That day last year, Dianne Bordeaux was sitting in her parents’ home in Huntington Beach explaining why she had agreed to talk publicly about the pool accident that nearly claimed her daughter’s life and was now consuming her own.
Her daughter, Jennifer Dawson, lay stiffly across her lap, her feeding tube removed to make her less awkward to hold as a photographer worked to get just the right shot. Jennifer, then 3, could not talk, nor walk, nor even control her slightest movements.
Her dark eyes were open wide, but her gaze seemed empty as a mirage.
“I guess the reason I wanted to talk is because I feel like a lot of people were shocked by this,” Dianne told me. “People think these things only happen to the poor people, neglectful people who let their kids run around the apartment complex or something.
“Well, we’re a regular middle-class family. I look at myself and say, ‘ I’m not that kind of parent.’ I want people to know that.”
And besides, she would go on, her family would pull through. What the medical specialists called “listening to reason” was what Dianne called giving up. She was angered and offended by the medical hard sell.
One neurologist at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles got down on his knees to implore her and her husband to let Jennifer die. A psychologist told them their marriage, then only five months old, would surely collapse under the strain of caring for such a child. He cited odds: eight out of 10 husbands leave.
But although Jennifer’s father wanted to let his child die, Dianne and her new husband, contractor Bill Bordeaux, never wavered. They said no.
“Jennifer is far from a statistic,” her mother said.
Dianne Bordeaux, 28, a model and aspiring actress, is dead now, after spending a day at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange suspended in the same nether world that is her daughter’s realm.
Last weekend, Huntington Beach police pulled a sobbing Bill Bordeaux, 32, away from his wife as she lay unconscious and bleeding in the street near their home. At the time, police arrested him for assault with a deadly weapon.
Police said the weapon was the family van that Dianne had clung to the back of, and fell from, as Bill tried to drive away during a fight. Hitting her head on the pavement was the injury that later caused her death.
With the continuing police investigation, Bordeaux’s legal predicament may change. But such a violent end to this particular love story, say those who knew Dianne Bordeaux best, seemed almost preordained.
Her agony started the minute Jennifer drove her tricycle into the pool of their home in Valencia in February of last year, only three days after the family had moved in, without installing the pool cover as they had planned.
The guilt, it seems, finally finished her off.
“She would say, ‘Why wasn’t I watching her? I should have been there,’ ” says Dianne’s mother, Linda Wimberly. “She didn’t think she was a good mother. I would say, ‘Of course, you are. It was just an accident. You can’t feel this way. You are making yourself sick. You have to go on.’
“But the drowning, the incident, she couldn’t stop thinking of Jennifer in that pool, at the bottom, calling to her. She was wearing heavy sweats, and high-top shoes, and that helped pull her down. Dianne would think about it constantly. She couldn’t sleep. She would say, ‘It was me she was calling for and I wasn’t there for her.’ ”
The first time he met Dianne, at Hollywood’s Hard Rock Cafe, Bill Bordeaux came back to his table and told his friend he had found the woman who would be his wife. She was separated from her first husband at the time and Bill, already a father of two, had been divorced four years.
For their first date, Dianne begged her younger sister, Janine, to accompany them. Bill and a friend came to pick the two women up, then drove them to Van Nuys without telling them their plans. There they boarded a helicopter to make a grand entrance at the Santa Monica restaurant, DC-3.
“We were doing pretty good in the construction business,” Bordeaux says. “And we just liked to surprise girls. There’s a lot of competition with these rich guys out there. So you have to do something different.”
The couple fell in love, Bordeaux says, on New Year’s Day, 1990. Dianne and her sister had rented a limousine to repay their dates with an extravagance of their own. The four of them partied all night.
“She wouldn’t let me touch her, but then at midnight, we hugged and didn’t let go of each other for about an hour and a half,” Bordeaux says.
Dianne and Bill married later that year. But even back then, “volatile” is how Dianne’s mother describes her daughter’s relationship with this man whom Dianne had hoped would be her white knight.
He was not all that Dianne had thought.
The contracting business was falling off, and money was getting tight. Dianne couldn’t stand the thought of avoiding bill collectors. Bill would tell her to be patient, that soon his clients would pay what they owed.
