I've been brooding for the last twenty hours about whether my lawyering in a just-concluded trial will guide the judge to rule in my client's favor. I know the judge has reached a decision, because he's scheduled a time for the lawyers and parties to reconvene to hear his ruling. My stomach clenches. The case haunts me. Could I have asked five more questions? Could I have obtained updated records in the month since the first day of trial, and augmented some of my points? Will the judge see the human aspects in the same light as my client and I do? Could I have been smarter in my strategic choices? Was I sufficiently prepared? Did the other side best me? Will my client feel that I have championed him well enough, whether we win, or lose, or split the baby? I do this after every trial. Sometimes I conclude that I have done all I can do. Sometimes I realize, even in the midst of the trial, where my shortfalls lie. I win some; I lose some; some fall in the grey area between total victory and absolute defeat.
The evening before the third day of this trial, I receive an e-mail which gladdened my heart. "Dear Ms. Corley," wrote the adoptive mother of a child for whom I served as guardian ad litem eight years ago. "I wanted to let you know how well [our son] is doing. . . . Thank you so much for fighting for him." The side of the angels, adoption division. My heart sang. I replied, expressing my gratitude both for news of the boy, and for her acknowledgment of what I tried to do. And then I sank into a reverie.
I am parked in my car, outside a house which a kind person would call modest. I cast my glance around, taking in the colorless block, the bare yards, the piles of rubble which, though neatly stacked, seemed foreboding. I ask myself, for the first time, if I should be wearing my $4,000 Ceylon sapphire engagement ring in such a place. I shake my head and try to toss my fears away. I open the door and swing my legs out onto the cracked driveway, risking another look at the nearby houses. Not for the first time in my life, I feel vulnerable. Alone, small, crippled by dysfunctional limbs; I am vulnerable. And I am getting out of my car at an address in a neighborhood which I'd recently read had the distinction of meriting two of the city's seven experimental crime-busting cameras.
I close the door and click the lock.
My knock prompts a flurry of shuffling inside the small residence. Finally, the door opens far enough for me to see a child, perhaps eight years old, whose eye peers at me from below a sturdy chain. "It's the lawyer lady," I hear the boy say. He's the younger of my two clients; they are brothers, living with their grandmother. "Quit fooling around and let her in," I hear. Gruff tones, annoyed tones. He does so.
I live in a small house, 1542 square feet not counting the crude room which I had made in the basement to use as a playroom. The house to which I've been finally admitted must be half that size. The living room seems to have been truncated by the installation of an artificial wall that I decide allows the former dining area to serve as a bedroom. A man emerges from behind a torn curtain which takes the place of the door. He gestures to a couch that I suspect might not hold my weight, but I sit because I've been raised to follow the instructions of my host. He says nothing. I try to keep myself from staring at his clothing, an assemblage of cast-offs from several people with wildly different tastes and body types.
The man leaves again without comment. I begin to sweat inside my coat. The heat of the home rises, bringing with it musky smells, of unwashed clothing, bacon grease and air freshener with its stifling perfume. I realize my hand has clenched around the handle of my briefcase, and let it relax, setting the bag at my feet. I wait.
My clients come into the room then, followed by their grandmother. The boys, the younger and his ninth-grade brother, hover by their grandmother. The older boy's look tells me that he's not having what he expects me to be selling; but the younger boy wears an open expression above his frayed white collar.
I'm there to take the boys to their appointment for a psychological evaluation. Their grandmother does not want them to go, but she knows she must comply with the Court's order. She wants the boys to stay with her; she expresses skepticism about every phase of the case. She assures me her daughter, the boys' mother, will eventually come home; that she feeds them and gets them to school; that there's nothing wrong with her house. I assure her that I'm just taking them to be interviewed by a psychologist and will have them back in a couple of hours. I don't take the court order out of my file. She knows about it. She knows why we've gotten this far, what has happened, why the court is considering moving the children from her care. She doesn't dispute any of this because she cannot. She only wants to convince me that the boys shouldn't go see a doctor. I take them anyway, because it's my job.
On the way, we drive past the old police station which now houses one of those Buy anything, here, cheap, outfits. The younger boy, sitting in the back seat, sees a sign for furnaces, with an exaggerated drawing of flames signalling how warm you'll be if you buy them. "I know what that place is!" He leans forward, between my elbow and the stiff frame of his sullen brother. "That's the fire department! That's where the firemen live! Isn't that right, Miss Lawyer Lady, isn't that right?" His brother, who can read, tells him he's dumb. But I don't. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in the third grade and be unable to read, but I have a son and I also cannot imagine squelching such exuberance. I tell him yes, that fire fighters used to live there -- it is an old police station, after all; close enough -- but don't anymore because they built a new place for them to live. He flashes his brother a wild grin and sits back against the seat.
Another day, another drive. I pull into the parking lot of the older boy's school, which has more security than most airports. A sympathetic administrator finds a room for me to use and goes to get my client. He sits across from me with his arms folded and his eyes half-closed. He wants no part of me. He answers my questions with syllables instead of sentences, spat out, falling like worthless pennies on the scarred table between us.
I go through the motions, and send him back to class.
Eventually, the lawyer representing the petitioners will find enough proof that the grandmother's stewardship has failed to convince the grandmother to withraw her opposition to the adoption. Gambling records finally establish what we've suspected: that the Social Security checks for both boys, received because their father fell to a drug-dealer's weapon, feed their caretaker's addiction. We mediate, with a sullen court-appointed mediator who disapproves of the placement because the children are black and the adoptive family is white. I lash out at her, tired of such bigotry, appalled at the amazing lack of objectivity which mars her ability to help us develop a plan for the boys to keep in contact with their birth-family. We leave the session without a resolution, but the train is already coming down the tracks and the grandmother knows this.
Both boys go with the couple who wants to adopt them, a school counselor who has known their family for several years and her law enforcement husband. The older boy's placement will disrupt; and he will come back to Kansas City from the eastern state to which the adoptive family has moved during the pendency of the case. I stay in touch long enough to find that out; to hear about the arguments, the outbursts, the trips back here for which the family pays. I remember the boy's words to me the day I visited him in school, the few he spoke which seemed genuine and not spoonfed by his grandmother. "My papa died, and I'll probably die too. What you want to help me for?" And I remember the wide-eyed wonder on his little brother's face, as we drove that day, through the winter streets of Kansas City, past the old police station where the flames danced.
Ice has overtaken my neighborhood. The dog sleeps at my feet. My husband, home from two days working in Salina, has gone to the office to slog through the work which doesn't get done when he has to travel. I'm scheduled for a five-day trial next week, but I think the case is settled. We're dickering, as lawyers do, over small details that ultimately won't make much difference but which seem vital at this moment. I'm tired. My coffee is cold. I'm worried about the outcome in the case I've just tried. But somewhere, east of here, a young man draws nearer to his high school graduation, a fine young man, whose parents love him as though he had been born of their flesh. And I helped make that happen. At the moment, I am content with that knowledge; proof that I have made a difference, and might again, some day.