Chapter no 24

The Women

“You owe me,” Frankie said again.

Barb stood in their small pine-plank-walled living room, wearing only her underpants and a bra. Their old black-and-white television hummed quietly behind them; Hugh Downs saying that the Nixon administration had arrested thirteen thousand anti-war protesters in three days. The footage of the Gold Star Mothers and the medals being thrown filled the oval screen; after that came footage from Kent State, where the National Guard had killed unarmed students. “You’re glad you went to the march.”

“I am. And you’ll be glad we went to a fundraiser to help bring POWs home. I followed your lead. Now you need to follow mine.”

“Why do you even want to go? You’re not a Navy wife.”

“I was supposed to be,” Frankie said gently. “And for Fin. I can’t imagine him stuck in a cage somewhere, forgotten. Why don’t you want to go?”

“Navy wives. And pantyhose. You know I haven’t worn them in years.” “You can shimmy into pantyhose and eat lunch with other women. I’ll

buy you a rum and Coke after.” “I am going to need one.”

Frankie dressed in a way that would have made her mother proud: in a navy blue knit pantsuit. Beneath the jacket, she wore a bold geometric print blouse with large, pointed lapels. She pulled her hair back from a severe center part and put it in a ponytail.

Frankie knew about Navy wives. Coronado was full of them. She knew they maintained a strict social hierarchy based on their husbands’ rank. Frankie wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they still gave out calling cards to each other. But she didn’t share any of this with Barb.

At 11:50 A.M., she and Barb (who wore a black miniskirt and a black turtleneck and black knee boots) pulled up in front of the Hay Adams Hotel. A stream of protesters passed the hotel, marching toward the Capitol.

Thousands of them, intent on disrupting the government.

Police in riot gear stood behind barricades. “We should be with them,” Barb said. “Not today,” Frankie said. “Come on.”

Once inside the hotel, they rode the elevator up to the rooftop, which overlooked the White House and the Washington Monument.

Inside the rooftop restaurant, a giant banner had been strung up: DON’T LET THEM BE FORGOTTEN.

Frankie felt a shiver of emotion. They had been forgotten. Even by her.

At the front entrance, two well-dressed women sold tickets for the luncheon and handed out donation envelopes.

Frankie bought two tickets and led Barb into the luncheon. The room reminded her of the Coronado Golf and Tennis Club: white tablecloths and bone china plates and sterling silverware. In the front of the room stood a podium with a microphone.

Women in dresses and pantsuits drifted into the room, talking to one another. Several moved from table to table. The officers’ wives, probably. She and Barb found two empty seats and sat down. A waiter promptly poured them wine.

“See?” Frankie said. “Not all bad.”

The room filled up slowly. Waiters moved from table to table, serving each guest tuna salad in a scooped-out red bell pepper.

A slim blond woman in a knit cornflower-blue dress took to the podium and said, “Hello, Navy wives and friends. Welcome to our nation’s capital. I’m Anne Jenkins, from San Diego. My husband is Commander Mike Jenkins, who is currently a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. I am here, along with several of my fellow wives, to seek donations, in both time and money, to help bring our POWs home.”

The room fell silent. Forks were set down.

“As some of you may know, many of us have been fighting this battle for years. The information coming from the Nixon administration is shoddy and incomplete at best. The military’s missing in action and killed in action reports are unreliable. Jane Adon’s husband was shot down in 1966. The government first told her he was killed in action and reported that his remains were ‘unrecoverable.’ She held a funeral for him. We all mourned for him. And then, six months ago, my husband included a mention in his letter of the perfect daylight he’d seen recently. Well, that was the name of Adon’s boat. We think it may mean he is alive and at the Hanoi Hilton. But, I ask you, what is she supposed to tell her children now?

