LET'S BEGIN with an inventory of sorts. As I write this, there are ...
one rat (thankfully caged)
... living in my house, for a total of 18 significant life forms in these 2,900 square feet. Which isn’t as big as it sounds, especially when you factor in all their stuff. Clothes. Baby furniture. Toys. Litter boxes. Lumpy bags of miscellaneous items I don’t wanna know about. That it’s a temporary overcrowding — as you read this, the house will have exhaled four humans and several animals — doesn’t make it any less crazy while it’s happening. Or, frankly, all that unufsual for our place. It’s kind of nutty here. (Have I mentioned that one of the infants was born in an upstairs bathtub? It’s a tale that accounts for the pickle jar in the illustration across the page.) Previously we’ve had seven people and four dogs; seven people — spanning four generations — and six dogs; and there have surely been other arrangements I’m forgetting. Welcome to our home! We’ve always had trouble deciding if it’s best compared to (a) a sitcom; (b) a circus; or (c) a sitcom about a circus.
As you might expect, these days there’s a lot of commotion, a fair amount of barking, plenty of baby squawking, people in one another’s way ... aw, hell, can you tell we enjoy this madhouse? That we have cultivated it? That when our oldest son, his wife and kids and their enormous dog, two cats and pet rat needed a place to stay for a month before moving to Illinois, we said yes right away?
Of course we did. (Okay, we did fret briefly about their dog; it’s rideably large.) Just as we invited some friends, and their dog, to stay with us for a few weeks when they moved to town. Just as we opened our doors to my mother and brother and her three dogs for six months while they were house-hunting. There’s just something about domestic cacophony that works for us.
In the beginning, there were just the two of us: my wife, Laura, and me. But before the beginning, there were many more children — we both grew up in large families. I had three siblings, she had four; we know our hubbub, bub. We were born in it. Molded by it. Consequently, once we were married, I didn’t want kids. Zero. Finally, a lifetime of quiet! That lasted until a few minutes after our first child was born. Then came the pivot: “I want nine of these,” I gushed to Laura, brandishing newly born Steven while she lay on the Caesarean table. We settled for three.
Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve always encouraged a casual, crossroads feel to our home. Kids, some of them ours, crashing in the living room; an extra plate or two for dinner. Sure, your friend Daniel can join us on vacation. Like that. We had dogs adding to the chaos — a pair of schnauzers so smart we had to childproof all the lower cabinets — plus a cat or two. A snake in a terrarium. You know, starter cacophony.
Then the kids grew up and the grandkids started coming.
According to Generations United, an advocacy group, one in every six Americans lives in a multigenerational home. That’s trending upward, increasing by more than 10 percent in the three-year span beginning in 2007. No doubt the recession has a lot to do with it, cash-strapped families banding together to stretch their resources. As it happens, that’s about when it started for us, too, and the economy had a lot to do with it. That’s when our first grandchild, Cadence, was born, and to save money, Steven, Cadence and his girlfriend lived with us. The girlfriend eventually moved out, but Steven and Cadence stayed for most of the next seven years. The two schnauzers were succeeded over time by a skittish Yorkipoo, a chill shih tzu and a schnauzer-terrier mix.
“About 7.8 million children across the country live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives,” Generations United tells us. Often it’s a circumstance of last resort, undertaken for unhappy reasons, but that wasn’t the case with us. It’s an amazing thing to have daily access to your grandchild as she grows up. Did I say grandchild? I meant grandchildren. My youngest son, Spencer, and his fiancée, Kayla, added not only to the stockpile of grandkids — bearing Liam three years ago — but to the population of the house, the three of them moving in.
Last year, after Steven and Cadence moved out, my mother and brother relocated to Southern Nevada from Colorado, bringing three small dogs and a garageful of stuff. Stay with us!, we insisted. Added to our own fleet of yappers, that made six dogs. (Thankfully, all six had hair instead of fur and didn’t shed.) So, bark bark! the house bark bark! could get very bark bark! noisy. One dog always set off the other five. Nor were any of them inclined to distinguish between, say, a potential intruder and the sound of a leaf blowing down the street. Bark bark!
And you do not want me to describe what six dogs can do to a backyard.
Still, everyone got along pretty well and tempers rarely flared, even when the water heater leaked and required many days of wall and floor removal, not to mention industrial dryers RUNNING VERY LOUDLY night and day, a mold scare, insurance voodoo and time-sucking reconstruction. We had to move my mom’s bed into the living room during the tear-down. Hey, at least the dryers drowned out the dogs.
Through it all, I was mostly able to keep my cool amid the racket. It felt good to help my mother and brother. And it was especially gratifying to have four generations under the roof. How many kids interact daily with a great grandparent? How many seniors enjoy (or, on some days, endure) the attentions of so much ancestry? The time-span was boggling: When my mother was the same age as the great grandson bouncing on her lap, the atom bomb was still a few years from changing everything; he’ll grow up in a world that would have seemed like science fiction to her back then. There are cultures where this kind of multigenerational home is closer to the norm, and I think they’re on to something. I have to believe that there are intangible benefits to this familial continuity — each generation is a living road map for the other, of where our family has been and where it’s going.
The six-dog home, on the other hand, is for the birds. (Have we ever owned birds? Not sure; I might’ve missed them.)
Okay, about the baby and the bathtub. As the May due date for Spencer and Kayla’s second child approached, Kayla let us know that she planned to have a home birth in one of our tubs. I was dubious. Our house has a few nice amenities, but a surgery suite ready for emergency C-sections isn’t one of them. Should I have someone sign a waiver or something? I had immediate visions of a 20-hour labor, frantic shouts of “It’s crowning!,” rampant midwifery — afterbirth flying everywhere!
I quickly amended my to-do list: “Tack up plastic sheeting in front of my books, just in case.”
So it was that in the wee hours one early May morning, I sat on the stairs outside a very crowded upstairs bathroom, listening as the rampant midwifery was cut short by the squealing arrival of our home’s newest resident, Marshall. (No surgery needed.) The moment seemed to call for a lofty benediction of some kind — perhaps a bit of enduring wisdom about not tossing the baby with the bathwater, just in case no one was paying attention during cleanup — but I was, frankly, overcome with emotion.
I got even more emotional when I opened the fridge an hour later to find the placenta in a bag, next to the jar of pickles Kayla bought when she was pregnant and immediately declined to eat. Just a bag of afterbirth — a completely transparent bag, I might add — sittin’ in the fridge. Beside the pickles. As if that’s a normal thing.
Hey, it happens. That’s our life, what can I say.
Postscript: A few days after my son and his family and pets departed for Illinois, leaving the house suddenly quieter and less frenetic, we got a text from a family friend. She’s coming to town for a few days. Could she crash at our place?
JANET SEES us coming. The line at the Suncoast theaters in Summerlin is only about five deep, and she smiles before we hit the counter. “Jersey Boys,” I say, laying down two Boyd Gaming Rewards cards, one visibly more worn than the other. “Here they are again,” she says with her Long Island accent. “The senior father and son. How you fellas doing today? I hear this is a good one. Clint Eastwood directed. He’s still delivering, must be in his 80s.”
The man behind the biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has something in common with the white-haired fellow making a beeline for the refreshment counter. Like Dirty Harry, Donald Friend — my father, a Chicago-born piano player — is still delivering in his 80s, performing for the golden souls in assisted-living centers across the valley. To the residents of Mira Loma, Desert Springs, Seville Terrace, Aegis, Sunlake Terrace and Las Ventanas, my dad’s name evokes absolute joy, because when he shows up to sing and play the classics, time stands still, illnesses abate and, for one melodic hour, a semblance of youth is restored.
At 85 (14 months Clint’s senior) my dad’s been crooning through retirement since he and my stepmom moved to the desert in the mid-’90s. It doesn’t just keep him busy; it keeps him alive. “I feel better behind the piano,” he says. “My aches and pains disappear. And when I see the faces of the people I’m playing for, most of whom are sick and disabled — when they sing along to the songs they remember — that makes me feel young again.”
So does going to movies, as he learned a year or two ago. When his weekly pinochle game broke up, “I started going to movies every week, by myself.” Until last January, when his pilgrim son, following the death of his mother, decided the city of angels was getting devilishly difficult to afford and returned to the land of his father. Sitting in the dark for two hours was about to get enlightening.
As a 16-year student of Kundalini yoga, I’m all about reflection. When I exiled myself here for divorce and self-exploration in 2003, I was 47. My dad was 74. Now I’m back, age 58, and my dad is 85. He taps keys; I tap keys. It’s senior dementia, Vegas-style, where, when you hit 50, you’re officially old and eligible for discounts galore. So we go to the movies.
As irony would have it, the first film we caught together was Alexander Payne’s brilliant and brutal father-son drama, Nebraska. Bruce Dern’s character got him thinking about how getting old is rough on the body and mind, especially when you factor in the booze. “I’m glad I never drank,” Pop mused.