Then the couple’s daughter, Kori, was born in December that same year. And Jennifer, the precocious beauty who was crowned Baby Miss Orange County in 1989, fell into the back-yard pool two months after that.
Dianne, who as a mother had found fulfillment she had never known, began a tortured journey that nobody could truly share. Her parents say she was a talented actress; her pain flashed only when it became larger than her will. Often, it masqueraded as rage.
“It was very hard on Dianne,” Bill says. “Jennifer was at Dianne’s parents’ house. We were getting in fights every other day . . . . Dianne was a very, very hurt person and I kind of hide my emotions a lot and I didn’t hurt enough for her.
“To get me to hurt, she would say horrible things to me, like, ‘This is your fault. Why didn’t it happen to your kids instead of mine?’ That would get me upset. And she would say, ‘You’re a disaster. If I would have never met you, Jennifer would still be here.’ ”
Bordeaux says that sometimes such baiting would work. He would cry and call her “evil” or worse, and once he destroyed the vegetable garden that she loved; another time, her stereo system was the victim at hand.
But Bordeaux says that usually he would try to leave, to allow emotions to cool down. Then the intensity of the fight would ratchet up a notch. Dianne, afraid and furious at the same time, would try to keep him from walking out the door.
The commotion--screaming, shoving, wrestling and breaking objects--would usually send a neighbor to the phone. Bordeaux estimates he’s been arrested for spousal abuse 10 times, although no charges were filed. He says neither he nor Dianne hit each other, describing the scenes more like pushes and pulls.
And during one similar fight not long ago, police took a hysterical Dianne for a psychiatric evaluation. She checked out fine and was sent home.
The Huntington Beach police came so often to the Bordeaux home that Bill says they had been warned that the next time, they would be charged $1,000 for a nuisance call.
The next time, however, Dianne was nearly dead.
Although there has been little formal research about what psychological effects caring for a child like Jennifer can have on marriages and family, what has been done shows mixed results. In general, very strong marriages might grow stronger, but most suffer unbearable stress.
One study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry speaks of the “intensified likelihood of the normal grief process being transformed into a pathological variant.” Another in a journal for critical care nurses in North America talks of near-drowning accidents causing families “a lifetime situation of great stress.”
Frank Carden, director of psychology at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, says, “Only the strongest of the strong families survive something like this. And then even some of them don’t do very well.”
Bill Bordeaux says he and Dianne knew they needed counseling, but their efforts were hit or miss. Dianne, especially, could never seem to last more than a few weeks.
“In time of great need, late at night, Dianne would call me,” says one therapist who saw the couple. “I would talk to her and calm her down and then call her in the morning. But then she’d say she didn’t need me. As soon as a crisis was through, she would think she could handle it.”
Clearly she could not.
Passionate and dramatic by nature, Dianne had begun doing wild and dangerous stunts--grabbing the steering wheel as her husband drove, jumping out of the car in traffic, threatening to drive off a cliff--as those who loved her watched with an ominous sense that tragedy loomed.
Her best friend, elementary school teacher Paula Hines, says, “I’ve often been on edge wondering if something violent would happen to her one day. I wasn’t overly shocked by how she died.”
“I would talk to Dianne for hours,” says her mother. “I was the stability. It was me and nobody else. I feel so many times that I failed as this rock. I felt futile. I began to see everything as futile. I found that I was repeating myself. I thought it was only a matter of time before something horrible was going to happen. . . .
“It was like watching two cars going toward a cliff, hitting it, and going off.”
She says at least they had the presence of mind to bring Kori to stay at her house when the fighting was about to start.
“It got to the point that what was most important was the children,” Linda Wimberly says. “And they didn’t trust themselves. It hurt them that they couldn’t put their children to bed.”
Bill Bordeaux says he figured the end might come soon. But he thought he would die with his wife, perhaps while “saving” her during one of her dramatic tests of his love. He says he was willing--Dianne was his life.
“All my friends, my father, they said, ‘Get away from that girl. She’s going to kill you or you’ll kill her,’ ” he says now. “But I couldn’t leave her. If I would have left, I would have been giving up. And she wouldn’t have been happy.