“This is unacceptable. And Jane is not alone. I spoke with Senator Bob Dole last year, who admitted that as of 1970, most senators didn’t even know what MIA or POW meant. Think about that. Last year the people running our country—a country at war—didn’t know what missing in action meant. Thankfully, Mr. Dole—a proud vet himself—is on our side, and we finally hope that the tide is turning our way. Enough of our silence, enough asking for information politely. Enough being ladylike. Being ‘just’ wives. It’s time that we stand up, strong and proud as military families and wives, and demand answers. We’ve set up headquarters in an empty building here in D.C. And we are looking for space in San Diego, where most of us live. It is our goal to find the name of every American POW in Vietnam and put pressure on the government to bring them home. With help from our imprisoned husbands, we have been collecting a list of names. We believe we know all of the prisoners in Hoa Lo now. We intend to become a political machine with one purpose: make everyone in this country aware of the military men in cages in Vietnam.”

“How?” someone asked.

“We start by writing letters and giving interviews. Make our missing husbands a story that needs telling. Who is willing to write letters to bring our brave boys home?”

Applause. Women stood up, clapping.

Anne waited for the noise to die down, then said, “Thank you. Bless you. And if you can’t write letters, please donate generously to our cause. We will make this happen, ladies. No more silence on our watch. We won’t let them be forgotten.”

Anne nodded and left the podium, stopping at each table to say hello.

She came at last to Frankie’s table and paused there.

“That was wonderful, Anne,” said one of the women at the table. “Thank you. Lord, I hate public speaking.” Anne looked at Barb, then at

Frankie. “Welcome, ladies. Are you Navy wives?”

“We were Army nurses in Vietnam,” Frankie said. “First Lieutenants Frankie McGrath and Barb Johnson.”

“Bless you,” the women at the table said in quiet tones.

Anne said, “We all know sailors who came home because of the medical aid they received. Are you ladies from D.C.?”

“Georgia,” Barb answered.

“Coronado Island, ma’am,” Frankie said.

“Coronado?” Anne said, looking at her. “Frankie McGrath. You’re Bette and Connor’s daughter?”

“Guilty as charged,” Frankie said.

Anne smiled. “What a lovely woman your mother is. A tireless fundraiser even after … your brother’s death. Bette and I chaired a beautification committee a few years ago. No one does a better event. I was sorry to hear about her stroke.”

Frankie frowned. “Her what?”

“Her stroke. It’s a reminder to all of us, isn’t it? Tragedy can strike in an instant. And after all you’ve already suffered. Please tell your father she’s in my prayers.”



Beneath the bright glare of white light, Frankie sat in an uncomfortable chair, staring out at the busy runways of Dulles Airport. A series of recorded announcements blared through the speakers, but it was just noise to her. The mix of people in here was a microcosm of the sharp division in America— long-haired kids dressed in ragged jeans and bright T-shirts, soldiers coming home from war, ordinary folks trying not to make eye contact with either side.

Frankie had called the house a dozen times in the past twenty-four hours, but not once had anyone picked up the phone. She had no way of leaving a message, so she’d called her father’s office for the first time in

years and found out from her father’s secretary that Mom was in the hospital. Ten minutes later, she was packed and ready to fly home.

At the gate for her flight, she dug through her macramé handbag for a cigarette and lit up.

How could her father not have called her and told her this terrible news? Just more proof that he’d written her out of their family.

When they called her flight, she put out her cigarette, slung her old travel bag over one shoulder, and boarded the aircraft.

At her row, in the smoking section, she took her seat on the aisle.

When the stewardess came around in her pert red-and-blue miniskirt uniform with matching hat and shoes, Frankie ordered a gin on the rocks. “Make it a double.”



Frankie had never been to the medical center before. It was an impressive white building positioned at the top of a hill in San Diego: a glittering glass and stone architectural gem. They’d been building it the year Finley died.

It was nearing nighttime when her taxi pulled up in front of the hospital. She stepped into the brightly lit lobby, with its two-story wall of exterior windows and the curving wall of interior windows. Palm trees stood tall and vibrant, in contrast to the white walls and silver metal window frames.