But we do eat. Windy City Beefs ’N Dogs on West Lake Mead Boulevard is packed tighter than a fat ass into a Cubs’ season seat. This place has become part of our routine. “This is the best hot dog in Las Vegas, real Chicago-style,” my dad proclaims. “Right down to the poppy-seed bun and celery salt.” Pop orders one, I order two. He’s right; they’re awesome. They snap when you bite ’em. The skies are monsoon-threatening and we’re seeing, I kid you not, Noah at 2. I bring up the flood synchronicity over lunch as the windshield on my dad’s little red Chevy welcomes droplets from above. “Well, the Bible is just a story, you know?” says the Hebrew son of Polish immigrants to his mystically inclined offspring. The dialogue after the Christian-tinged Heaven is for Real ignites a similar debate. “People believe in what they believe, Lonn.” Hallelujah and pass the mustard. Such is the essence of our Wednesdays — tales are told and ancient truths barked as I savor new insights into my old man.
“When I was 3 years old, I had an ear infection,” he says between bites. “Pus was coming out, so my mother took me to the doctor, who accidentally punctured my left eardrum while trying to drain it. The other ear was good so I never thought much about being deaf on one side. It never affected my music. Didn’t need a hearing aid until about 10 years ago. I know I miss a lot of things people say, the words get muddled sometimes. It’s getting worse, but that’s one of the things I love about going to these modern theaters with their big, bright screens and loud sound systems. It’s beautiful. I can hear everything.”
Beyond summer trips to the East Coast to visit him and his new family during the ’70s, I didn’t know my father well. We didn’t speak often on the phone, even during the peak of my professional run as a writer, when I was trekking the globe with rock stars and seeing places he’d never been.
That is, until my own divorce in 2003, when I landed on his Summerlin doorstep and spent the first two bleeding weeks of separation on his sofa. Before I moved back to L.A. in ’06, I saw a lot of my dad, made up for decades of lost time and shared thoughts over dinners at the Lakes Lounge. But we rarely went deep.
There’s something different now, a sharper view and a willingness to be more transparent and blunt about his legacy, his aches, his heritage, his successes and failures, and how many notes he’s got left to play.
On June 11, we catch a superb picture starring Joaquin Phoenix and the intoxicating Marion Cotillard called The Immigrant, which inspires a conversation about origins. His. Mine. Directed by James Gray, it depicts the plight of two sisters arriving at Ellis Island in the 1920s, same time period my relatives escaped post-World War I Poland. “My mother’s family in Poland had nine children,” he says. Both my dad’s older brother, Sol, founder of the On-Cor frozen food empire in Chicago, and younger brother, Larry, a successful stockbroker and co-owner of the original Phoenix Suns, are gone. They were rich, but my father’s the only one with the million-dollar voice. “My cousin Sid lived the last 25 years of his life here in Vegas,” Pop says. “He died at 89. Like in the movie, Sid’s father was standing in line at Ellis Island. He didn’t speak good English, so he changed his name after hearing someone behind him in line say the name ‘Bloom.’”
On July 2, the day before my dad’s 85th birthday, he’s in the mood for a comedy, so we see his girl Melissa McCarthy’s new feature, Tammy. My dad’s review is succinct: “Boy, that was terrible.” But given the day’s significance, I think a discussion of musical DNA is fitting. “My grandfather was a very respected rabbi in Poland,” Pop said. “He was musically inclined, had a beautiful voice. My father bought an upright piano, sat down one day and just start playing, by ear. During the First World War, they gave him a clarinet, he blew into it and a song came out. That talent kept him off the battlefield. I guess I inherited the same gift.”
After urging my dad to see a film outside his comfort zone, the edgy, futuristic Lucy, we get into a rap about fame and substance abuse. Lucy’s an unwitting drug mule who turns into a telekinetic super-chick when a bag of synthetic newfangled ecstasy bursts open in her belly. In 1953, my dad teamed up with a performer named Mike Riley, who wrote the novelty hit, “The Music Goes Round and Round.” It was his first glimpse of the entertainer’s kingdom. “I played the Golden Nugget with Riley when it was just a casino and bar,” he says. “I remember Mike putting away this bottle of wine before our set, and I thought, ‘Hey, I gotta become one of the boys, can’t just sit here.’ I’d never drank before. I tasted it and it was awful. Never took a liking to alcohol.” Or any other mood-altering substance — kinda reminds me of another clean-living Hebrew musician, Gene Simmons, though that’s where the similarity ends.
Pop reminds me that in 1960, he and his new partner, Herbie Tepper, did two weeks at the El Cortez. “We set up behind the bar and played to drunks and half-asleep locals every night,” he smiles. “Tepper was frustrated, couldn’t get any laughs. So one night he jokes, ‘They don’t bury the dead in Las Vegas. They seat ’em at the bar at the El Cortez.’” A couple years later, Tepper and Friend knocked ’em dead at The Fremont. Pop’s last Sin City casino appearance was at the Mint in 1968 with his band The Five Chords, a Four Freshman-type vocal ensemble that recorded one LP and had humble touring success.
Not long before The Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan — the night my musical heart began beating — Don and Barbara Friend were divorced. In 1969, my dad met Sherry, his 21-year-old bride-to-be, and has been in a good mood ever since. They relocated to the South; he went to work as a salesman for a national hardware company to keep food on the table while moonlighting in local clubs. He retired from selling nuts and bolts in 1994, grabbed the missus and headed for the sands of Summerlin. Might not make a blockbuster, but my dad’s life could translate to a pretty sweet indie flick.
It’s Tuesday night at the Las Ventanas assisted-living community in Summerlin. A placard in the lobby reads, “Don Friend 4:30 to 5:30 pm in the dining room.”
“Mr. Entertainment,” the receptionist beams as we enter the spotless facility. Celebrity may have escaped my father, but in the eyes and hearts of these small, fragile audiences, he is bigger than Frank, with pipes that rival The Chairman’s. Beethoven didn’t need to hear the notes. He felt them. So does my dad. Bet the money line he’ll be pitch perfect till the curtain falls.
The room gently pulses with nurses, wheelchairs, waiters and caregivers. Residents dig into Yankee pot roast and scalloped potatoes as the piano man opens with an Irving Berlin medley before sidling smoothly into Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey.” Iced teas refill as the maestro asks the crowd the first of many rhetorical questions that all begin with, “Remember this one?” His fingers glide across the keyboard he’s known since his mother commissioned piano lessons when he was 5, a million miles and million songs from here. “Show me the way to go home/I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.” The ones who can sing along do. The ones who can’t are reminded of a time they could. I watch him as he watches them, his eyes, their eyes — reflections of gratitude.
We discuss Jersey Boys on the ride home. “You know, ‘Sherry’ was the Four Seasons' first number one hit,” shines the man who 45 years ago wooed a girl with the same name to come, come, come out tonight. “I really liked that movie, especially the music. We picked a good one this week. Bob Gaudio wrote great songs and Frankie was a fantastic vocalist. I used to do, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’ Terrific ballad. But you know, all that pain and drama, I wonder if it was worth it?”
One more rhetorical question for the road.
It’s all about mortality these days — how many more senior matinees have we got left? I just renewed my lease for another six months. We’ve seen some very promising trailers.
IT MATTERED LITTLE that the boisterous audience could hardly see the tiny girl in the black skirt as she stood behind the gigantic podium on that vast stage. Her on-stage companion, a beautiful blonde with a huge, sequined red ribbon pinned to her dress, offered a few words before ceding the microphone, but history would barely remember them.
Instead, it was the soft but insistent voice of petite Hydeia Broadbent, then 12 and weighing less than 50 pounds, that brought the 1996 Republican National Convention to a tearful standstill. With a preternatural composure, Hydeia read the 106-word message she dictated to her mother the day before on the flight from Las Vegas to San Diego.
“I am the future, and I have AIDS,” began Hydeia, a startling declaration aimed at asking the GOP to pause their culture war long enough to recognize that HIV was wreaking havoc on more than just gay men and drug addicts. Continuing on with her tight-knotted braids pinned away from her cherubic face sporting a daring clip-on nose ring, she told them: “I am Hydeia L. Broadbent. I can do anything I put my mind to. I am the next doctor. I am the next lawyer. I am the next Maya Angelou. I might even be the first woman president. I am the future, and I have AIDS. … You can’t crush my dream. I am the future, and I have AIDS.”
With that, a star was born. Oprah called. So did “20/20” and People. Hydeia appeared on the covers of countless magazines, received honors in the next decade from a litany of AIDS and African-American organizations for her awareness activism, became pals with Janet Jackson and was offered modeling contracts and speaking gigs across the country and overseas, too. Conrad Bullard, who ran a foundation named for the child, crowed to Poz Magazine in 1997 that she was “the most popular little AIDS activist in the country.” Given that the only two others anyone had ever heard of — Ryan White and Pedro Zamora — had died, there weren’t many to choose from anyway.
Heady times, indeed. Regaled for her ability to take a stage to explain HIV/AIDS to her peers in an informative and entertaining way, Hydeia was likened by one journalist as Shirley Temple in Rudy Huxtable’s body.
But now, 15 years after her watershed moment in San Diego transfixed the nation, a different, less flattering comparison comes to mind. Hydeia, now 27 and rebooting her activism career, says she was just a sickly child thrust into the spotlight against her will.
“Everything that happened to me is something like what happened to Gary Coleman and the child actors, you see their parents push them,” says Broadbent, who lives alone with her Chihuahua named Itsa in a North Las Vegas apartment and who is so estranged from her mother she doesn’t even have her telephone number. “It started out good. I love my mom; I respect her very much. And she did what she probably thought was best at the time. She just lost her way.”
