Joan of Arc Becomes the Girl Next Door
Until that time came, my firstborn continued delivering her message to all who would listen, in interviews with news magazines, on national TV programs with Larry King and Peter Jennings. Despite her tireless public work, her dearest wish was to celebrate the holidays quietly in the circle of our family, to play Scrabble in front of the big fireplace at the ranch. Mine was to celebrate her 36th birthday in January. Both wishes came true, but I wanted her birthdays to go on for decades.
One fall morning, not long after the NAMES Quilt event, I rose before dawn to take the six a.m. express flight to L.A. from Monterey. I’d spent a cold foggy week at a writers’ conference in Pacific Grove. When I checked out, the Asilomar Conference Center receptionist remarked, “Early morning is my favorite time of the day by the ocean.” I agreed. The fog obscured the cypress trees and curlews cried from the sand dunes as the taxi pulled away from the great wood and stone building designed by Julia Morgan.
The cab driver pointed out the airport, sparkling in the mist. Planes were flying again after three days of heavy brume. Cirrus clouds stippled the sky as the plane took off, a fresco brushed with light by the rising sun. As we neared Los Angeles, the fog moved onshore again, but we drove through it like a sleek seabird.
At Los Angeles International Airport, I flagged another taxi. I had to reach Linda’s house by ten a.m., to accompany her to First Lady Hillary Clinton’s AIDS telethon at UCLA Extension.
“Please look up address for me.” The cab driver handed me the Thomas Guide. He had just arrived in the U.S. from India three days earlier.
I’d been to Linda’s Venice Beach home only once before, the previous Father’s Day. Driving down the coast that June morning, Bill had complained, “It’s Father’s Day, and I have to drive to L.A,” but I was thrilled we’d been invited—my children, his step-children, wanted to acknowledge and celebrate him as their father.
Linda and Erich made mimosas for us that day, with fresh orange juice and champagne. As Bill and I settled ourselves on the couch, a burly man in a wrecked car lobbed what appeared to be a bomb through the open front door of Linda’s tropical blue house. It thumped and skidded across the floor, landing at our feet—the fat Sunday Los Angeles Times.
That image was all I could remember when I tried to visualize where she lived. In a moment of lucidity born of panic, I remembered the street name and directions. “Please hurry,” I urged the taxi driver. “My daughter is very sick, and Hillary Clinton has asked her to appear on her telethon. If we don’t get there before ten, you’ll have to take me back to the airport.” I don’t know if he understood any of it, but he caught my anxious tone and delivered me safe to her door in Venice Beach.
“I can honk?” he asked. I nodded. He sounded the horn. Neighbors peered out from their porches, as Linda pulled her IV pole behind her down the walkway.
“I no charge for this,” said the cab driver, smiling. I thanked him and handed him some bills anyway, then turned to my daughter with a deep breath. She and I had a few minutes to talk while she finished her infusion.
“Mom, I have a boyfriend!” Linda’s blue eyes sparkled. “He’s wonderful. God, for all this time since Michael died I’ve wanted a sweetheart so much, like everyone else. A man in my Friends for Life group fell in love with me. Steve. He’s HIV positive, too. He tells me I’m giving him the best months of his life.”
Anyone else would have said the best years of his life. People with AIDS’ heightened sense of time still had the power to shake me from my customary moorings.
Their openness about the sexual consequences of the disease startled me, too. I never let Linda know that I was mortified when her picture came out in Time with the article in which she said that her lover used latex gloves when they had sex. She was driving home the point that someone with AIDS was still entitled to intimacy, but I wanted to destroy all four million copies in circulation.
Bill and I were in Oregon on our annual fly-fishing trip with the Horton cousins from North Carolina when that issue of Time came out.
“Linda has a choice,” Bill’s cousin said. “She can go out in triumph, or like a tramp.”
How cruel, I thought. But I was sure the whole family felt the same way.
I quickly came to understand the logic behind Linda’s very public insistence that she be treated as a normal woman. I supported her need to make headlines, to stand up for the rights of all those in the AIDS community. I no longer had time for anyone who wouldn’t allow HIV positive people into the mainstream of human love and passion.
Linda finished her infusion and, while she got dressed, she invited me to look through photographs from her recent cruise holiday. She’d asked me to go with her on the cruise. I will always regret I did not go with her. I had to choose between spending time with Linda and hosting Bill’s class reunion at our ranch. There will be a lot of choices like that, I mused. What about my twin granddaughters on the way? Erich’s family may need me. Linda needs me here, but Bill needs me, too. I sighed.
The dilemma of every woman—pulled in a hundred directions by those she loves. And there was my own work as well; Café Solo came out annually and I was publishing my poetry in journals around the country. At least I’d finished my dissertation.
Leafing through the cruise pictures, I saw Linda on the gangplank, the captain kissing her hand, Linda, resplendent in black at the masked ball. No one would guess from these photos that she was sick. Still, when her infusion line backfired during the trip, the ensuing spurt of blood sent her cabin-mate into hysterics over the danger of possible infection. The ship’s surgeon repaired the damage and Linda enjoyed the captain’s dinner that evening.
