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.
photo by Christine Baker
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.
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
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.
course I don't want to die, she said, but I can't live like THIS.
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'.
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!
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.
Comments: Eleanor Pam Eleanorpam@aol.com
And this from the book Feminists Who Changed America
Dolores Anne (1931 – 2008) An activist editor and writer, Alexander was
working as a reporter on Newsday (Long Island, NY) in summer 1966 when the announcement of the birth of NOW was
tossed onto her desk. It was a day too late, so Alexander called for an interview with Betty Friedan.
After the interview, Alexander signed up every woman in the newsroom for NOW membership,
including future NY NOW president Ivy Bottini. When Alexander excitedly told her analyst the news, he said, “You’re
50 years too late! Women got the vote in 1920.” Undeterred, Alexander helped organize the NYC chapter of NOW (1967
A member of the image committee chaired by Patricia Trainor, Alexander focused
first on integrating the Help Wanted ads in The New York Times as part of a negotiating team that met with NYT
management. Armed with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and questionnaires gathered with Suzanne Schad Summers
that demonstrated that women did not look under Help Wanted Male for jobs, the committee contributed to the integration
of the want ads at the NYT and, eventually, all newspapers. In 1969 – 1970, Alexander became the first executive
director of national NOW and the editor of its newsletter, “NOW Acts.” Although not a lesbian at the time, Alexander
says she was suspected of being a lesbian by some people in national NOW, and claims national “adroitly moved the
national office from NYC to Chicago to avoid lesbian influences.”
What followed, she says, “was a purge of lesbians, including then-president Ivy
Bottini, from NY NOW in 1971.” Alexander left NOW soon thereafter and, with Jill Ward, opened Mother Courage restaurant,
a nationally known gathering place for feminists in the West Village.
During that time, she also worked with New York Radical Feminists to develop the
speakout, a new feminist institution. The restaurant closed in 1977, the same year Alexander was a delegate to
International Women’s Year in Houston. Alexander was later appointed by President Carter to the IWY continuing
committee, which was launched at a tea hosted by Roslyn Carter at the White House. In 1979 – 1983, Alexander was
co-founder, coordinator and fundraiser for Women Against Pornography.
In recent years, she has been active in the nonprofit North Fork (Long Island,
NY) women’s community helping to provide healthcare for needy lesbians. Archives: Personal papers are at The Sophia
Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA; early NOW papers (1966 - 1970) and Women Against Pornography
papers are at The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge, MA. (ABS)
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