Her mother, 65-year-old Patricia Broadbent, rejects this, but she doesn’t dispute that there was a price for all that fame, all that attention, all the accolades. The end result: a tremendous amount of good done for the cause of raising AIDS awareness — and a fractured family with versions of their history so incongruous as to be irreconcilable.
‘When my mission is over, it’ll be my time to go’
Here’s another fact nobody disputes: Hydeia Broadbent wasn’t supposed to be alive today. In fact, as Hydeia mentions in every speech she gives, the doctors told her parents she’d likely be dead by age 5.
Pat Broadbent, a social worker, and her then-husband, contractor Loren Broadbent, took in 6-week-old Hydeia shortly after her drug-addicted mother gave her up in 1984. The couple, who had already raised four children, wouldn’t learn Hydeia had AIDS until the same woman gave birth to a boy in 1987, by which time it had become mandatory to test drug addicts and their newborns for HIV. Hydeia’s half-brother tested positive, and social workers contacted the Broadbents to have their daughter tested as well.
While it devastated the family to learn Hydeia was HIV-positive, it also made sense of her ongoing health struggles. She barely ate, she was constantly fighting colds, she cried frequently. Her pediatrician stamped her as having a “failure to thrive.”
“When the test came back that I was positive, my whole family had to get tested, because I had been in the home since I was a baby,” Hydeia tells an audience at a health fair at the Las Vegas Library in June, using her story to demonstrate just how difficult it is to transmit HIV. “I’d puked on my mom, I’d peed on my mom. I’d bit my sisters. When I was going through potty training, I’d take my diaper off and paint the walls with my poop, so who was ever babysitting me at the time … they had to clean up the poop. I had to take baths with my sister, so of course, babies what? They pee in the baths. So, let my family be the example: If you fear being around someone who has AIDS, none of them were affected. I was the only one. Everyone was negative.”
Her diagnosis began a life of constant hospital visits, needles, home schooling and meds. Las Vegas, then a region of fewer than 800,000 people, had no immunologists, so once a month Hydeia headed to Los Angeles for injections aimed at boosting her immune system. Around the time when she outlived her brief life expectancy, she had been accepted into a protocol program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., necessitating constant travel to the East Coast and long stays there. By age 9, Hydeia would suffer seven rounds of chicken pox and three bouts of PCP, a pneumonia common to people with AIDS, among other recurring troubles. Well into the 1990s, she continued to fly to the NIH for regular check-ups and medication refills, and she survived long enough to have her condition stabilized by a medication regimen that would come to be known as “the drug cocktail.” The success of those combination therapies has kept thousands of people with HIV alive and healthy, turning the disease into a mostly chronic condition rather than a certain demise.
Hydeia, improbably and heroically, outlasted her death sentence. Of all her close calls, none traumatized her parents more than the night at the NIH when doctors called a “code blue” on the 6-year-old after her fever soared past 107 and her blood pressure slowed to a dribble. “I wasn’t really all that concerned until I saw the doctor dancing and shoving tubes in her all over and constantly racing to the telephone to call other people,” Pat Broadbent recalls. “Then they turned on like every microphone in the whole hospital and repeated ‘code blue’ over and over. I’m hearing it, but it’s not registering that they meant our room.” By the next evening, when her father flew to Bethesda to be with her, Hydeia was jumping exuberantly on her bed.
Hydeia’s parents may have been shell-shocked, but the child’s gleeful spirit was barely dampened by such experiences. “Daddy,” she once told Loren, “I have a purpose, and my purpose is to let people know what AIDS does to people. When my mission is over, it’ll be my time to go.”
Such unusual eloquence might not have made it out of her own family had she not been naturally drawn to displaying it for others, too. On an early NIH visit, Hydeia grabbed a toy microphone to impersonate the reporter sidekick of the cartoon “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in a play-acting interrogation of Lori Wiener, then coordinator of the Pediatric HIV Psychosocial Support program. “I would like to know how you would feel if you had the AIDS virus?” Hydeia asked, then turned to her mother: “How would you feel if you had a daughter with HIV?” Wiener grabbed a camcorder, filmed Hydeia’s cinematic debut and used it to secure funding for a 15-minute video called “I Need a Friend,” in which Hydeia and two other children discussed the disease. In an endearing performance, Hydeia sang a song she wrote about AIDS and friendship. It was distributed to dozens of AIDS organizations across the nation and shown to countless children with HIV and adults working with them.
From there, she began appearing in a variety of venues, from a Magic Johnson video to, eventually, the Republican National Convention. Along the way, the Hydeia L. Broadbent Foundation was set up to raise money for her travel expenses to the NIH and to manage speaking requests and fees. It came as a shock to her mother that she was even paid; she recalls in her 2002 memoir, “You Get Past The Tears,” her surprise when she opened up a thank-you note from an AIDS awareness group that Hydeia had visited in Florida to find a check: “It was the first time Hydeia had received money for speaking. I remember thinking that this proved what I’d always believed to be true: God watches over babies and fools.”
Perhaps that was a turning point. Hydeia and her unique story and charm became sought-after commodities by organizations aiming to destigmatize HIV and help young people understand it better. Her upbeat approach and radiant smile helped; she didn’t become the poster child for cruel discrimination the way Ryan White did because she never really encountered particularly shocking or mean-spirited bias in Las Vegas. Instead, she was a precocious symbol of diversity and survival.
“The goal was to put a face to AIDS other than gays and IV drug users and prostitutes,” says Patricia Broadbent in her home earlier this summer. “My biggest concern was Hydeia, was to get her accepted. That was my main goal.”
However, for a period of time, a warning appeared on HydeiaBroadbent.com in bright red letters: “I currently do not have nor am I affiliated with the Hydeia L. Broadbent Foundation 501 (c) (3) as advertised on various websites. Please DO NOT give to this website on my behalf.” In addition, Hydeia says she’s also disassociated herself from the Pediatric AIDS Foundation as well as Camp Heartland, a retreat for children with HIV/AIDS that she attended several times as a kid.
“Everything that my mom had something to do with, I shut off,” Hydeia says.
The last time the mother and daughter had contact was in February, when Hydeia invited her to her baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She’d been turned on to the faith after casting about for a church for years before a Mormon neighbor who was evicted came to stay with her.
Pat Broadbent did not attend.
‘A lot of it was about money’
The anger is never far from the surface, even as the 27-year-old in the frilly low-cut black shirt insists she’s “over all that now.” Hydeia, who has built her reputation and career on being sunny and cheerful, who appeared on the cover of Poz Magazine at 13 with a million-dollar grin to match the yellow smiley-faced backpack she toted, now can quite suddenly begin to brood. One moment she’s carefully dipping some noodles into some sauce as she lunches at a nondescript Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, the next moment she’s struggling to keep her composure.
“Without the right structure and without the right guidance, because America had a perception of me, and they wanted a show, I almost died trying to please everyone, because I didn’t know,” she explains, pausing to gasp back a sob that surfaces from nowhere. Then she apologizes and continues. “I didn’t know who Hydeia was, and I didn’t know who Hydeia stood for. And when you’re born with HIV/AIDS, or living with this disease, you have to be careful about not letting it define who you are as a person.”
It’s unclear to Hydeia, who remains under 5 feet tall and could easily be confused for a teenager, where her childhood went wrong because so much of it is a haze. As she recounts her life, it’s as if she’s seeing a gap-filled slideshow that bounces from hospital stays to celebrity encounters to the intense security backstage at the Republican convention. “I think I blocked a lot of my childhood out because it wasn’t a very happy time, but it could also be because HIV crossed my brain so I have a memory problem,” she says.
Still, she recalls that at 15 she started drinking alcohol, running with “the wrong kids” and getting into fights with other girls. To hear her tell it, she was raking in large sums of money but never received any of it, she was being signed up for speaking engagements regardless of whether she wanted to do them, and she was kept out of public school not because of her health but so that she’d be available to make appearances. She missed out on being a cheerleader, going to homecoming, “doing what kids do.”
“A lot of it was about money,” she says. “I felt like, here I am speaking and doing these things, and I don’t even get an allowance! There was no trust fund set up for me until I was probably about to be 16 or 17, and I had been speaking since I was 6. So yeah, I had issues. I didn’t ever want for anything, but at the same time, here I am, speaking and traveling and doing these things, and I can’t even get an allowance. That didn’t sit right with me.”
Hydeia’s younger sister Patricia backs up some of this. Patricia, now 19, was an abandoned 6-week-old AIDS baby whom Hydeia insisted her parents adopt, and she says she is grateful she never was pressed into service the way her big sister was.
“I’ve seen all that Hydeia had to go through,” says Patricia, also estranged from her mother after being thrown out of the house last year for failing to graduate high school on time. “She missed a lot of social opportunities, missed a lot of that experience of school. It was always about business for her. She couldn’t really be herself because people looked up to her. She couldn’t be free-spirited, she always had to be so serious.”