“It was a challenge to me to get her cured. ‘I’m going to make this girl happy no matter what it takes.’ ”
For Valentine’s Day this year, Bill had Dianne’s name tattooed on his upper back, with a teardrop dotting the “i.” She discovered it the day before.
“She started crying, she was so happy,” Bill says. “I told her, ‘Dianne, I would have had it across my forehead, but my customers wouldn’t like that.”
But this euphoria, too, wore off. Dianne’s sisters and mother say they were also advising Dianne that she and her husband should live apart.
“They couldn’t be together, but they couldn’t be apart,” says her mother. “It was so good and so bad. There was never any in-between.”
Looking back, those who knew Dianne best say the downhill slide started in June, when Jennifer went to stay with her mother while her grandparents’ home was being fumigated.
The visit to Dianne and Bill’s apartment was to have been a week, but Jennifer came down with bronchitis after two days. Dianne blamed herself.
Jennifer was taken to Children’s Hospital of Orange County and placed in intensive care. At one point, Dianne left her daughter’s bedside but returned on a hunch.
Her family says she found that Jennifer had moved, forcing her face into the pillow and cutting off her breath. Again, Dianne blamed herself, for not being there.
At least one problem, however, seemed on the way to being solved. Jennifer and Dianne won a $1.4-million settlement from the insurance company of the previous owner of the Valencia home.
After attorney’s fees and $10,000 to Jennifer’s father, this amounted to $7,000 a month to be paid to Jennifer for 15 years, and a total of $50,000 to Dianne. And about a month ago, the first of the money started coming in.
“But the money from the lawsuit was heavy guilt,” says Bill Bordeaux. “Dianne was supposed to be acting and modeling and I was supposed to be building houses. That’s how we were supposed to make our money, not from our daughter drowning.”
Moreover, Bordeaux says the depositions from the lawsuit forced them both to relieve Jennifer’s accident in detail, day after day. They could never forget.
“I’d hold her every night in bed,” Bordeaux says. “On the outside, she’d give the impression that everything was OK, but I had to put her to sleep. Her daughter wasn’t home with her like she wanted her to be. She missed her so much.”
At Dianne’s funeral Friday, the Wimberly family made it clear that Bill Bordeaux would still be treated as one of their own. After initially refusing to talk to him, they overcame their anger when he came to Dianne’s bedside while she was moments away from death. He went there directly after posting $10,000 bail.
“I’ve told Bill, I think it was both of their faults,” says Richard Wimberly, Dianne’s father. “I’ve seen Dianne jump on the car. I don’t think Bill would have driven off if he had known Dianne was there. It was an accident.
“It would be easy for me to blame Bill. But he stuck around. He didn’t abandon them. And he’s Kori’s father.”
On Friday, the family prayed over Dianne’s casket and tried to console each other from the depths of their grief.
The Wimberly family--Linda and Richard and daughters Janine, Nichelle and Cara and son Stephen--had been there for Bill and Dianne through their troubles and they say they will help Bill still.
Kori and Jennifer, who was already living full-time with the Wimberlys, will both stay at their grandparents’ home indefinitely.
Yet, in hindsight, the Wimberlys say they fear the very success of their family life may have made Dianne feel more inadequate.
Everyone lives close by, everybody pitches in--especially when it comes to Jennifer, who needs virtual around-the-clock care.
And, increasingly, Dianne was having a hard time dealing with her daughter. The little girl wasn’t progressing “fast enough.”
“In a crisis is where Dianne excelled,” says her mother. “Here, at the house, is where she couldn’t handle it, just watching Jennifer, just waiting, the therapy. But when it came to schools or getting something for her daughter, she fought like nobody.”
This, especially, is why the family was so encouraged by Dianne’s latest venture, starting Safe Steps, a service to child-proof homes and pools. She’d already had her business cards printed and was busy doing research to make it a success.
But she’d also begun asking her family what they would do if she were not around. Her parents assured her that they would always take care of Jennifer, and Bill said he would always be the girls’ dad.
Always, too, Dianne would cry that she wanted to be with Jennifer--the Jennifer of before.
In that interview last year, Dianne told me another reason why she was talking publicly about her private pain. “You just wish you could never make it happen again,” she said.