NadyaEugene/shutterstockThe week of April Fools’ Day of 1981 began badly. That Sunday night, my husband told me he was leaving me. He had fallen in love with one of his graduate students, and they were headed to the tropics the next day.
I was completely devastated. It was totally unexpected.
He gave me a new vacuum cleaner to soften the blow.
It was the middle of spring quarter at Berkeley, so the next morning I had my class as usual. It was far easier to teach it than to explain why not, so I dropped off our daughter, Emily—who was five and three quarters years old—at kindergarten. I headed to school and taught my class.
I made it through the day and around three thirty headed back to pick up Emily from school.
We got home, walked up the stairs, opened the house … and it was absolute chaos.
Someone had broken in. Everything was completely trashed.
I called 911, and a young police officer went through the house. I had no idea what had been taken and what hadn’t, because my husband had taken many things with him the night before.
I explained that to Officer Rodriguez, and he said, “As you figure it out, make a list.”
Then he went upstairs with Emily. They opened the door of her room, and it was 18 inches deep of just chaos. The bed had been pulled apart, curtains pulled down, drawers all dumped out.
Emily—five and three quarters—looked at Officer Rodriguez and said, “I can’t tell if the burglars were in here or not.”
And Officer Rodriguez, to his eternal credit, did not crack a smile. He handed her his card and said, “Young lady, if you discover that anything is missing, please give me a call.”
So now it was Monday night. I was scheduled later that week to give a presentation in Washington, DC, to the National Institutes of Health. It was terribly important. I had not done this before. It was my interview for my first large grant on my own.
The plan had been for Emily to stay with her dad and for my mom to come out, arriving the next day to help out.
My mom, who was living in Chicago, didn’t know anything about the events of the previous 24 hours, so I thought, I’ll just wait and explain it to her when she gets here.
So the next day we picked up my mom at San Francisco Airport, and driving back to Berkeley, I explained to her what happened on Sunday.
She was very, very upset. She said, “I can’t believe you’ve let this family come apart. I can’t believe this child will grow up without a father.” (Which was never true and has never been true since.)
By the time we got home, she was extremely agitated. After a couple of hours, she said, “I’m going home. I just can’t imagine that this has happened. How can you even think of running off to the East Coast at a time like this?”
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My father had died not long before. Just two months after this visit, my mother was diagnosed with epilepsy. So, in context, her reaction was not as irrational as it seemed in that moment, but at the time, of course, it was devastating.
So I said, “OK. You’re right. I’ll arrange for you to go home tomorrow, and I’ll cancel the trip.”
I called my mentor, who had been my postdoc adviser at UC San Francisco. He was already in Washington, DC, and I said, “I’m not going to be able to come.” I explained briefly what had happened.
He just listened. He had grown daughters and said, “Look, come. Bring Emily. Emily and I know each other. I’ll sit with her while you’re giving your presentation.” He had grandchildren of his own.
I said, “She doesn’t have a ticket.”
He said, “As soon as we hang up, I’m going to call the airline and get her a ticket. It’ll be on the same flight as yours. Everything will be fine.”
I arranged for my mother to go back to Chicago.
Her flight from San Francisco was at ten o’clock in the morning. We left in plenty of time, but it was one of those days when the Bay Bridge was just totally jammed up. What should have been a drive of 45 minutes took an hour and 45 minutes.
When we finally arrived, my mom’s flight was about to leave in 15 minutes, Emily’s and my flight was going to leave in 45 minutes, and in front of the counter to pick up tickets was a long, long line.
And, of course, we had our suitcases. My mom was carrying hers, and she was already fairly frail.
I said, “Mom, can you make it to your plane on your own?”
She said, “No.”
So I said to Emily, “I’m going to need to go with Grandmom down to her plane.”
My mother looked at me, completely shocked, and said, “You can’t leave that child here alone!”
Suddenly this unmistakable voice above and behind me said, “Emily and I will be fine.”
I turned around to the man standing behind us, and I said, “Thank you.”
My mother said, “You can’t leave Emily with a total stranger.”
And I said, “Mom, if you can’t trust Joe DiMaggio, who can you trust?”
Joe DiMaggio, who just like us was standing there, waiting in line, looked at me, looked at my mother, and gave Emily a huge grin. And then he put out his hand and said, “Hi, Emily. I’m Joe.”
Emily shook his hand, and she said, “Hello, Joe. I’m Emily.”
And I said, “Mom, let’s go.”
We got to the plane, and my mother got on fine. By the time I got back, Emily and Joe were all the way up at the front, chatting with each other.
Joe DiMaggio had wrangled Emily’s ticket for her. He was clearly waiting to go to his plane until I got back.
I looked at him, and I said, “Thank you very much.”
And he said, “My pleasure.”
He headed off down the hall. He gave me this huge salute and wave and a tremendous grin and went off to his own plane.
Emily and I went to Washington, DC. I got the grant, and that was the beginning of the work that has become the story of inherited breast cancer and of BRCA1.
Courtesy Mary-Claire King
Dr. Mary-Claire King, 71, is American Cancer Society Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. She was the first to show that breast cancer is inherited in some families as the result of mutations in the gene that she named BRCA1. In 2016, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama.
Told live at a Moth show at the Players in New York, NY
This story also appears in the book All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown.via amazon.com