The lobby held a collection of modern, comfortable-looking rust- colored chairs, most of which were empty on this Tuesday evening in May. A television in the corner stuttered out a canned laugh track on an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Frankie walked up to the front desk, behind which sat a tall, bony-faced woman wearing round glasses and bright red lipstick. A name tag identified her as Karla.

“Hi, Karla,” Frankie said. “I’m here to see Bette McGrath.” Karla consulted a set of papers. “Family only.”

“I’m her daughter.”

“Okay. She’s in the ICU. Second floor. The nurses’ station is to the left of the elevator.”

“Thank you.” Frankie headed to the bank of elevators and went up to the second floor.

The ICU was newer, brighter, than the SICU in the Virginia hospital where Frankie worked, but it was the same series of glassed rooms, with nurses moving from room to room, family members crowded at doorways, looking worried, offering each other brittle smiles.

At the nurses’ station, she stopped, asked about her mother, and was directed to Room 245, where she found her mom lying in a bed in a glass- walled room, connected to a ventilator, which breathed for her. A crisscross of white straps kept the breathing and feeding tubes in place. The bed’s metal railings were up on either side, and the head of the bed was angled up slightly. A stark white pillow framed Mom’s head.

Machines stood around her, whooshing, beeping, showing graphs of color.

Frankie drew in a sharp breath; Mom was fifty-two years old but looked ancient, gaunt, and drawn.

“Hey, Mom.” She approached the bed slowly, pulled her mother’s chart out of its sleeve, read it. Intercranial hemorrhage. Respiratory failure.

She put it back in the sleeve. “We don’t care about statistics, do we, Mom? You’re tough. I know you are.”

She stared down at her mother’s pale, bluish skin, her sunken cheeks and closed eyes.

Frankie wanted to shut out the sound of the ventilator and imagine the natural rise and fall of her mother’s chest, but she had too much training to fool herself. She knew that stroke patients on ventilators often died within the first few weeks.

She brushed the back of her knuckles across Mom’s soft, warm forehead.

She heard footsteps and knew without looking who was here.

Her dad. The man who’d once called her Peanut and carried her on his shoulders and tossed her playfully into the air until his arms must have ached from the effort. The man she’d gone to war to make proud.

He paused at the door. Frankie looked up.

He stared at her for a long moment, as if deliberating what he should do, and then he walked slowly forward, took his place on the other side of the bed. His fingers curled tightly around the bed rail. She saw how tanned he was, even in May, from walking job sites, overseeing construction beneath

the hot Southern California sun. He wore a bright blue polyester shirt, buttoned incorrectly, and beige polyester pants. A wide, tightened belt hinted at weight loss.

“You didn’t call me,” she said. “I couldn’t.”

She heard the way his voice cracked and knew it had been fear that stopped him from calling, not anger. “When did it happen?”

“A few days ago. She had a headache,” he said softly, in a voice she barely recognized. “I told her to quit complaining.”

Pain filled his eyes when he looked at Frankie. “She’ll come out of this, Dad.”

“You think? I mean, you’re a nurse. You should know.” “She’s tough,” Frankie said.


“It’s just the three of us now, Dad,” she said.

He looked up, tears in his eyes at the reminder that they’d lost Finley, that any one of them could be lost in a moment, while you looked away, took a breath, stayed angry.

“Will you stay?” he asked.

So, he felt it, too. They were family. As tattered and beaten-up as the connection might feel, it had a strong core, something you could hang on to. “Of course,” Frankie said.



For the next two days, Frankie rarely left her mother’s side. She made friends with the ICU nurses on all of the shifts and brought them donuts when she arrived in the morning. She sat at her mother’s bedside hour after hour, reading books aloud, talking about anything she could think of, rubbing lotion onto her hands and feet. Dad stayed as much as he could, but she saw how difficult it was for him to be here. For a few hours every day, he went to work, just—Frankie thought—to escape the pain of waiting and watching, but then he came back, sat in the room with Frankie and Mom. He told Mom stories of their youth, retraced the steps of their love, laughed about the way her family had reacted. Frankie learned more about her dad,

and the depth of his love for his family, than she’d learned in all the years before, but neither of them spoke to the other about it.

