, sipping water, Dolores utterly relaxed perhaps for the first time since a doctor in NY had diagnosed her with pulmonary fibrosis. It took her thirty minutes to struggle to the pillows at the end of the bed and lie down. ‘Just give me a minute’, she kept saying. The oxygen machine dutifully buzzed away like a small lawnmower. We peeked in often during the night to assure ourselves that she was still breathing.
There was hope. The next morning outside her window, our reliable sun greeted her with a display of newly opened white oleanders and we served her Earl Grey tea and Farina – just the right texture – then chocolate milk, her favorites.
We lined up all her little multicolored pills on the desk, including Viagra, which gave her a laugh. It was supposed to keep the blood vessels in her lungs dilated. Immersed in an unexpected haze of strangeness, nursing and danger, we wrote down what pills she took and what time she took them.
These first few days Joanie and I often stared silently at each other. We play tennis every morning and take supplements and eat blueberries. Memories of our own miserable hospital stays have faded and we once again feel invincible. Dolores had visited us only a year ago and had sat reading peacefully in the lounge chair by the pool, happy and still, running her fingers through an ornamental pot of peppermint and basil and rosemary, watching light play on the water. Recuperating from hip surgery, she was looking forward to regaining her mobility.
Last year, we showed her around our county and shared an extraordinary experience as we followed flocks of birds mysteriously flying inland, away from the marina we were visiting. A man was feeding scores of birds from a balcony. The noise and commotion were overwhelming: herons, storks, egrets, ibis, gulls desperately swooping for bits of hot dog. A planter we noticed hanging off the deck was actually a three tiered mass of green parrots swinging on a feeder and feasting on sunflower seeds. We watched mesmerized for at least 15 minutes.
After Jill arrived with the wheelchair, Dolores came out of her room for her meals and sat, regal and dignified in a long gray striped dress at the head of the table, yards of plastic hoses trailing along behind her. She had never yet mentioned death or dying or why she was here, only how she much loved Joanie’s broccoli and penne pasta with olive oil and garlic, and how she longed to see the birds being fed from that deck again. We introduced them to the extra dark chocolate of Le Petit Ecolier cookies and we talked about how ferocious Betty Friedan was in 1966 when Dolores interviewed her for Newsday, (“I knew she was on to something”) and how embattled Hillary is in this election. She never liked Bill. “They keep saying his indiscretions were personal, but don’t we say that ‘the personal IS the political’?” And she laughed in that gay light-hearted way she had, head back, mischievous eyes.
Dolores allowed us to pull her gently into our silly little world of life and more life, endless days, endless candlelit dinners, endless books and conversations, endless promise. endless summer. Without thinking much about it, she had become part of our easy and intimate optimism. We didn’t know she had written in a shaky scrawl in her date book on March 29th , only a few days before she arrived: “I will die by my father’s birthday, May 15th.”
So, we innocently loaned her binoculars and our Florida’s Fabulous Waterbirds Book and she wonderingly poured over the pictures of herons, ospreys, egrets, and gulls, her glasses perched on her nose. And we murmured and laughed and ate and followed her hoses down the hallway again to fluff up her pillows for the night. No one commented that the two small portable oxygen tanks would never get her to see the bird man and back.
The vivid backdrop to Dolores’ visit to Florida was Hillary Clinton’s agonizing campaign, fighting the most battering and brutal sexism that stunned even the most cynical of us.
Dolores had gone to the United Nation’s 4th World Conference on Women convened in Beijing in 1995. She had said many times it was the high point of her entire life, being in the midst of so many women fighting for change, recognition, a normal chance at happiness, especially taking the bus filled with African and Asian women to the NGO Forum held outside Beijing. At the conference itself Hillary Clinton spoke for the USA, her speech piped outside to over 50,000 women from around the world who couldn’t fit inside the tent. It was one of the great unforgettable speeches of Hillary’s life.
Joanie found Dolores and Jill a furnished rental home on the water, only fifteen minutes away from us, and they settled into this light-filled space.
After the traumatic phone call, things couldn’t have gone better if we’d had a magic wand. A beautiful house on a finger of the intercoastal waterway was available immediately; a miracle considering it was still high snow bird season here, and it was wheelchair accessible at that. Sliding doors to the lovely yard from both the living room and the master bedroom, water views from every angle. Just what Dolores had imagined. I called about home health aides and found a team ready to start. They happened to be Polish, as was Dolores’s mother, as was her housekeeper back home. I was amazed, but Dolores explained, ‘I’m living by serendipity now, that’s the word.’
The weather was consistently mild and dry as if it somehow knew much would be expected of it. Jill opened wide the sliding glass doors to let in the breezes off the water. Dolphins and huge sting rays played near the dock. Silver mullet jumped and spun in the air. Further into the shining bay, sailboats motored out for the day. The huge 50 inch TV in the living room relentlessly recorded every super delegate that had switched from Hillary to Obama. And Dolores got to feel the sunshine on her head.
Jill and the Polish women made her as comfortable as possible. Once, in a rare reference to her condition, Dolores said that she was not afraid of dying but was afraid of suffering while she died. But we had by that time introduced her to our own doctor. This was huge. She had lost faith in the medical system entirely and was insisting she would do this alone. He changed her medications and the heavy pain at the bottom of her lung miraculously went away, and along with it the fear of pain. And he set her up with Hospice. Now warmth and peace were the goals.
