By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
A warm, handsome fellow, Carlos was a gay aerobics instructor when Esther met him. As Esther brought him into her girls' lives, he encapsulated all of the reckless decision-making the daughters felt they'd already endured.
Esther, on the other hand, thought the marriage would set an example--that you can find happiness through unconventional choices--for her daughters.
When she and Carlos married, Esther was blithely at peace with Carlos' assertion that he wanted to live as a heterosexual and be the stepfather of her daughters, then in junior high. It would be an adventure.
The girls were not nearly so comfortable.
"Carlos was difficult," said Carol. "It wasn't just that he had been gay. He was 20 years younger than my mother. I constantly got, 'Is he your brother? Is he your boyfriend?'
"As a child, I wanted her attention. Now she had Carlos."
Carol boycotted the wedding.
Poor Richie was the caboose at the tail end of Esther's long and vivid train of life.
"We felt like she'd dragged us through all of her relationships," said Sarah. "Richie was just one more person she wanted us to meet and accept."
The daughters were exhausted.
"She'd never introduced another child into the equation," said Carol. "We didn't want to share our mother's attention. I think it would be difficult for anyone to wake up and hear their mother being called 'Mom' by someone who was not your biological sister or brother."
The girls have a crisp recollection of the first time they met Richie.
"We drove up to their apartment and all these kids came piling out," said Carol. "The visit was more like what people do when they volunteer their time at the local relief shelter. There were all these wild, unruly children begging my mother for money. Barbara, their mom, looked overwhelmed. But at least we were able to drive away. My mother was a supplier, and they had no qualms about asking for gifts and money. They saw her as Santa Claus."
At the end of August 1995, Carol called her mother.
Her sister Sarah, at home temporarily, answered the ringing phone.
"Hi, is Mom up?" Carol wanted to know. "I'm in the hospital, and they tell me I might have a brain tumor."
Sarah and Esther left Phoenix on the first plane outbound to Los Angeles.
Eventually, tests would show that a deformed mass of blood vessels, an arteriovenous malformation, had been growing inside Carol's head since birth. The mass had now gotten large enough to announce its presence.
"I was cooking corn in my apartment, when I just fell to the floor," recalled Carol. "I bit through my tongue."
The medical emergency concentrated all that was good and bad among these three powerful women, like a rich stock reduced to its essential flavors. And hapless Richie found himself thrown into the pot.
The hospitalization occurred at an awkward period. Though both daughters had left the state for college, neither had actually established their own careers or lives. Under normal circumstances, they treated each other like sisters; they were free to yell, scream and curse at each other. But this wasn't normal. Sarah, and especially Carol, needed their mother.
Esther turned in a heroic effort to get hospital care for Carol--but then deserted her daughter's bedside before the young woman went into surgery. Esther cannot even remember, now, why she left.
Upon arrival in California, though, Esther was a whirlwind. She quickly transferred her daughter out of the local hospital to the better UCLA medical center. But UCLA appeared swamped. No tests had been done. It was impossible to get an MRI scheduled.
So Esther contacted the assistant to the Chief of Neurosurgery. The tests were performed. Then, the family could not get hold of the test results.
"Sarah and I prowled the offices of the radiologists. I kept introducing myself to nurses as Dr. Gould and asking for Carol's results, but all the doctors had gone home for the day," Esther said.
Esther got back on the phone to the assistant to the Chief of Neurosurgery and once again spurred the staff into action.
"My mother was on the front lines," said Carol. "She walked up and down the corridor. She basically banged on doors.
"I didn't have, by the doctors' standards, a serious condition. They had people in comas, people who would never recover. I was completely operable. I was not their first concern."
But she was Esther's only concern.
"We were scheduled to have a resident do the surgery and that just scared the hell out of me," said Esther.
So Esther accosted the Chief of Neurosurgery as the man made his rounds. She introduced herself, complimented the diligence of the doctor's assistant and asked that he personally perform the operation on her oldest daughter.
"I wanted him to like me," said Esther. "I knew what I was doing. He was a short Jewish guy; I figured I had a chance.
"Oh, God, it was awful. I felt I had to manage it. Carol's father got lost driving to Los Angeles. Then he couldn't find the hospital. He was a wreck.