My husband filed for divorce the day after I dressed up in Dolce Gabbana and told Matt Lauer that our marriage was stronger than ever. My bad. He moved out to our home in Malibu that weekend. Our two boys and I remained in our secluded, gated Palisades estate in a neighborhood filled with movie stars – yet I, the girl who’d lived in South L.A and grown up in East Hollywood, was terrified. We lived in 20,000 square feet on three and a half acres with a security system guaranteed to scream when night fell. Where I come from, there were bars on windows, and a dog was a security system; no one had ever tried to get past Duke, my Great Dane, in my home on the south side.
And boy, did I miss my shotgun, Wayne.
At bedtime, the kids and I huddled in Thug the Elder’s room. He and the three-year-old, Thug the Younger, slept on the twin bed. I slept on a futon on the floor next to them; this is the only way we (I) could get to sleep.
One night, the security alarm went off again at the witching hour. As my body shook, I called 911 while a bead of sweat wended its way down my spine. The police officers got lost navigating our long, pitch-black driveway, then got winded climbing from one compound on the hillside to another. I could see by the looks on their faces that they thought it was crazy that anyone lived this way – three small people alone in the dark on a hill.
I needed a different kind of security system – a human kind. Someone I could trust. I called Frankie, my 21-year-old nephew, who was living in the garage apartment attached to a home I owned in Venice – he dubbed his place “the Shack”. He’d moved in when he was kicked out of snowboarding boarding school; he’d had two girls in his room at 3AM. (I’d chosen the school for him and his younger brother, boys who craved the outdoors and were not afraid of concussions, and apparently, girls.). He was a handsome boy, half-Colombian, half-American Mutt, quick to find mischief and close company. Within weeks of moving into Venice, he was surrounded by likeminded pals, all hardworking, hard-playing boys – directors, actors, writers, cinematographers. He enjoyed a carefree life, playing competitive chess on Venice Beach, surfing with his buds, and spending hours texting, getting paid to fill clubs with beautiful girls.
I was fine with Frankie enjoying his youth. Frankie drank, but he didn’t do drugs – the first baby in my life had grown up in a bullet-ridden trailer with his younger brother and sister and a mom, my lovely, athletic, California blonde sister, who was an addict, a dealer, an entrepreneur of sorts, a person who could transform tubs of Sudafed for the Mexican Mafia into a concoction that would leave you high, and eventually, toothless and disheveled.
Breaking Bad? I don’t need to watch. My sister was Heisenberg before Heisenberg existed.
Frankie was the most perfect baby I’d ever seen. My sister wasn’t married, the father, a Colombian soccer player/dealer (L.A. is full of hyphenates) wasn’t around. My father had cut out articles during her pregnancy – Farrah Fawcett had a baby without being married, see, it was okay. Besides, Frankie was a miracle. My sister’s ex-husband, also a Colombian dealer, had shot her in the stomach at point-blank range; she was down to one Fallopian tube.
Frankie was our miracle.
My sister, the new baby and I lived in my mother’s house. I was working in a glam industry, developing shows for a television producer. I dressed in suits and heels (mostly “borrowed” from my mother) and pretended that my life was as smooth and easy for me as the other young, up-and-coming execs, with their Cabriolets and BMWs, credit cards, private school educations and recognizable family names. At night, when our new baby cried, I’d cradle Frankie in my arms and whisper in his tiny, shell-like ear that I would take care of him, always…that despite our tenuous circumstances, I would work hard, and he would never have to worry.
One day, my sister fought with my mom and fled, taking baby Frankie with her, pulling away as I screamed, in the beater car of a man who was not Frankie’s father.
I slept with the baby onesie she’d left behind, breathing in his scent while I cried myself to sleep.
A few weeks later, my sister contacted my mom – or, we somehow found her. I forget. Frankie’s bed was now a dresser drawer in an apartment in Hollywood. He had a diaper rash, so bad it had blistered; my mom gasped when we changed him.
Still, he never wailed, never complained. He just watched us with his big brown eyes as we stood over him, rubbing cream gently onto his caramel body, powdering his little bottom. Praying that somehow, he’d be safe in the world.
Decades later, my new security system, Frankie was happy to move into my guesthouse on the hill. Immediately my mind was eased. With Frankie came joy – back flips into the pool, barbecues, music, laughter, Guitar Hero – and youth. I became den mother to a group of 20-something boys. We watched movies every night, taking in Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (they knew every word, every inflection), Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (about 1,000 times); we talked about my surrogate sons’ ambitions, their regrets and fears, who they wanted to “date” (read: have as much sex with as possible) as opposed to who they wanted to marry.
In return, as I hadn’t dated as a single person in almost two decades, they taught me about the new world of men. They would vote on whomever I brought home, eventually choosing their favorite; after all, it was an election year. They also taught me the art of the text. After a few months, I, the student, lapped my young teachers.
“Never be the last to text,” I’d admonish when one would be itching to reply to a girl, “He who texts last loses.”
In the meantime, I was in the throes of a tough, public divorce. I was surprised because although my wasband is an Oscar-winning producer, we weren’t exactly Brad and Jennifer. I learned that almost anyone’s pain is newsworthy. But despite being buffeted from outside by angry tides – we were a happy, boisterous, functional home.
Frankie’s lower back started to hurt. I taught him stretches that had worked for me when I was pregnant; I placed heating pads on his back, then ice.
My ministrations gave him no relief. Finally, I had him visit my doctor to give him a full check-up. It had been years.
Frankie came back to tell me that my doctor was concerned with one of his, er, testicles.
I took a deep breath. Why would your testicle be cause for concern?