It was, as Hydeia herself referenced, a story not dissimilar to the coming-of-age woes of child actors from Leif Garrett to Gary Coleman to Lindsay Lohan. Feeling manipulated and out of control, she says, she lashed out until, at age 18, she was kicked out by her mother for hoarding her disability checks instead of giving them to her mother for household expenses. She says she was allowed to return a year or so later, right as her mother was applying to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” for a new house.
By that point, Pat Broadbent was also undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. After Hydeia, she had adopted two more girls with HIV and divorced Loren Broadbent, and the show’s producers could hardly resist wanting to help an ailing single mother raising three AIDS-stricken orphans in a decrepit, low-slung house infested with mold and crowded with soiled furniture.
When that episode aired in December 2004, America watched the old house be bulldozed and the CEO of KB Homes personally send in his crew to build a gorgeous two-story spread complete with an elegant stone façade and a Jacuzzi grotto. KB Homes also paid off the mortgage and ABC gave the family a new Ford minivan. Patricia Broadbent appears repeatedly throughout the episode, tearfully repeating the mantra that the new home would give her the peace of mind that, “If I don’t beat this cancer, my kids will still be able to stay together.”
Behind the scenes, the family was imploding. Everything that TV viewers learned about Patricia Broadbent and all her years of devotion and hard work amid a riot of constant health drama was absolutely true, but Hydeia said her mother still seemed to yearn for even more recognition.
“I think the sad day for me was, after her house was paid and she had a new car, she said to my sisters and me, ‘You should now write Oprah, and tell her what a wonderful mother I am,’” Hydeia says. “At that point, I knew nothing would make her happy. There was nothing that I could achieve, nothing I can do that would satisfy her, that she had an emptiness inside of her, and she had a void that none of us could fill for her.” Her sister, Patricia, echoed this notion: “We had to pretend to be the perfect family on TV and in public.”
While Hydeia Broadbent details her deteriorated relationship with her mother, she also insists, “I never want to come across as if I’m being disrespectful towards her, or trying to damage her character. I’m just telling the truth. I’m just telling what happened to me.” She describes her bouts with depression and how, around age 25, she resolved to put ugliness behind her so she could return to making a living as an AIDS awareness advocate, this time on her own terms.
Two weeks later, she seemed to have thought better of it. In an email, she demanded that the difficult family history she so extensively described not be reported and that her mother not be interviewed because “she is sick and old and should be left alone.”
She may have been looking out for the woman who raised her. Or, perhaps, she knew that her mother would tell a dramatically different version of the story.
‘I have no remorse’
Even without an address, it’s easy to guess which is the Broadbent home in the cul-de-sac off Cheyenne Avenue. The neighbors all reside in low-slung and rotting boxes, whereas the Broadbent abode — thanks to that ABC show — would fit in neatly in Southern Highlands. And if it weren’t clear from that contrast, there’s also the trail of bricks engraved with the names of each Broadbent in a garden next to the front walk. Once a ramshackle wreck strewn with pill bottles, intravenous tubing and other accoutrements of perpetual health problems, it’s now an immaculate space with a 27-foot ceiling, a baby grand piano signed by Elton John and a yard of fruit trees as well-kept as it was the day it appeared on TV.
Patricia Broadbent is soaking her feet in the backyard pool in the warmth of a Saturday in June. Her hair never returned after her chemotherapy, so she remains as proudly bald as she was on “Extreme Makeover.” While her daughter said she’s unwell, she insists she’s been cancer-free for years and her biggest issue is her damaged lung capacity. To avoid feeling short of breath, she often uses an oxygen line, and it is that trail of tubing that leads to her from the back door.
She remains a formidable, fierce woman willing to explain most anything exactly once and given to raising her voice not when she’s angry but when she’s exasperated by a remark she views as foolish or ignorant.
“I truly don’t have any remorse about dedicating my life to the kids,” Broadbent says at one such moment. “I have no remorse about taking care of the kids. I adopted them, I made a commitment that I would see them through to 18, minimum. After 18, I’m not kissing no more ass. I don’t feel guilty about any of the things I’ve done and I’m not going to explain myself.”
She did so anyway, and in the process she illustrated just how impossibly far apart she and Hydeia are. In her recollection, Hydeia was given the opportunity to turn down each and every speaking engagement, including the time Hydeia decided to go to Nashville to appear with Billy Ray Cyrus rather than visit President Clinton at the White House.
Hydeia most certainly had a trust, her mother says, and she received a $75 allowance weekly from her older brother, the administrator. She stayed home from school only because her health kept causing absences that made it hard to keep up. It is true Hydeia was kicked out for cashing her disability checks, but that’s because that money was provided to defray household expenses, not to live large.
What irritates her the most is her daughter’s suggestion that money may have been misappropriated. At the height of her speaking activity, Hydeia did an average of two gigs a month and, at most, was paid $5,000, Broadbent says. Usually it was far less.
“I think Hydeia thought we were getting paid for all the things, but back then half of those AIDS organizations didn’t even have money,” says Broadbent, pulling the oxygen tube from her nose and leaning forward for emphasis. “Hydeia thought we were being paid to go on Jerry Springer and Oprah. People have told her this stuff, ‘Your mom’s making all this money.’ Anyone that met her would say that, ‘Oh, your mom probably made lots of money.’ And she believed it, I guess.”
She says she’s genuinely puzzled by Hydeia’s struggles — “She had a privileged life. What is there to be depressed about?” — and suspects it stems from the constant praise she once received. “Hydeia would say to me, ‘I won’t die.’ And I’d say, ‘Why?’ And she’d say, ‘Because everybody says I’m an angel and I’m special.’ ‘No, you are not special. Yes, you can die.’ She just looked at me. ‘You’re here because Mommy worked her ass off trying to make sure you stay healthy. You don’t take care of yourself, you’ll see just how special you are.’”
Even as strained as the relationship is, Patricia still smiles when asked to think of all they accomplished. Hydeia, her mother says, was gifted and clever and surprisingly cognizant of the stagecraft elements of the endeavor. After going on Maury Povich’s talk show, for instance, the duo agreed that it had been a good appearance but a devilish Hydeia grinned, “Yeah, but I couldn’t make him cry. I couldn’t get him.”
She says she doesn’t mind being her daughter’s bogeyman — “I’m the Wicked Witch of the West and that’s all good, I own it” — but she’s most disappointed that Hydeia didn’t go to college. University presidents used to promise her full-ride scholarships when the then-teen would speak on campuses, and her mother would get those pledges in writing for later collection. None of those chits were cashed out.
“That’s what gets ya,” she says with a sneer, “when you get opportunities for ’em and then they piss ’em away.”
‘There needs to be some type of reform’
Hydeia did put in two years at the College of Southern Nevada, but it wasn’t her thing. She also spent part of her 20s working as an office secretary and a Gap cashier, both of which she found unfulfilling. Even in the years when she wasn’t giving talks, people would reach out to her on the Internet or on chance encounters and remind her how powerful her story had been. She also grew more concerned that she needed to set a positive example for her younger sisters and cousins.
Her goals, too, have changed. She dubs herself an “international AIDS activist” atop HydeiaBroadbent.com, but she’s become far more concerned with raising awareness and creating support organizations in Las Vegas than she ever was in her high-flying years. She wants to reverse the Clark County School District’s ban on allowing speakers like her to visit classes during school time to discuss HIV prevention, and hopes to open a community health center in African-American neighborhoods to make health services more accessible.
The main priority, however, is advocating to protect Obama’s health insurance reforms and push for further changes. Earlier this year, she was dropped from Medicaid because she’s so healthy she can no longer be considered disabled. In the process, the government stopped paying for her AIDS medication, priced at about $2,000 a month. Last month, she was approved for free meds through the Nevada arm of the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program, but that’s a short-term fix that doesn’t cover any other health needs.
Hearkening back to her big moment in San Diego 15 years ago, she dreams of a highly unlikely repeat engagement: “I would love to go back and deal with the Republican Party, to show them how important some type of health care is. They’re just so against it. They don’t have to agree with it all the way, but there needs to be some type of reform. What I went through this year, nobody should have to worry about that.”
Her speeches remain intensely personal affairs peppered with private revelations, and they reflect the fact that she’s no longer a pre-teen with a technical but hardly emotional comprehension of sex. At 27, she’s had both good and bad romantic relationships, including a boyfriend who insulted her by suggesting that nobody else would put up with her HIV status.
And nowadays, she tells her audiences she’s abstinent and works hard to encourage other young people that it’s a valid and wise choice. But even in that message, there’s some indication she’s not quite at peace with her complicated upbringing.
“I’m not defined by a man,” she tells the library audience in a sequence that would never have been a part of her earlier repertoire. “If anything, he will add light to me, not dim my light, okay? So, if you hear me preaching to the young girls, I’m (just) talking to you. Because, when I was growing up, I didn’t always have that positive figure. I didn’t know that a young man was supposed to open my door. You know, I didn’t know that it was okay not to be called a bitch. So, that’s not love. I just want you guys to know that you’re beautiful. That’s all.”