Today—finally—the ICU team was going to take Mom off the ventilator.

“What does that mean?” Dad asked for the third time as they rode up the elevator.

“If she does well on the readiness test—if her vitals are solid—they’ll wean her off the sedation and wake her up and take out the breathing tube.”

Frankie saw the change in her father’s posture. His shoulders sank; he kind of caved in on himself and became smaller.

In an earlier version of their relationship, she might have slipped her hand in his, both giving and taking comfort, but they hadn’t healed enough yet for so bold a move. Frankie had spent two nights in her frilly pink bedroom, had cooked him two dinners, and they’d spoken only about Mom. Perhaps nothing else mattered until she was better. The long silences didn’t feel angry, didn’t hurt Frankie’s feelings. He was sad, and Frankie knew every nuance of sorrow; he just didn’t know how to act without Mom, who to be, what to say. This locomotive of a man who’d rumbled so loudly through her childhood had derailed.

The elevator doors opened. Frankie and her father walked down the hall, stood outside the windows of her mother’s room.

At six A.M., the ICU was relatively quiet. A team of nurses was in Mom’s room, gathered around her bed, checking her readiness.

“What if she can’t…” Dad said, unable to even voice the question.

Breathe on her own.

“This would be a good time for you to pray.” She stepped closer to the glass window, trying to hear what the nurses were saying inside the room.

Peak airway pressure … twenty-three.

That was good.

Vital signs.

She looked at the machines.

The nurses nodded to each other. One of them picked up the phone and relayed everything to the doctor.

Frankie saw the nurse nod and hang up. Wean her off sedation.

Frankie felt her father move closer to her. She almost leaned against him. They watched, waiting.

Through the window, Frankie saw her mother’s eyelids flutter. Slowly, slowly, her eyes opened. The unit nurse extubated Mom, who immediately started coughing.

“She’s breathing,” Dad said.

As soon as they were allowed into the room, Frankie and her father took their places; one on either side of her bed.

Mom blinked slowly.

Dad touched her face. “Bette, you scared me.” “Yeah…” she said with a lopsided half smile.

Mom’s head lolled to the right. She stared up at Frankie. “My … grl…” Frankie’s eyes filled with tears. “Hey, Mom.”

“Fran…” she whispered, lifting one bony, shaking hand up to be touched. “What … done … to yr … hair?”

Frankie could only laugh.



May 9, 1971

Dear Barb and Ethel,

Hello from the bubble world of Coronado Island.

Sorry it’s taken a while to write, but it was kind of touch and go with my mom for a while. The good news is that she’s out of the hospital. It will take some time for her to get full mobility, so I’m going to stay to help out. No idea how long. I’ve quit my job at the hospital in Charlottesville. Would you mind sending my few things here?

I want you both to know how much you mean to me and that my years with you—both in Vietnam and Virginia—have been the best of times.

I’ll get back to see you when I can. Until then, stay cool.

Love you both.




May 14, 1971

Dear Frankie,

You’re breaking up the band, girl, and I hate it, but I think it’s time, and this is the kick in the ass I needed. I’ve sent a résumé to Operation Breadbasket in Atlanta. Maybe I’ll meet Jesse Jackson!

I’ll miss you! Keep in touch.

Stay cool, B

PS: I’ll bet Noah pops the question to Ethel now that we are out of the way.



Frankie rubbed lotion into her mother’s dry hands.

“Tha feels … gd,” Mom said, struggling for the words. Frankie leaned down and kissed her mother’s dry cheek.

Mom’s eyes fluttered shut. She tired so easily. But that was to be expected in the first few days after a stroke. She was at home, in a hospital bed that had been set up in a downstairs guest room. She was often frustrated. Sometimes she couldn’t find a word, or chose the wrong word, or slurred her speech. Every now and then a bout of vertigo made her sick to her stomach.

