The 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 back to the tropics the next day.
I was completely devastated. It was totally unexpected. 33 years later, I still don't know what to say about it. I was just beside myself.
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. And I had to either teach it or explain why not. It was far easier to teach, so I dropped off our daughter, Emily - who was five and three-quarters at the time - at kindergarten, along with her faithful Aussie, her Australian shepherd, who went everywhere with her. I headed down to school and taught my class.
As I was leaving, my department chairman caught up with me. He said, "Come into my office."
I said, "Fine." (I had hoped to escape.)
I went into his office, and he said, "I wanted to tell you, I've just learned you've been awarded tenure." And of course I burst into tears.
Now, this department chairman, bless him, was a gentleman a full generation older than me. He had three grown sons. He had no daughters. He had certainly never had a young woman assistant professor in his charge before.
And he took my shoulders, and he stepped back, and he said, "No one's ever reacted like that before." He said, "Sit down, sit down. What's the matter?"
I said, "It's not the tenure. It's that my husband told me last night he was leaving me."
He looked at me, opened the drawer of his desk, pulled out a huge bottle of Jack Daniels, poured me a half a glass of it, and said, "Drink this. You'll feel better." It was 9:30 on Monday morning. So I did - and I did. I made it through the day, got sober, and around 3:30 headed back up the hill to pick up Emily from school. She hopped in the car with Ernie, her dog, and we drove home.
We got home, walked up the stairs, opened the house... and it was absolute chaos.
Someone had broken in. Everything was completely trashed. In retrospect what must have happened was that my then husband had often worked at home, and whoever had been casing the neighbourhood must have left our house aside because he was often there. But that day, of course, he hadn't been there, so we were vulnerable, and we were robbed.
So I called 911, and a young Berkeley police officer came up and went through the house. Of course, I had no idea what had been taken and what hadn't, because my husband had taken many things with him on Sunday night. I wasn't sure what should still be there or not. 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 eighteen 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's Monday night. I was scheduled later that week to give a presentation in Washington, D.C., to the National Institutes of Health. The way this worked in those days was, if you were a young professor, applying for the first time for a large grant, you were quite frequently asked to come to the NIH and give what was called a "reverse site visit." You'd explain what you planned to do, and then it would be decided if you were going to be granted quite a substantial amount of money over five years.
It was terribly important. I had not done this before. It was brand-new. It was going to be 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 - Tuesday - to help out. That had seemed, at the time, like a great plan.
My mom, who was living in Chicago, obviously 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. It seemed far better than calling her at what, by now, was quite late in Chicago because of all the business with the burglary and the police and all that.
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).
"How could you do this? How could you not put your family first?" Emily was sitting there in the car.
And, "I just cannot imagine," she said. "I'm going to go talk to Rob."
I said, "He's back in Costa Rica."
"This just can't be," and she became more and more upset. By the time we got home to Berkeley, she was extremely agitated. Emily was terrified. It was clearly not going to work for her to care for Emily.
After a couple of hours, my mom said, "I'm going home. I just can't imagine that this has happened. You must stay here and take care of your child. How can you even think of running off to the East Coast at a time like this?"
To put it into context now, years later, my father had died not long before, after my mom had nursed him for more than 20 years. 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, "Okay. You're right. I'll arrange for you to have a ticket to go home tomorrow. We'll take you out to the airport, and I'll cancel the trip."
I called my mentor, who had been my postdoc adviser at UC San Francisco until just a couple of years before. He was already in Washington, D.C., by happenstance at an oncology meeting, and I said, "I'm not going to be able to come," and I explained briefly what had happened. Of course, he knew me well. And he just listened to all this. He had grown daughters and said, "Look, come."
I said, "I can't."
He said, "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.
He said, "It will be fine."
I said, "She doesn't have a ticket."
He said, "As soon as we hang up the phone, I'm going to call the airline and get her a ticket. Pick up the ticket at the airport tomorrow when you take your mom back. It'll be on the same flight as yours. Everything will be fine."
I said, "You sure?"
And he said, "Yes. I have to call the airline now. Good night," and he hung up. (In those days it was very easy to rearrange tickets.)
I arranged for my mother to have a ticket to go back to Chicago. Her flight was at 10 o'clock in the morning. So we left Berkeley in plenty of time, in principle, to get to San Francisco Airport. But it was one of those days where the Bay Bridge was just totally jammed up. It was a horrible drive across. 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.
So Emily and my mother and I were standing in the line, and I said, "Mom, can you make it down to your plane on your own?" Bear in mind, there were no checkpoints in those days, but there were, of course, very long corridors.
She said, "No."
So I said to Emily, "I'm going to need to go with Grandmom down to her plane."
And my mother shrieked, "You can't leave that child here alone!" (Fair enough.)
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 looked at me and 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, a famous American baseball player, 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."
So my mother and I headed down the hall. We got to the plane, and my mother got on fine. It was probably 25 minutes by the time I got back, and by that time Emily and Joe were all the way up at the front chatting with each other by the counter.
Joe DiMaggio had wrangled Emily's ticket for her. She was holding it. 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 turned right. 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. The interview went fine. I got the grant, and that was the beginning of the work that now, 33 years later, has become the story of inherited breast cancer and the beginning of the project that became BRCA1.
This story is cross-posted from The Moth's latest book for a special edition of HuffPost UK's Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Mary-Claire tell her story live here.
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