am standing at the foot of my roommate Dorothy's hospital bed, holding a bag of carrots and watching a nurse strap her into a sling hanging from a hand-cranked hoist, which is used to jack Dorothy up in the air, swing her out of bed and lower her into a wheelchair. Dorothy is in her 70s and due to emphysema, severe back problems and a series of strokes has been unable to walk for the past year, which she has spent confined to a bed at Laguna Honda, a municipal hospital run by the city of San Francisco.
aguna Honda first opened in 1866 as a shelter for unemployed and homeless men, built on eighty acres of land on the western side of Twin Peaks. First pressed into service as a healthcare facility in 1868 when a smallpox epidemic swept San Francisco, it later provided care and housing for victims of the 1906 earthquake. Over the next several decades Laguna Honda evolved into a full-fledged hospital, providing medical care to chronically ill, disabled, elderly and indigent patients who can't be cared for at home or by their families. Dorothy ended up there because she was no longer ambulatory and her family could not afford live-in health care or to send her to a private facility. All things considered, though, compared to the run-down nursing home in Tennessee that both of my mother's parents died in, Laguna Honda wasn't so bad.
nce Dorothy is situated in her wheelchair, I grab the handles and start pushing her through the ward, an incredibly long, narrow open room, the length of which is lined on either side with dozens and dozens of elderly women lying in beds next to one another with no privacy save for curtains hanging from the ceiling that can be drawn around each patient. The ward always smells like shit and Lysol and the less mentally balanced patients are usually making some sort of racket, so Dorothy is always glad for the chance to go outside. When we reach the hallway we ride the elevator down to the ground floor and exit the hospital, a Spanish style building erected decades earlier on one side of a scenic hill surrounded by acres of natural landscaping, and sometimes when you look around it feels as if you've traveled back in time.
ff to one side of the main building is a little greenhouse and animal farm, a reminder of the days when the surrounding hillside was planted with over fifty acres of oats, potatoes and other vegetables and stocked with cows, hogs and horses. The current day animal farm resembles a small petting zoo, and after we arrive Dorothy feeds the bag of carrots to her favorite goat, a large male named Tosh, while furiously chain smoking the whole time. Two of the things Dorothy loves most in life are pets and smoking.
first met Dorothy several years earlier when I was looking for a place to live in San Francisco. Dorothy had a spare bedroom in her apartment on Polk Street that she listed with Roommate Referral in the Haight. For her preferences in a roommate she had written: No Cult Members, No Republicans, No Reagan Democrats. I remember laughing and thinking that was someone I would get along with okay.
hen Dorothy opened the door to her apartment, two grey and white female cats ran into the hallway to greet me, and I picked up one and carried her around on my shoulder as I toured the two bedroom apartment where Dorothy had lived for over twenty years. We sat down in the living roomits walls lined with books about history, politics, feminism, literature, art and poetryand started talking, and before I knew it an hour had gone by. As I got up to leave I told her that I wanted the room, and she told me to go home and think about it and call her later, and if I still wanted it, the room was mine.
orothy was born and raised in Utah. Her father was a prominent liberal attorney and political activist who during the Roosevelt administration drafted some of the New Deal legislation and served as a Dollar A Year Manbusinessmen and professionals who donated their services to the U.S. government and were put on the federal payroll at a salary of one dollar a year. As a little girl, Dorothy occasionally visited the White House with her father, and the first time she met FDR he warmly greeted her from his wheelchair and cheerfully informed her that he had the runs from eating too many of the Utah cherries that he had been given by her father.
orothy adored her father and as she grew older took his legacy to heart, carrying on the family's tradition of liberal activism. As a young woman, she hosted integrated ACLU meetings at her home in Utah, which drew the unfavorable attention of the authorities, FBI agents parking outside her house, taking down license plate numbers and following her guests. Dorothy eventually moved to New York City and joined the bohemian circle of intellectuals, artists and left wingers gathered in Greenwich Village. Although she never said so, I imagine she flirted with the Communist Party around that time, because her social milieu was exemplified by the interviewees in Reds, Warren Beatty's film about journalist John Reed. She was a libertine who loved to smoke, drink and socialize. Along the way she married and divorced and had one child, Judy, but Dorothy's lifestyle caused a serious rift to develop between her and her daughter. Judy grew up to be a fairly humorless devout Christian, and later in life would tour around the country giving talks to religious groups about the immoral ways of her mother and holding Dorothy up as an example of an unfit parent who had chosen the wrong path in life. Needless to say, relations between Dorothy and Judy were strained for many years.
orothy moved to San Francisco in the 1960s, attracted by the city's liberal political culture. Due to her unpleasant experiences with men, she turned to women for companionship. For years she shared the Polk Street apartment with her partner Lynn, but eventually Lynn moved out and into her own apartment around the block, vacating the room in Dorothy's place that I eventually rented. Dorothy and Lynn remained close for the rest of Dorothy's life, and Lynn continued to come by every day to look in on Dorothy, and took care of her when her health began to decline.
fter I moved in, Dorothy and I had a good time hanging out together, going to movies, listening to records, talking about politics and sharing an occasional joint. Once Dorothy told me that she preferred chewing hash to smoking pot, and I told her about a college friend of mine who one summer had a stash of opiated Indian hash oil. Dorothy said that she had smoked opium once years ago, she had been standing in front of a chair when a friend handed her a pipe and the hit was so strong that her legs gave way and she sank like a stone. It was a good thing that chair was there, she said, laughing at the memory. Dorothy was crazy about her two feline siblings, Becky and Sarah. Dorothy would often cook an entire turkey and give me half and feed the other half to the cats. Although Sarah had sleeker fur and was the prettier cat, Becky was Dorothy's favorite because, of course, Becky was smarter.
nfortunately, Dorothy underwent a series of debilitating strokes, and emergency visits to the hospital with her became a not uncommon occurrence for Lynn and myself. Dorothy was a heavy woman and, finding it more and more difficult to support her own weight, slowly became bedridden. Eventually she made a trip to the hospital from which she couldn't return home, and instead was transferred to Laguna Honda. At first we held out some hope that she still might recover enough to come back to the apartment, but as the months went by it became clear she never would. Around this time Judy began to visit her mother more frequently. Judy was then working as a religious counselor, helping terminally ill believers to spiritually prepare for their own passing, and she began using her vocational skills with her mother. Lynn and I were unnerved by Judy encouraging Dorothy to give up and let go, as we were trying to be positive and make Dorothy's remaining days as upbeat as possible, and I sometimes wondered whether it might not be more for Judy's sake than Dorothy's. But Dorothy's health and spirits continued to decline and finally she asked for hospice care at Laguna Honda, where she had some privacy and was allowed to smoke cigarettes nonstop until her lungs gave out.
only saw Dorothy a few times after she moved to the hospice unit, because the anticipation of her death implied by her new surroundings freaked me out. The last time I visited, Dorothy was asleep when I arrived. She was lying in bed, wheezing loudly as her lungs labored to continue breathing. I sat with her a while and decided against waking her up. I knew this was the last time I'd ever see her, and I silently said goodbye and left. I talked to her on the phone the next day, and the day after that she was gone.
fter she died, I paced the tunnel under the Chronicle building, blowing "Amazing Grace" on harmonica, blue notes echoing around me. I stared at the Amnesty International sticker on the apartment door every time I dug my keys out of my pocket. I took her books of poetry from the bookshelves I had built for them and gave them to women I knew who touched my heart. I stood on the pier next to ancient Chinese men holding fishing poles and watched ships sail away. I thought about how family is sometimes found in unlikely places like roommate bulletin boards.