Linda whisked back into the living room, dazzling in a white suit. I was still wearing my writers’ conference sweats, hardly appropriate for Hillary’s telethon. But, I reminded myself, I’m not the star here.
Linda asked if she should send the photo of her with a sign that said “Jerusalem” for her Christmas card. I was glad she was thinking ahead as far as Christmas.
“I like the one of the captain kissing your hand,” I replied. “That’s a stunning dress.”
“Is it all right if I wear your sequined dress for New Year’s?” she said.
I nodded. New Year’s. Please, God, let her see the new year, her next birthday, the one after that.
We zipped across town to Universal City. Alexandra Penney, editor-in-chief of Self Magazine opened the forum; Hillary Clinton appeared on the large screen. She gave an eloquent introduction to women’s health issues. Women with medical issues, in the U.S. and throughout the world, appeared on smaller screens via satellite to voice questions and concerns to her.
Thunderous applause followed the First Lady’s responses to questions about her health care initiative. We didn’t know then that it would take another twenty years to see anything approaching universal coverage.
“Is Linda Luschei in the audience?” Dr. Bourque asked Linda to come forward.
Dr. Linda Bourque of UCLA women’s health program introduced Linda, noting, “She is co-founder and a board member of Women at Risk, a foundation to help women everywhere cope with HIV and AIDS.”
“I felt invisible for years, because HIV/AIDS wasn’t considered a woman’s disease.” Linda's strong voice rang with conviction. “Many doctors who specialize in AIDS have not addressed women’s issues, because they’ve worked primarily with gay men. But women are the fastest growing segment of America’s HIV population. Right now, I’m taking an experimental drug that has not been tested on women.”
The audience sat motionless, intent on her words.
“My friends and I founded Women at Risk to raise awareness of women’s health issues, primarily HIV and AIDS,” she continued. “Ignorance about women’s health cannot be accepted as an excuse for neglecting our needs, any more than homophobia can be tolerated in the medical community.”
Applause exploded through the hall once again. A great pride in my daughter swept through my heart. It was not the delight I felt when she danced before hand-clapping audiences as a child, but something powerful, spiritual and mature.
Linda had risen to challenge terrible circumstances and fulfill her earthly mission. I would have respected any woman speaking so eloquently for voiceless women suffering throughout the world. I was overwhelmed that the warrior before me was my own daughter, my Joan of Arc, smiling at me from the stage, even as her energy waned.
We left soon after her presentation. Linda wanted to stop for Chinese food. As always, I offered a silent prayer that she could eat well. She picked her way through a few bites of stir fry and then asked to take the rest home.
The waitress brought the check with fortune cookies. There was no fortune in Linda’s. Chilling. I’d become used to bad omens.
“Yesterday I deposited the funds from my life insurance check.” she told me. “The bank let me cash it in because my doctor verified I have less than six months to live.”
Less than six months. I heard the words, but my brain wouldn’t grasp their meaning.
My flight home under a gorgeous red sunset was as lovely as the dawn fresco flight. I remembered a song my mother and grandmother used to sing to me when we traveled: “I see the sun rise. I see the sun set. And by the first rainbow I’ll be home again yet. I’ll see the sun rise and I’ll see the sun set.” I wished Linda could come home with me, both of us washed in the promise of the sun’s last light.
Shortly after the Clinton teleconference, Linda sat me down and again told me she was facing her final months of life. I finally took it in; we cried together. She asked me to let everyone in the family know. Later that week, I wrote with a shaking hand to our friends and family the most difficult words I’ve ever set down. I surrendered my denial, at last.
I have been told that I have a gift of healing as a mediator between the body and the spirit, and so it was agonizing to admit that I was unable to save my daughter. The darkening path before us terrified me, but accepting reality was somehow fortifying. I focused on what I could do for Linda, as we faced the shrinking circle of time together. My job was to mother her, to support her with my love, to ensure that her last wishes were complied with.
After the family Thanksgiving feast at the ranch, we honored Linda’s wish to play Scrabble in front of the fire with her family. We even “let” her win—a joke because she always won, anyway. When our guests had left, Tom and Erich snapped together her IV pole and hung the bag of saline solution for her. She adjusted the monitor to start the infusion that kept her body functioning.
On the patio, we toasted a gorgeous Central Coast evening with bubbling flutes of champagne—in Linda’s case, sparkling cranberry juice. Bill and I had made donations to Habitat for Humanity and Heifer International in honor of each family member. But to our daughter Gabi, we gave actual blankets to take back to the Navajo Reservation where she worked at that time. Bill gave me a certificate for a water buffalo that would help a farmer in Asia.
Last of all, we handed the most beautiful certificate to Linda. We’d purchased and designated a redwood tree to honor her. She once told me, “Trees are a reason for staying alive.” The Linda Luschei tree in Redwood National Park will live far longer than all of us.
That Thanksgiving celebration formed a perfect sphere of joy around the family, except for one troubling incident. Linda was awakened at three in the morning by deliberate footsteps outside the guesthouse where she and Gabi slept. She told us she heard a key turn in the lock, but when she switched the light on, the noise ceased. I thought of my grandmother’s proverb, “Death knocks but does not enter.”
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