We visited the little house regularly. Cooking Dolores pine nut ravioli with sage and butter, broccoli rabe, caprese, bringing leftover Mother’s Day turkey dinner, fuzzy socks, giant towels, a fleece robe. A friend brought orchids that lasted forever; others arrived to share conversations, memories, and on exquisite days some time at the beach, even a dip in our pool. ‘How is Dolores?’ we were asked again and again. Dolores is Dolores – smart, pragmatic, affectionate, blunt, strong, honest, composed, stoic, wry.
Of course I don’t want to die, she said, but I can’t live like THIS.
I always thought I’d live at least as long as my mother did. Last year my brother died and I’ll die this year. I just can’t believe it.
Jill dealt with the endless practical matters, a rock of support. Then Dolores changed their original agreement and decided not to leave Florida. More than a month had gone by. It was time for Jill to go. She drove home alone, to rejoin her partner and their daughter Liz, who was the light of Dolores’s life. Dolores never mentioned her Goddaughter Lizzie or Elizabeth without adding, ‘What a great kid she is – funny, smart, loving, everything you could want.’ And she mentioned her a lot. Funny, smart, loving, everything you could want.
Mid-May and Dolores had to move. Her home away from home was no longer available and a new place needed to be found. A realtor, with a Polish accent of course, found a condo with spectacular views overlooking the intercoastal all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. We went with Dolores and her aide Isabel and the realtor to see it on Friday afternoon. Perfection. Serendipity. A hospital bed could even be pushed out onto the wraparound balconies. Brand new and full of marble and granite and light. Dolores was like a little girl on Christmas morning, exclaiming over and over, ‘Can you believe this place??? I always wanted to go out in style. Why not? Can you believe these views?’
Isabel was her favorite of the aides. She reminded her of herself. ‘She’s a tall drink of water. That’s what they used to say about me.’ In her sweet accent, Isabel would reassure Dolores that God was good. ‘He will be there for you. He will know when it is time.’ ‘She’, Dolores would correct. ‘He will open his arms to hold you’. ‘She’, Isabel, ‘She’.
Monday was like every other day. We went over after tennis. There was a lot to do to get ready for Wednesday’s move. She was sitting in her great lounge chair gazing at the yard, commenting on the light playing on the water, as she often did. It was a busywork day – arrangements with banks and all sorts of preparations. She decided to rent out her house in LI for the summer and called and asked a realtor to arrange it. She called her lawyer and told her, ‘No one expects me to live very long. I guess I’m putting my affairs in order.’ We were plaintively lamenting about Hillary’s campaign as usual. She had won almost 18 million votes, but the pundits already had declared her the loser. It was almost over. Then Dolores told us her watch had stopped. When we offered to get a new battery for it, she said no. ‘Take it and keep it safe. When I die there will be a lot of people in and out of here, and for the move too. In fact, take all my things. Keep them safe.’
Dolores gave us a sandwich bag filled with the silver rings she had brought along ‘to play with’ in the car and her enameled bracelets from China and her watch. ‘This has always been a symbol for me of independence and freedom and being good to myself”, she announced, holding up a heavy square gold watch for us to admire. She stuffed it in a puffy silk pouch so it wouldn’t get scratched. Her mother’s retirement watch from ‘Continental Can’, her father’s fraternity pin. Oh I want to give this to … and then she nodded off. Her blood pressure was dropping. But she was still beautiful and sharp. The receipts had to be checked, she confided when she woke up, or the aides would add a couple of cartons of cigarettes to her grocery list. She got her papers together. She lovingly looked over each piece of jewelry as we packed them up.
We can bring over some little boxes tomorrow and you can send these things to the ones you want to have them. We’ll mail them for you and then at least you’ll get to enjoy the thank you notes!
See you tomorrow.
I love you guys.
We got the call at 3:15 in the morning. What happened? Does she need something? She died? She died at 3 A.M. When we arrived at the house there was desolation and emptiness. Something of consequence had happened. A brave and determined woman who had spent her life fighting bigotry and encouraging and helping other women had left us. Isabel stood in the corner crying. Clarkie wrote mantras in her book. The hospice woman dressed our friend in her long blue dress. Calls and more calls, arrangements, and then the wait for the car from the crematory.
White herons sleeping in the trees around the dock of the little house by the water remained unperturbed by the brief commotion and the sudden profound stillness of their great admirer. The next day they would continue to fish and beg morsels of food from those on the other docks. And the sun would be there for the rest of us.
On the way home we walked on the beach that was halfway between our two places. We picked up some shells and we imagined Dolores on her sailboat, the wind in her marvelous hair, the ropes tightly in her grasp.
Isabel told us that Dolores didn’t want to fall asleep that night. She kept saying, ‘Wake me up. Don’t let me fall asleep. Just keep waking me up.’ ‘It’s okay’, Isabel told her, holding her hand. ‘Go to sleep. God will only take you when it’s time.’
‘God-dess’, she corrected. ‘Goddess’. And then she went to sleep. It was two days before her father’s birthday.