In Japanese writing it’s — each letter or each phrase has a word, a meaning to it. Reiko Kawasaki means — reiko is “beautiful,” “most beautiful” actually, kawa is “river,” saki is “wine.” So in my mother’s case, (her name) is Most Beautiful River of Wine. … When my mother would sign her name in English she made a point in always signing it with Reiko with a capital R, Kawa with a capital K and Saki with a capital S. In this case the S is small and there is no division between Kawa and saki. — John Kawasaki explaining to a deputy district attorney, in court, why he believes a will signature attributed to his mother is a forgery
Following a late-afternoon errand on Tuesday, April 20, 2010, Kenichi Takai, known to his friends as Ken, returned to the Henderson home he shared with his boss, Reiko Kawasaki, and a few other people. Takai headed upstairs to the master suite to check in with Kawasaki as he usually did, but she didn’t answer his knock. He waited about a quarter-hour and tried again. Still nothing. He wasn’t sure what to do. Although Kawasaki loved her 30-year assistant like a son, she was a stickler about privacy and would be furious if he walked in on her uninvited. After another 15 minutes, Takai tried again. Still no answer. He decided the risk of ignoring an emergency outweighed that of incurring his boss’s wrath. He opened the door to a sight he’ll forever wish he could unsee: At the back of the room, Kawasaki lay dead in the bathtub.
“I could have saved her if I had gone in earlier,” he says, his voice thick with regret. “She had been there 45 minutes or so.”
The coroner would later find that the 70-year-old Kawasaki had a pituitary neoplasm that caused her to have a seizure, slip underwater and drown. Her quiet, solitary death was ironic — although tiny in stature, she was a larger-than-life figure who spent her life basking in the company of others — and unexpected, considering her general good health. But it was not murder. The coroner ruled it an accident, and an independent forensic analyst asked by Desert Companion to review the case concurred.
Still, it’s natural to suspect foul play, as many close to Kawasaki have, because of what happened next. With her body barely cold, one of her roommates and business associates, Gregory Dodkin, began passing himself off as her husband. Within a matter of days, he’d disposed of her body and held a memorial service. By Sunday, April 25, he was in Huntington Beach, California, telling her son and apparent heir, John Kawasaki, that not only were he (Dodkin) and Reiko married, but also, she left a will bequeathing her entire estate to him.
John’s reaction? “That’s impossible. When my mother died, she was still married to my father, who is alive and well in Thailand.”
A bitter five-year legal battle between the two men ensued, encompassing half a dozen separate cases in multiple courts. By the time the dust settled, the basest of human impulses — greed, jealousy, revenge — had taken over. Bloodlines were questioned, burial ashes stolen, riches hidden in a secret vault. A grand jury indicted three people for conspiracy, forgery and false claim to an inheritance. At press time, they were awaiting a September 28 trial.
Worst of all, the rightful beneficiaries of Reiko Kawasaki’s considerable estate have lost an enormous amount of time and money, not to mention their peace of mind.
It may be true that no one held Reiko’s head under the water or gave her drugs to induce a seizure, but her death was still a crime, figuratively speaking, because she went without making her afterlife intentions crystal clear. Probate attorneys describe the case as the most contentious and drawn out they’ve seen in their field. But between the lines of this complicated story is a simpler message about how to live, love and die in a world where not everyone can be trusted.
As Greg Dodkin tells it, he met Reiko Kawasaki on an airplane bound for Paris in the spring of 1998. The two hit it off so well that they talked through the entire flight and kept in touch after they got back to the U.S. Within months, he left his home in South Carolina and moved in with her in Los Angeles. On August 23 of that year, he says, they got married in a suite of the Hotel Bel Air in Beverly Hills. In 2000, the couple moved to Las Vegas, where they lived with Ken Takai, Reiko’s nephew and a young Japanese woman Reiko sponsored. In August 2007, after years of prodding by his wife, Dodkin says, he and she sat down with two employees of Jonas Productions, the music company he runs locally, and filled out and signed their respective wills.
This is all according to documents filed in the probate case for Reiko Kawasaki’s estate; Dodkin declined to be interviewed for this story. The timeline of his account jibes with Takai’s and John Kawasaki’s recollections of meeting Dodkin for the first time and of Reiko’s movements. However, their memory of Dodkin’s relationship with Reiko is dramatically different.
“No, no, no,” Takai says, when asked if he thought Dodkin and Reiko were married. “I was very surprised when Greg said that.” He adds that neither his boss nor his roommate, who slept in his own, separate room, ever said they were married.
Singer-songwriter Karon Blackwell, who was close to Reiko, says that during their 10-year friendship Reiko talked about John and his family often, but she never indicated she was married to anyone other than her Japanese husband, who lived in Bangkok. “All she ever said to me about Greg was that she was in business with him, that she put up the money, and she owned 51 percent and he owned 49 percent. He brought in the sound and lights for shows. That’s what they did.”
John agrees. “Dodkin and my mother always presented themselves as business partners,” he says. “In all honesty, I could tell it was a companionship thing, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it was romantic or intimate.”
It wasn’t unusual for Reiko to have a male, non-Japanese member of her entourage. A couple men who hung around a lot in the ’70s and ’80s stick out in John’s memory, one more like a father figure, the other openly gay — and there were others, though none appeared to be romantically involved with his mom. Reiko was an art and antiques dealer who owned two shops in Los Angeles, and she cultivated an impressive cadre of acquaintances. Party photos show her mugging with the likes of Phyllis Diller and Peter Graves. John remembers former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley stopping by their house in Beverly Hills from time to time, just to say hello.
“My mother was always comfortable with a group of people,” John says. “It was something I never thought twice about. It was always like that in my household.”
Though asked by the police and John’s attorneys, Dodkin could not produce a marriage certificate proving he and Reiko were officially wed. At various times in the court cases, Dodkin claimed Reiko failed to file the certificate and that John stole it. Responding to Desert Companion’s inquiry, the Los Angeles County registrar said it had no record of a Greg Dodkin marrying a Reiko Kawasaki in 1998.
As evidence of their nuptials, Dodkin produced two photos and what he claimed was a wedding announcement. In the pictures, Reiko wears a poofy white dress and Dodkin a dark suit. In one, she leans close to him with a hand on his knee; in the other, he kneels before her, holding her hand. They look happy and relaxed — like newlyweds.
“It was sort of one of those magic love at first sight (sic),” Dodkin said during the June 2011 trial to determine the validity of the will he presented as Reiko’s. “That’s all I can tell you. We were vastly different, different backgrounds, different educations, but I was fascinated by her, and for whatever her reasons, she was fascinated by me. … I just proposed to her over dinner in Los Angeles, and she didn’t hesitate.”
Dodkin also says Reiko told him she’d divorced her Japanese husband years earlier. Whether his story’s true or not, he stuck to it from the moment Reiko died. Takai says he heard Dodkin tell the ambulance drivers that he was Reiko’s husband and make the decisions a spouse would in those circumstances. Henderson police detective Robert McKay, now retired, has a similar recollection. He was called to the scene as a matter of course; the police investigate any unattended death to make sure no crime’s been committed.
“Gregory Dodkin was at the house, and he claimed to be Mrs. Kawasaki’s husband,” McKay says today. “We found out later that wasn’t true at all. I’d never had somebody try that, where you go out to a house and whoever’s living there says they’re married to the deceased when they’re not. … It would be crazy if we showed up at a person’s death and started asking people for their marriage certificates or whatever. We just wouldn’t do that.”
Once McKay had determined the death wasn’t suspicious, the ambulance took Reiko’s body to the Clark County coroner-medical examiner, where Dodkin again identified himself as her husband. (The coroner’s office didn’t respond to Desert Companion’s request for its relevant protocols.) From there, it was easy for Dodkin to take control of the situation. He filled out the paperwork to have Reiko’s body cremated at Hites Funeral Home, the facility that was on call with the coroner the week she died. He began calling Reiko’s friends, identifying himself as her husband, and telling them of her passing. That Friday, he held a memorial service in Las Vegas. All the while, John grieved in Los Angeles, waiting for his wife to return from a business trip so he could give her the news in person.
“We knew Ken was there, and he was communicating what was going on, as was Dodkin,” John says. “There were a few other people there who were helping and supporting us, too.” He adds that he understood his mother’s body would be at the morgue until the autopsy report was done, so there was no rush to go to Las Vegas right away. Instead, he chose to stay home and console his own family.
By the time John found out his mother’s body had been cremated — contrary to her wishes, he says — that was the least of his worries. Dodkin’s behavior had begun to alarm Takai, who was getting so leery of Reiko’s so-called husband that he hid a portable safe full of her valuable jewelry in his room until he could deliver it to John. Then, on the Sunday following her death, Dodkin made the trip to Huntington Beach to deliver the news to John and his wife about the supposed marriage and will.
At this point, all the pieces for a probate battle are in place except one: something worth fighting over. No one can say for sure how much Reiko Kawasaki’s estate was worth. On one hand, you have the inventory that Dodkin submitted to court in the probate case estimating around $223,000 in personal property. On the other, you have John’s trial testimony ballparking the value of a single Tiffany lamp at between $300,000 and $1 million — and she owned several such lamps, along with antiques, firearms, jewelry, paintings, a grand piano, a Mercedes … the list goes on and on. John believes it could all have amounted to between $5 million and $7 million.