Frankie shut the door behind her and found her father sitting in the living room. He was hunched forward. Whatever it was that had once puffed him up had been lost with Mom’s stroke.

“She’s doing well,” Frankie said.

“It’s good you’re here. Your mother missed you.” “And you?”

He looked up, surprising her with the directness of his gaze, as if maybe he’d been waiting for this question. “You were a different girl when you came home,” he said.

“I … struggled for a while after Vietnam,” she said.

“We all did. After Finley … I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know how to…” He shrugged, as unable to find the words as he’d been to process the grief.

“I’m sorry about that last night, before I went to Virginia … the things I said to you,” Frankie said. In the silence that followed her apology, she got up, walked down the hall to her bedroom, and dug through her travel bag. Finding the photograph of Finley that she’d taken down in anger, she walked back to the living room and offered it to her father. “He belongs on the heroes’ wall,” she said quietly, putting the framed picture down on the table. “I’m so sorry, Dad.”

He looked at her for a long moment, then stood. He was a little unsteady. Either he’d drunk too much or eaten too little or worry had upended him again. “Come with me.” He went to the kitchen, grabbed some keys off the hook by the wall phone, and headed out to the patio.

Frankie followed him onto Ocean Boulevard. They walked down the wide cement sidewalk, side by side, not speaking.

“We fought about you after you left,” he said at last. Frankie didn’t know what to say to that.

“She blamed me. Said I’d been unpleasant to you.” “I was kind of a bitch, too.”

“I told her that.”

Frankie surprised herself by smiling. “She knew you’d be back,” he said. “Did she? I wonder how?”

“Life. Motherhood. She said something about spawning salmon.”

After another half block, Dad stopped in front of a small gray one-story beach bungalow with a white-painted brick wishing well positioned out front on a patch of grass. An absurd bit of whimsy in this messy world. Larger, two-story houses bracketed the bungalow, made it look like a toy. A dark blue convertible Mustang was parked in the driveway.

“I was going to tear this cottage down and build something bigger. And then … when you went to Virginia, your mom wanted you to have a place to come home to. Someday. Told me in no uncertain terms that this cottage was to be your safe place. She put her foot down. I don’t think she’d ever said such a thing to me before. Or to anyone. Anyway, she had this cottage

painted inside and furnished it with the bare essentials. Well, bare essentials as defined by your mother. The car is my contribution.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two sets of keys, handed them to her.

Frankie was too stunned to speak for a moment; she stared up at her father, seeing him in a way she never had before, seeing a ghost of the man who’d left Ireland as a kid and crossed an ocean alone, who’d been unable to go to war with the men of his generation, who’d fallen in love with a woman who was used to having it all. The man who’d lost a son to war and almost lost his wife, who’d sent his only daughter running off into the night because he didn’t know how to welcome her home. She wondered if they would ever speak of these things, the two of them.

“Thank you, Dad,” she said quietly. He looked uncomfortable with her gratitude, or maybe just with the history that came with it. He glanced down the street. “I should go. I don’t like leaving your mom alone for long.”

Frankie nodded, watched him head for home. When he turned the corner, she walked past the gray bungalow’s white-painted brick wishing well.

She unlocked the door, opened it, and flipped the light switch. Inside, she found a quaint pine-paneled living room with a soot-stained river-rock fireplace and big windows with gingham curtains. Hardwood floors, an oval rag rug, a kitchen newly painted in a pale aqua, a floral overstuffed sofa, and a single chair. A vase full of silk flowers on the mantel.

She moved through the place, turning on lights as she went. There were two small bedrooms, the larger of which overlooked a fenced backyard with a live oak tree at its center. Mom had furnished the room with a queen bed, a fluffy white comforter, and a small bedside table with a shell-decorated lamp.

Frankie exhaled a long-held breath. Maybe this was what she’d needed all along. A place to call her own.

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