Chapter One: Bubbles One Bubbles
“If you ever have another drink again, don’t call me. I don’t do suicides.”
The hotshot Miami doctor’s tone was dismissive. He closed my file. He had better things to do.
I was seventy years old and had come to see this big-deal gastroenterologist for my debilitating stomach pain. After spending the previous week in the hospital, I had been advised to stay completely away from alcohol. I did. For about thirty-six hours.
I blamed a bag of crispy chocolate chip cookies for the first bout of major stomach pain that sent me to the emergency room. I had been watching late-night TV and eating cookies in bed, chewing quietly so as not to wake my husband. Barney can’t bear crumbs in the sheets. An hour later, my stomach began to hurt.
I waited for the pain to go away. It didn’t. I considered my options. Going to the emergency room would involve me getting up and putting on clothing. That seemed like way too much effort for 1:30 a.m. I decided to ignore the sharp stabbing in my stomach. My attempt only lasted the length of a MyPillow commercial. The pain was undeniably getting much worse. I hid the empty cookie bag and woke up Barney. He drove me to the emergency room.
The pain spread rapidly to my back. After multiple tests, the ER doctors were still stumped about the cause. My regular internist was called in. He couldn’t figure it out either.
I begged him, “Please! Just give me morphine. Anything to stop this pain!”
My internist thought I might need surgery for gallstones. Pain drugs were out of the question until they knew the exact cause.
After five hours of MRIs, scopes, and blood tests, they had a diagnosis. Acute pancreatitis. They had figured out the culprit. It was martinis.
Martinis?!? Well, that had to be wrong!
I did look forward to a Hendrick’s martini or two. Sometimes three. Every night. Starting at 5 p.m., the respectable happy hour. They made me feel happy.
I thought, “Why couldn’t the pain have been caused by something that I would never miss, like exercise? Couldn’t it have been a bad reaction to the lap pool? Perhaps it’s a transdermal overdose of chlorine.”
The only treatment for pancreatitis was to stay in the hospital, be medicated, and wait it out. I spent the next five days there on really good pain meds. I don’t remember a thing about those days.
I was released, feeling fine, free to go home with my printed-out instructions on how to prevent another attack. At the top of the list was “No alcoholic beverages.”
I’m not great with instructions. I don’t have the patience for them. If the remote doesn’t make my TV turn on when I press the green button, I call someone to come over to fix it.
The next evening, while at a restaurant with a friend, I decided to test the waters and ordered one of those pink, fizzy cocktails that comes with a paper parasol.
I never go for those sissy drinks, but I thought it seemed safe enough. It wasn’t a martini, after all. An hour later, I was doubled over in pain. Pastel-colored fruity libations are not to be trusted.
Dr. Gastroenterologist concluded I must have a death wish. He had nothing else to say to me. My bottom lip started quivering. My eyes filled with tears.
He barked, “You’re not gonna get all weepy on me now, are ya? I thought you were the tough one.”
He was referring to my portrayal of police detective Christine Cagney in my TV show from the 1980s, Cagney & Lacey.
How dare he speak to me that way! I defended myself. “They paid me to be tough. You’re not paying me.”
The doctor stood over me. He was physically imposing, a retired general in the army. I wasn’t sure if I was angry or developing a bit of a crush.
Either way, I followed his orders. I haven’t had a drink since May 8, 2015. And I miss my Hendrick’s dry martini, stirred not shaken. Every single night. Still.
I spent the first six weeks of my life in a hospital. I was born premature.
On May 28, my mother went into labor. I was supposed to be an end-of-June baby. After my mother had been in labor for seventy-four hours, the doctor said, “This baby wants to be born today.” It was May 31, 1943.
They wheeled my mother into surgery, knocked her out, and performed a C-section. She was sent to recovery, and I was rushed into an incubator in the nursery, weighing less than three pounds.
After spending a week in a different ward of the hospital, unable to see or hold me, my mother scored a wheelchair from the hallway and managed to roll through the corridors to the nursery. She was certain she would be told that I had died.
But when she made her way over to the incubator, she saw I was alive. Though, according to her, I looked like a pound of butter, like she could hold me in the palm of her hand.
The nurse unwrapped the blanket to show her my tiny body, which my mother also described as “just perfect.”
The next day, my mother was sent home from the hospital for a month of bed rest. She had no choice but to leave me behind, unnamed.
One of the nurses began to call me Bubbles.
My father would stop in to see me on his way home from work. He placed a tiny bottle of holy water, blessed by the pope, in the corner of the incubator.
My mother did not return. She was physically fragile and probably petrified of the possibility of losing another daughter.
Four years earlier, the year before my older brother, Michael, was born, my mother gave birth to a girl she named for her mother, Marguerite. The nuns at the hospital baptized the curly-haired baby when, after twenty-four hours, it became obvious she wasn’t going to make it. Little Marguerite was laid to rest in an infant-size coffin before my mother was even released from the hospital.
No doctor ever gave my mother a reason for Marguerite’s death. In the 1930s and ’40s, the medical community never connected the ways smoking and drinking could affect a fetus. My mother started smoking cigarettes at age sixteen and enjoyed daily libations once she was an adult. Pregnancy pamphlets from that era encouraged women to not give up smoking or social drinking, as it kept “the expectant mother’s nerves calm.”
After a normal pregnancy and delivery of Michael, my mother felt a renewed sense of optimism while expecting me.
There was one other aspect that made this pregnancy different. A tea-leaf reader named me.
In the 1940s, my mother did a lot of volunteer work with the Assistance League of Los Angeles, a charitable organization of “society” women. After their events, the women would go to the adjoining Attic Tea Room, where a tea-leaf reader was often on hand to read fortunes as entertainment for the diners.
The fortune-teller looked into the bottom of my mother’s cup and said, “Your life is going to change.”
“Well, I am pregnant,” my mother admitted.
After studying the pattern of the tea leaves once more, the fortune-teller said, “It will be a very special child.” (I love that part of the story!) “May I name this baby?”
My mother was caught off guard by the request, but, as conservative as she was, she took the fortune-teller’s phone number and agreed to call her after I was born.
In my baby book is an envelope that my mother had used to write down the fortune-teller’s suggestions. Karen, Hillary, and Sharon were the three choices. Sharon had been circled in pencil. And so, five weeks after I was born, I became Sharon Marguerite Gless.
Good thing. I don’t think “Bubbles Gless” would have worked in the Cagney & Lacey credits.