Because…it’s four times the size of the other one?
I choked back my anxiety. And you didn’t tell me this…why?
I didn’t want you thinking I had an STD.
(Now, this was a boy I’d talked to when he was 12 about the birds and the condoms.)
I took a deep breath. This kid had been through a rough childhood – climbing into cupboards to find cereal to feed his baby sister and brother, hiding when a SWAT team barreled through his mom’s trailer, killing the blind Chow Chow who’d barked, trying to warn his family.
Never knowing where or even who his father was.
C’mon. There was no way God would give this kid cancer.
Frankie went on a trip, with his super-sized ball, to Italy, where his best friend was promoting a movie. He would celebrate his 22nd birthday overseas, in grand style. The director of the movie, a man who’d known him all of three weeks, ordered a cake for him, lit up with candles.
What he didn’t tell me was that he’d received the bad phone call on the morning of his birthday.
A few days after he returned, I was standing in a small, sterile room, with my doctor and my nephew. I’d been in this room many times before, for yearly physicals, minor ailments.
“Testicular cancer,” the doctor said.
I held onto the white cabinet. Frankie was strong and still, his brown eyes searching mine.
“But it’s probably not the bad kind,” the doctor reassured us.
I wanted him to tell me this wasn’t true. Frankie, of all people, didn’t deserve this sentence. I decided, in that room, at that moment, that I wouldn’t cry. I would be strong.
Later, I joked with Frankie, accusing him of trying to steal my divorce thunder. I also told him we were in this together. This was our battle, and we would win. Besides, I said, “it’s probably not the bad kind.”
Two days later, we were told it was the bad kind.
The director who’d thrown Frankie such a lavish 22nd birthday party called him after hearing about Frankie’s diagnosis from his young star.
“This is unfuckingacceptable,” he said, “Stay by the phone. I’m having Lance Armstrong call you in five minutes.”
Lance called and talked to Frankie for almost an hour, walking him through the impending horror. He, too, had had the “bad kind”.
“By the third week,” Lance had said, “You’ll feel like killing yourself. But you will survive. You will get through this.”
He made Frankie promise to call him whenever he needed to. That director and Lance will always be saints to me.
The cancer was fast moving; days later, Frankie had an operation to remove his faulty testicle. His friends immediately started calling him “The Uni-Baller”. You never know how many ball jokes there are until one of those babies is defective.
Frankie would only listen to classical music in the car on the way to the oncology center, passing cars driven by normal people, their passengers cancer-free. Even Alicia Keys was too “pop” for him. I remember his mother playing the piano, my grandmother’s old upright, in her trailer – sitting for hours, her fingers dancing across the keys, conjuring a different sort of high.
Meanwhile, in my divorce drama, I had to be diligent, never waver, never show pain or weakness. I would be deposed three times, sit in court and listen to lawyers’ arguments, his and mine. I dealt with it the way I deal with anything painful – humor. You can kill me, but you can’t kill my quip.
I pitched a show to Bravo, a scripted show about divorce lawyers. Instead, they wanted to bring the cameras into my home. Film me, my nephew, his friends, my life. But I never thought what I had going on in my house was unusual. It was just about love, big, messy love.
As his treatment intensified, Frankie’s long, shiny brown locks withered. Finally, he shaved it all off. His friends shaved their own heads, in unity. Frankie had to wear adult diapers; my three year old would snuggle next to him in bed, pacifier in his mouth. “Frankie’s my baby,” he’d say, as he rubbed his cousin’s head.
Frankie’s nausea became unbearable; the prescription meds were useless. Desperate, I called around to find marijuana. Frankie didn’t want to smoke, rejecting my “gift”. The child of a drug dealer refused to take a puff.
Thanksgiving morning, we walked into an empty oncology department at Cedars. I was feeling very sorry for Frankie, asking why, why him. A boy of about six or seven, accompanied by his parents, walked past us and smiled. The boy was bald, his eyebrows gone. So much for self-pity.
Frankie’s body was brutalized after the second round of chemo, which had lasted all day long for five days. Saturday night, we were back at Cedars, in the emergency room. Frankie was screaming in pain. A baby was howling in the background. The place was crowded with patients in various states of need.
Frankie was ripping the catheter out of his arm.
I was helpless. I had lied; I couldn’t take care of our baby.
At the house, Guitar Hero was played less and less.
When Frankie went into the third and final round of chemo, he rebelled. “I can’t do it,” he told the burly Hispanic male nurse. “I’m not going to do it.’
We begged him. He had a spot on his lung, a shadow on his liver. The nurse spelled out the reality for him: You will die, he told him. You will die unless you get chemo.
Finally, Frankie relented. He barely made it through that following weekend; we almost lost him, again, this time to a nurse’s overdose of pain medication.
And then, the cancer was gone. Check-ups every three months for two years. Every six months after that. We could breathe again. Frankie started recovering, peach fuzz appearing on his head.
One day, I found myself crying, alone, in my kitchen, where I’d been preparing dinner. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop.
Frankie hobbled up, still weak from treatment, and put his arms around me. My son not my own just held me while I sobbed. 22 years had passed since I had whispered in this baby’s ear, the first baby amongst four sisters. I will take care of you.
While he held me, I said, through my tears, “Thank you for taking care of us.”
Frankie had given my little family unit more than security; I like to believe my boys learned more about love in those terrible months than they ever had before.
Now, I think back fondly to those nights when the alarm would go off. Signaling that something was wrong.
Something was terribly wrong.
That Christmas, I gave Frankie the gift of a new, state-of-the-art ball. He now has a full set.