Trouble is, a lot of stuff went missing between the time Reiko died and August 2011, when John was finally made co-administrator of her estate. He gives the specific example of an Hermès Birkin bag: “Around February of 2010, when we were visiting, my mom brought out this bag and showed it to my wife, and said she wanted to make sure my wife got it one day and that it would go to our daughter. It wasn’t important at the time, just casual bantering. Then, two months later, my mom passed away and the bag disappeared. There’s a financial value to it, I realized later, but that’s not the way I was looking at it then.” (These bags, used, frequently sell for five figures.)
John says it was like this with many items he’d seen since childhood and remembers being in her last house, but he can’t find them now and has no proof that she didn’t get rid of them before she died. All he has is his suspicions that Dodkin disposed of them somehow (later events suggest he was right; we’ll come back to this). The more time lapsed, and the more complicated the court case became, the more difficult it was to keep tabs on everything.
“The reason Dodkin was able to drag this on for so long was that he had this document called a will,” says probate attorney Kirk Kaplan, who was not involved in the Kawasaki case. “When that happens it’s got to be litigated — the court’s got to determine whether it’s valid or not.”
Dodkin filed a petition to have his will accepted on June 7, 2010. John, of course, contested it. Following a year of investigations, depositions and negotiations on both sides, the case went to trial, where John’s attorney and a forensic document expert convinced a judge that the signature on the will was not Reiko’s. In July 2011, the will was officially thrown out. But the fight was far from over.
John was born in Tokyo, Japan, to Kiyonobu and Reiko Kawasaki on April 4, 1970. When he was around 2 years old, he says, his parents moved to Southern California, but after a year or so, his dad returned to Japan. Kiyonobu had a business there that needed his attention, while Reiko’s own business was beginning to flourish in the states. Kiyo, as he’s known, and Reiko never divorced, and every couple years he visited his family in the U.S. or sent for his son to see him overseas.
John blames his father’s absence, in part, for a difficult adolescence. After attending boarding school in Massachusetts during elementary and middle school, John returned home to L.A. and went to Beverly Hills High. This was the ’80s, he says, and his experience at the school was like something straight out of the novel (and movie) Less Than Zero, written by his classmate Brett Easton Ellis. John’s pot-smoking led his mother to put him in rehab more than once.
“All of us kids were left to our own devices,” he says. “We had the financial means and no parental supervision.”
In retrospect, and being a parent now himself, John understands his mother’s actions. He also realizes he was going along with what most of his peers did: using substances to nurse the wounds of a broken family. But whenever he would criticize his father, he says, Reiko would rush to her husband’s defense.
Besides the Kawasakis’ living arrangement being unconventional, their marriage’s only official evidence came in a form that Americans struggle to wrap their heads around — an issue that would become critical during the probate case for Reiko’s estate. Rather than fancy certificates with formal signatures and raised seals, the Japanese use a single document called a koseki, or family register, to track all births, deaths, marriages, divorces and other life events that affect a person’s identity and lineage. John has the koseki showing him to be the son of Kiyo and Reiko and them to have remained married until her death, and it’s certified by the Japanese Embassy as an official government document. But this didn’t stop Dodkin’s attorneys from attacking it as self-reported and arbitrary, akin to our census. They used this argument as grounds to demand further proof that Reiko was John’s mother, another problem to keep the case tied up in court.
“Nevada intestacy statutes say that if someone dies without a will, and there’s a child and a spouse, they will share the assets 50-50,” probate attorney Kaplan says. “If (Dodkin) was trying to prove John wasn’t the child, it would be so he could inherit everything.”
Kaplan and Jill Hanlon, another attorney that Desert Companion asked to give an independent evaluation of the Kawasaki case, both found it to be extraordinarily litigious. Dodkin’s attorney, Cary Payne, is known in the probate law community as effective and tenacious, and he seems to have pulled out all the stops to prove his client was Reiko’s heir. At various times, he accused the first judge (who left the bench after she was named to a federal seat), the second judge and John’s attorney, Justin Jones, of improprieties and tried to have them removed. At hearings, he would counter each of Jones’ claims with several of his own. If a judge ruled against him on something — for instance, Dodkin’s being married to Reiko — he’d come at it from another angle: Dodkin and Reiko may not have been officially married, but he was still the putative spouse, meaning he entered a bond in good faith and lived with her for 12 years.
John describes Payne’s strategy as an attempt to drown him in a sea of paper. Take the maternity issue, for instance: “It turned into a whole Obama birther thing,” John says. “First, he argued my father was not my father; then, OK, he was my father, but I wasn’t the biological son; then, OK, I was the biological son, but he had me with another woman. It just went on and on.”
Payne, who didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, demanded in court that John be forced to take a DNA test. The irony, John says, is that before being represented by Payne, Dodkin had another attorney, Bob Morris, who had agreed just before the will-contest trial in June 2011 on a settlement: John would take a DNA test and, if it proved he was Reiko’s son, Dodkin would drop the litigation. But before it could be filed with the court, Morris withdrew and Dodkin hired Payne.
“It came to a point where I was no longer comfortable representing him,” Morris says. He couldn’t elaborate, because of attorney-client privilege, but he’s aware that Dodkin later accused him of incompetence. “As an attorney, you have to have thick skin,” Morris says. “I think I represented Greg to the best of my ability.”
Despite Payne’s subsequent ferocity, Jones prevailed in the end. During late 2012 and early 2013, the second judge decided several issues in John’s favor. She ordered Dodkin to hand over certain missing items from the estate — most notably, Reiko’s cremains — then held him in contempt for not doing so, then fined him, then ordered him to pay John’s attorney’s fees and costs. Payne was granted a final motion: to put the case on hold pending his client’s criminal trial.
Before his mother died, John says, he’d always found Dodkin to be a friendly, if insignificant, presence in her home. But during the month that followed her death, Dodkin and John’s relationship deteriorated. At first, Dodkin was cooperative, allowing John to come to the house where Reiko had lived and start loading up her belongings to take back to California. John says Dodkin joked that he shouldn’t worry too much about the will, because Dodkin was old and had no heirs; John would end up with all Reiko’s stuff eventually anyway. Dodkin even appeared to go along with John’s effort to get the line on his mother’s death certificate that read “Spouse: Gregory Dodkin” corrected to “Spouse: Kiyonobu Kawasaki” — until one afternoon in late May.
As John and Takai loaded boxes of Reiko’s stuff into John’s SUV, Greg called to tell John that he’d talked to the funeral home director, and if John wanted the death certificate changed, he’d have to get his deadbeat dad to fly here from Thailand and do it himself. (Kiyo did eventually get the official certificate amended.) Before long, the two were shouting and threatening each other: You’re not her husband! … Oh yeah? Well, you’re not her son! The confrontation ended with Dodkin ordering Ken out of the house and barring both him and John from coming back.
That’s when the respective sides lawyered up. Dodkin had himself appointed administrator of Reiko’s estate; John filed a temporary restraining order preventing Dodkin from doing anything with Reiko’s property; Dodkin fired back by lodging the will.
It was around this time that Dodkin contacted Detective McKay at the Henderson Police Department to report a robbery, claiming that Ken — and by association John — had taken some things from the house without permission. To get to the bottom of it, McKay called John, whom he already knew from his death investigation. McKay and his partner interviewed John at length and got his side of the story about Reiko.
“I believed him,” McKay says. “Talking to his dad, her husband, and seeing the evidence — it’s all about that. He was the one showing all the proof. … Then a couple weeks later, we started to get the runaround by Dodkin, and it started to come together. Within a couple months, I wrote up the case and sent it to the DA, and they said, ‘You’re right; he’s in violation of the law,’ and they went and arrested him.”
That was October, 2010, Dodkin’s first criminal charge, stemming from his having written himself a $9,500 check signed by Reiko on an account belonging to Kiyo. The state claimed Dodkin stole the check, but in his deposition for the probate case, Dodkin says he and Reiko had exchanged $10,000 each, so they would have money to take care of costs incurred in the event of each other’s deaths. Her commitment came in the form of a blank check (the one from Kiyo’s account), while his, he says, was from cash that he kept in the house. That’s because he has no bank accounts other than one for a defunct Internet marketing business called Swift Media, but saved some $600,000 in cash working as the Temptations’ production and tour manager for 20 years. (Shelly Berger, personal manager for the Temptations, confirmed that Dodkin worked for them for a “good chunk of time,” but it was a while ago and he couldn’t remember how long.)
The case was, essentially, passed from Justice up to District Court, where a judge dismissed it in December 2011, finding that the state failed to account for the possibility that Reiko — not Dodkin — had stolen the checks to begin with.
All this time, the pleadings war was continuing in the probate case, as well as in civil and family-court cases Payne filed against John, Kiyo and Takai. After living with John for a few months in Huntington Beach at the end of 2010, Takai returned to Japan to pursue his dream of getting a graduate degree in Chinese history. John was ordered to return his mother’s possessions to Dodkin, who changed residences in violation of the restraining order that barred him from moving estate assets. Then, John was made co-administrator and Dodkin was ordered to return everything to him. Reiko’s property was getting more and more scattered.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any more complicated, in April 2012, John got a call from Metro. There’d been a burglary at 24/7 Private Vaults on Sunset Road. Three armed men had forced an employee to enter the storage area that was supposed to be accessible only by retinal scan and had pried open several of the vaults. One vault there contained items belonging to Reiko Kawasaki, John says — a couple Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot oil paintings, for instance; some Fabergé collectibles; John’s childhood passports showing Reiko as his mother; and Reiko’s cremains. John was dumbstruck. There, in plain sight of the police, were things that he’d believed all along Dodkin was hiding.
“Metro found that a bunch of the stuff Dodkin had reported stolen was there,” McKay says. “But that was hard to prove because the guy who owned the place was shady, and they don’t ask for ID.”
In other words, 24/7 Private Vaults’ policy of complete anonymity to its clients meant John would have an uphill (and potentially unwinnable) battle demonstrating that Dodkin had opened the account and placed the items there. All Dodkin had to do was claim that the account belonged to John, not himself, and the judge had another he-said-he-said on her hands.
“With respect to the 24/7 Vault items,” read minutes from the second trial in the probate case on December 18, 2012, “Court stated there was no way of knowing who placed the items there or if any items were missing because of the business model of Private Vaults and as such, the court was not able to find Mr. Dodkin in contempt regarding vault items.”
For all practical purposes, the probate case ended in April 2013 — but just as that door closed, another was opening. A few months earlier, a grand jury had indicted Greg Dodkin, John Foley and Steve Russo on felony charges of theft, forgery, perjury and false representation of entitlement to interest or share in the estate of a deceased person. Foley and Russo were the two guys who Dodkin said had witnessed him and Reiko signing their wills. As of this writing, the three were scheduled to go to trial in Las Vegas on September 28 following multiple continuances asked for, and received, by Dodkin’s attorney based on his client’s illness, the specific nature of which is off the record.
In John’s darkest moments, he says, as he lies awake at night turning the mess of his mother’s estate over and over in his mind, he hopes Dodkin is suffering a slow death. Most of the time, though, he’s just trying to make sense of it all: “I think I’m still processing it. I have a lot of anger toward my mother, which is a mixed emotion, because I still love her. But I’ll tell you this, I’ll never do anything like this to my daughter. This has helped me grow into a better person and parent.”
For the last couple years, John has thrown himself fully into fatherhood, essentially becoming a stay-at-home dad. He and his wife have tried to be as open as possible with their daughter about everything that’s happened. And, of course, they completed their wills and gave them to five people to hold onto.
For nearly 15 years, John ran a computer graphics business, Binary Designs, which did trailers for Hollywood films. His wife is an executive producer for a media company. They don’t need his mother’s money, he says; they just wish that their daughter’s memories of her grandmother had remained untarnished. Among the things that John says went missing from his mom’s house was a box containing hundreds of his childhood photos, his high school yearbooks, a record collection from the ’80s. He suspects Dodkin destroyed them out of spite.
“You go through life trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and be a good person,” he says. “If Dodkin had won this, he would have removed a generation from my bloodline. That was one of the main reasons I fought. … Playing devil’s advocate, I guess I did the same thing to him.”
As insulted as John felt by Dodkin’s claim that he wasn’t Reiko’s son, Dodkin may have felt equally slighted by John’s claim that he wasn’t Reiko’s husband. The resulting animosity brought out the worst in each of them at times. John says Dodkin made a trip to Thailand after the court found John and Kiyo to be Reiko’s legal heirs: “He gave one of my dad’s workers a note that said, ‘Congratulations, you just won the lottery. You just have to go to the U.S. and take it away from your son.’”
The conflict didn’t just mar Reiko’s legacy psychologically; it also marred it physically. For instance, John says, he never got the provenance documents for one of his mother’s Tiffany lamps, despite the judge ordering Dodkin to turn it over. John has the lamp, sure, but without its papers, auctioning it at a reputable house would be challenging at best. He speculates that the same would apply to anything Dodkin kept unlawfully. He’d have a hard time selling it outside the black market, where its value would be diminished.
In hindsight, Ken Takai says, he wishes that John had come to Las Vegas right after Reiko’s death and that the two of them had confronted Greg about what was going on. Ideally, of course, that wouldn’t have even been necessary, because Reiko would have left a will with a disinterested party.
“She should have had her wishes detailed with an attorney for safe-keeping,” probate attorney Jill Hanlon says. Personal property often creates problems when settling people’s estates, Hanlon adds, because it’s so hard to keep track of. People should try to keep running lists of their valuables and if — as in Reiko’s case — they are high-dollar, have them appraised and insured. But most important is open communication with family.
“It’s a tough conversation,” Takai says, “but you should look at reality. Who knows? You might die tomorrow, so to prevent anything bad happening you have to be prepared. … And also, be careful of anyone who is close to a parent. … They may seem very friendly, very kind, but you never know their real intentions.”
IT'S A PARENT'S nightmare to receive a phone call from their child’s school. It usually means something is wrong.
“Hello, Mercedes? This is the elementary school secretary …”
Her words were drowned out by my sweet, timid, playful 7-year-old screaming bloody murder in the background.
Did you know that I can make a 15-minute drive in less than five minutes? Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes we just dress like moms.
Itty Bit was grabbing her chest and hyperventilating. She was in so much pain that she was doubled over and couldn’t walk.
“Deep breaths,” I said. This is our anxiety mantra. “Slow, deep breaths.”
“Can’t breathe,” she managed. “Ate a coin.”
They say your body goes cold and time stops. This is true.
“Is it stuck?” I asked. I somehow managed to keep my voice calm.
“It hurts so bad,” she whimpered.
We were just minutes from the hospital. Have you ever picked up your child and fled to the emergency room? I have, more times than I can count. It never gets easier. It’s always filled with terror.
“She swallowed a coin and is having difficulty breathing,” I gasped. The nurses took blood pressure, temperature, and an X-ray.
“Well, there’s no doubt,” the doctor said, pointing at her X-ray. “The coin is lodged right below her clavicle.”
I could see it. It looked huge. Were we sure it was a coin? Could it be a frisbee or a dinner plate? It was standing on its side, so air could pass through. My fear was that it would close like a manhole cover and cut off her air supply. The doctor feared Itty Bit would breathe it into her lungs and cut up the soft tissue.
Her spasming esophagus caused her great pain. “It’s trying to push the coin down into her stomach where it will hopefully pass,” the doctor said. Two hours later, the coin hadn’t budged.
We were transported by ambulance to a hospital that had a surgical team better equipped for children. Itty Bit was strapped down and loaded up. I hopped in beside her. She nervously asked about stranger danger, and I assured her ambulances, and especially ambulances with her mom inside, didn’t intend to kidnap her.
After two more hours, a second X-ray showed the coin hadn’t moved. It was time to call the surgical team. I thought this meant cutting, but the surgeon explained they would put Itty Bit under general anesthesia, intubate her, and then go down her throat with a scope. The scope had a camera and a little grabby claw to get the coin.
The nurses gave her a stuffed kangaroo to cuddle, and the medicine kicked in. She fell asleep, and they rolled her into surgery.
I was a wreck. I paced in the waiting room while calling my parents. Today had been a game of Telephone. I’d give somebody a piece of information and then say, “Pass it on.” The end result was distorted. Somebody had told my mother Itty Bit had been life-flighted to the hospital.
“Don’t worry, Mom. That’s not the case.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Pretty sure that if the ambulance flew, I would have noticed.”
The surgery took about half an hour. The surgeon came striding out with a plastic cup.
“Here you go. It was a dime. Make sure she doesn’t swallow any more coins.”
A dime. The smallest American currency. I looked at the surgeon, and she shrugged. I was slightly offended that the coin didn’t even have the nerve to be a quarter. Turns out she was chewing on the dime while thinking, and then it went down.
My husband joined me at Itty Bit’s bedside while she woke up. I shook the most expensive dime I had ever seen at her.
“You are not a vending machine. No more nickel-and-diming us to death.”
“You don’t want to be shortchanged,” my husband said. We high-fived over the hospital bed. Itty Bit turned away from us primly.
“You aren’t funny. I don’t want to disgust it anymore,” she said.
Yeah, that makes cents.
THREE YEARS AGO, when Michele Cusac’s daughter Alana came to her in her favorite Toy Story cowboy hat and claimed she was a boy, now and forever, Cusac thought it was a fanciful notion sprung from her 4-year-old child’s rich imagination.
“I didn’t know what we were facing,” she says. “I didn’t know we would be scrambling for information or how long it would take us to really understand what was happening.”
When her daughter later spied her father’s hair clippers with a glint in her brown eyes, her mother began to understand this was no passing phase.
“I quickly realized that, if I didn’t help him with that, he’d likely try to cut his own hair,” says Cusac, whose now 7-year-old daughter identifies as a boy. “I figured that it would always grow back if there was a change of heart. The change in her attitude (after the haircut) was immediate, from angry and sullen to all smiles.”
Alana seemed to blossom when her long hair, plaited into a braid for the occasion, was shorn close to her head. Cusac carried the braid in her purse for a year. “It was hard, as a mom, letting go of that little girl.”
Cusac bought some boy’s T-shirts and drawstring shorts with masculine themes for Alana, who asked to be called Alan. “(It) made him so happy. It was the first indication that my child was never really a girl to begin with.”
Cusac is not alone in her story. There are more than 20,000 transgender people in Las Vegas, according to Holly Reese, senior and transgender programs director for The Center, an LGBTQ support organization.
“That’s a substantial number in our community,” says Reese. “We are progressively trying to lead the way because it’s way past time.”
Former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, who said publicly that he felt he was a girl since at least the age of 5 — and who appeared on the July cover of Vanity Fair — has brought the discussion of transgender issues to the forefront, from social media to daytime talk shows. Many local transgender community leaders and experts say youth transgender is the last frontier on this unfolding issue.
A refresher: Gender identity is defined as someone’s internal sense of being female, male or gender-non-binary, which means they don’t identify with either sex. Transgender has become an umbrella term for children who are persistent, consistent and insistent that they are not who they’ve been classified as biologically, and have yet to have any medical intervention.
If you think this is just an innocent phase of gender exploration or stubborn play-pretend that parents can persuade their children out of, think again. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that transgender children are not confused about their gender or delayed in their understanding of who they are. The study by Stony Brook University in New York concluded that parental acceptance is the primary factor determining whether these children grow up to live happy, healthy, productive lives.
That’s heartening news — but it doesn’t make raising a trans child any less of a challenge, say local families of transgender children.
“I wish I had found some of the support groups I belong to now ages ago,” Cusac says, “to help answer some of these questions I had and ease the doubts that I was doing the right thing quicker.”
It’s been a long, lonely journey for Cusac. With a scarcity of resources available for raising a transgender child, she largely improvised. Her daughter reached for cars and swords over teacups and dolls and refused anything pink. Cusac thought it was a cute quirk from a kid with a strong sense of self. At age 4, Alan began preschool. Within days, he made a point to have a sit-down with his parents.
“I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy,” Alan says in a family video from 2012. Cusac made the video to record one of the first times Alan attempted to talk to his parents about how different he felt from the other children at school. In the video, he adamantly tells his parents he isn’t just pretending. “I’m not a cowboy, I’m a real boy.”
“I thought it was a funny role-play moment,” Cusac says. “But looking back on it now, I can see that determination to make us see something wasn’t right.” They continued to play along with their daughter’s adopted gender, thinking it was a stage. “Partly because of bad information, and partly based on numerous stories of really tomboyish girls who turned girly at puberty, we just decided to ride it out. Never did it seriously occur to us in those early days that this was potentially a permanent situation.” By the time Alan was in kindergarten, Cusac began to do some serious research. She found local resources were mainly geared toward kids 13 and older. “I pretty much stopped trying. At that point, I still didn’t really think we were dealing with a full-on gender identity crisis, so I didn’t pursue it as diligently as I might have.”
Like any mother, she navigated tantrums, negotiated bedtime and handwashing habits, but it was the little things outside her reach that came to loom large in their day-to-day struggle. For instance, her daughter insisted on using the boys’ bathroom, which didn’t sit well with the school administrators.
“We were already having issues with bathroom use at preschool, and I wanted to understand what options we had in primary school,” says Cusac, who would often pick up her distraught child from school. Alan was asked to use the nurse’s bathroom rather than the boys’ or girls’ bathrooms, to avoid any uncomfortable situations or possible legal issues. (In April, state assembly bill 375, also known as the “Bathroom Bill,” which would require transgender students to use school facilities corresponding to their biological sex, was shot down.) Today, Alan won’t use public restrooms and has anxiety attacks if he needs to use the women’s restroom with his mother. Cusac keeps a list of public places with unisex bathrooms. “Just because of this one issue, he hates to go anywhere.”
Most days, his gender identity is just a background issue, but some days he struggles. For example, birthdays require some vigilance to ensure classmates and playdate friends don’t buy him anything “girly.”
“You can’t blame someone (who doesn’t know) for buying girl gifts for a (child) they haven’t seen in a while,” Cusac says. Also, Alan is adamant about standing in line with the other boys for summer camp registration, a rite of passage that can be a proud moment for most parents. It makes Cusac anxious. “He wants to do Boy Scouts, summer camp with other boys, and I’m still researching what to do about that.”
They’re seemingly small issues that cast big shadows. “That’s when we hear things like if he gets boobs, he’ll cut them off. He says that he hates his body, that he wasn’t made right; and that he wishes he wasn’t alive.”
When asked, Alan is shy about discussing his gender. He is confused as to why it’s difficult for others to see him as a boy and wishes his outsides matched how he feels on the inside.
“Why was I made this way?” Alan has asked his mom. “I just want to rip off my skin until I’m not here anymore.”
The next five years will show significant progress in how transgender people are treated, says Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “It’s a critical time in this process,” he says. “We are finally talking about transgender people and their families.” The next frontier: learning to talk about, understand and accept trans children. “There is clearly a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender,” he says. “In order for these kids to thrive, there needs to be more education, advocacy and public policy that reflects the priority of transgender acceptance. We are making sure we have resources for families to help them come through this journey and be positive members of our community.”
But to parents raising trans children now, it can feel like those resources are a long time coming. And time is not always kind to children who are insistent at a young age that they identify with a different gender.
After more than five years attempting to explain his feelings and find a way to fit in at school, Kareyn Zimmermann’s 9-year-old son J. — whom Zimmermann calls her daughter — now comfortably identifies as a female.
“My daughter has always liked girl things, since she was about 2 years old,” Zimmermann says. “We thought it was just a phase and she would grow out of it.” As the family struggled to understand, Zimmermann’s mother saw a TV show about transgender children. “I didn’t want to believe it at first. I watched videos of other transgender kids and knew, that is my child, and she is transgender.”
Once Zimmermann understood there was a name for J.’s feelings, she researched online and reached out to therapists who specialize in transgender children. They slowly began to let J. shed the clothes that felt so foreign to her, mostly at home under the safe umbrella of accepting family and friends. She wore girl clothes at home on the weekends, boy clothes to school. This summer, J. moved to a new school in a different area of the valley and now identifies completely as a girl. “We are really starting to use she, her and daughter now that school just got out and she is a girl now.”
As a mother, Zimmermann is hopeful for her young child, but nervous. For good reason: More than half of transgender youth have contemplated suicide and one quarter have attempted to take their lives, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization focused on LGBTQ youth. But, crucially, acceptance starts in the home — and in that sense, J. is off to a strong start.
“She is who she is and I cannot change her,” Zimmermann says. “I think her seeing that everyone around her accepted her for whom she is has helped her. I think just seeing that our daughter has been like this since she was little made all of our family realize that this is not something my child is choosing, or that she will ever grow out of it.”
It’s vital that parents are educated along with their children, says Dr. Asheesh Dewan, pediatric endocrinologist at Pediatric Endocrine and Diabetes Specialists. A pediatric endocrinologist is often one of the first medical professionals a transgender youth will see to discuss changing hormones as they enter puberty.
“The child is venturing forth into very adult areas, talking about the physical differences between the sexes,” he says. “Those who have parental support have a higher quality of life. We see that they are happier, not as depressed, while those that don’t have parental support have a lot more issues.”
About a dozen pre-pubescent trans children have seen Dewan for help and advice regarding puberty and the changes it brings to their bodies. He works with The Center and local family therapists to assist children and their families, but more help is needed.
“One thing about children you have to realize in terms of counseling is that their brains aren’t fully developed,” he says. “The part that is not developed is the part that does long-term thinking. They just think about right now, ‘I want this.’” Counseling helps them realize what the complications and long-term risks are for transitioning.
Meanwhile, as awareness grows, The Center is expanding its programs for transgender children. “We get one or two walk-ins (a week) of parents or family members who say, ‘My kid is telling me they are transgender,’” The Center’s Reese says. Reese has launched Pivot, a program to help children and parents understand what it means to be transgender and assist in the process. “If they find that support, community, education and counseling, families can grow stronger and vibrant and grow in a healthy way. The flip side is that if families go into denial or shaming, it can completely tear a family apart. That pivot point is where we want to be for that family.” Indeed, parents who arrive at The Center often show the scars of the emotional toll that the lack of support has taken on them and their children. “It seems like the parents have been through a war to get where they are now,” Reese says. “But we are finally having this conversation. This is going to save lives.”
One of the next steps is raising awareness not just among people, but systems — schools, workplaces, businesses. Jane Heenan, director of Gender Justice Nevada, which offers counseling for those transitioning and their families, is making that a priority. “We have experience meeting with the school representatives as a family’s advocate, helping to create plans to address things such as bathrooms and locker rooms, correct name and pronoun use, privacy issues, and safety,” Heenan says. Heenan is also pushing for the school district to adopt a system-wide policy to make accommodating trans students easier and more consistent.
It’s been a long journey for Cusac — but at least the road ahead looks a little less bumpy.
“In the last few months, we’ve found more local support. It’s not been easy, but I think it’s getting easier. We’re trying, and we know other people are trying to be more accepting. When you see these kids the way they want to be seen, as a boy or a girl, they are so happy. You know you are doing the right thing.”
Cusac and her son are hoping that he will be fully integrated as a boy in the coming school year, and that school administrators will be more accommodating than they have been.
“The few people we’ve met who didn’t know our little one beforehand have been supportive when told, but we haven’t reached a point where we’ve made an official announcement,” she says. Sure, some parents lapse into awkward silence or ask uncomfortable questions when Cusac tells them Alan is transgender, but she understands. “Until recently, I was one of them,” she says, “so I can’t fault them for asking the same questions.”
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