Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday Musings, 22 February 2014

Good morning,

The week careened, collided and crashed towards Saturday, with me clinging to the overhead strap, swaying in the aisle.  Tired, drained and raw, I spent its waning hours reading, writing, and meditating.  My ride through life personifies a reputed Chinese curse:  "May you live in interesting times."  But as I sat in a lab tech's chair for the third time in as many days, she and I agreed on one principle:  Unlike the mother of Hailey Owens, we are blessed to be able to see our children's wide eyes each day, see the rise and fall of their chests as they breathe, mutter as we trip over shoes they have abandoned or push aside the other daily debris of their exuberant existences.

The slaughter of Hailey Owens haunts me as no other story in the news has for many months.  I realize this holds irony; hundreds die in a foreign country, scores die on our American city streets.  But this child did not just die: she was savagely stolen and mercilessly murdered.  I cannot imagine surviving having a child succumb to such fate; but scores of mothers have.  Mothers of teens in the mean streets of New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and even Kansas City form bonds with women they would otherwise never know, members of a club for which I pray I am never eligible.

The week's events cast a pall over everything clean and good, and sets in perspective anything difficult that I endured.  As I gaze out my window at the grey morning sky, I am remembering other lost children, children whose stories appeared in my newspaper or whose paths crossed, however briefly, with mine.  The unluckiest of them died; but the ones who lived carry terrible burdens.  The stamp of violence which reroutes the neuropathways of the young.  The brittle bones that never quite heal.  The uncertainty lurking in the small heart of an abandoned baby.  The lingering, stark knowledge of being unloved, unwanted and untended.

This week, a young mother of three sat in my office and signed consents to terminate her parental rights to two of her children.  A child of her parents' late life, this girl shines with innocence and unknowingness.  I've read her records and know her challenges:  A low IQ, attentention deficit, an uncontrollable temper.  Just twenty-one with children aged 3, 2 and six months, this girl has no chance to have the kind of life that most aspire to live.  She's one of the lucky ones in some ways, though.  Those parents, 45 when she was born, are adopting her two oldest and fostering the baby.

This sweet, senseless girl stumbles from boyfriend to boyfriend, hovel to hovel, job to job.  She ranges from rage to giggles and calls anyone who harbors her, a "Play sister".  I'm not quite sure what that means.  Occasionally she stops by my office to use my cell phone charger for one in an endless string of throw-away phones that men buy her for reasons I imagine with sickened stomach.  But for all her faults, this girl lives in her mother's heart, just as loved, just as cherished, as Hailey Owens who lies cold on a table in the Greene County coronor's office.  The plight of both mothers, of all mothers, weighs heavy on me, as I sip my herbal tea and wonder what tomorrow holds for each of us.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Musings, 15 Feb 2014, dedicated to my LGBT friends, especially the married ones

Good morning,

On Thursday, I heard an interview on NPR with a woman turning 103.  I didn't hear her name, or what, besides her remarkable longevity, prompted NPR to provide this woman with fifteen minutes of fame.  But  I heard her tell a story of refusing to share a room in her nursing facility with someone because they were black; and of the friendship she later cultivated with that woman, resulting in her adjudging herself to be a "bad person" for turning her back on someone due to something that made them different in the one way which should not matter.  She spoke of the pain she felt when the woman died, of whispering to her as she drifted away, of knowing, certain-sure, that she and the woman shared so many similarities that their differences were inconsequential.  As chance would have it, I heard this story twice that day, during two different voyages in my car.  And her voice, her words, drew me to the past, as voices often do.

I cannot tell you the year.  Before 1980, because I stand in an apartment in St. Louis.  My dining room table groans under the weight of food which I've heaped upon it.  It's summer.  The mild hum of the small air conditioning unit in one window distracts me.  I'm worried that I haven't picked the right alcohol; that no one will come; that those who come won't stay; that I will be alone with my untouched appetizers and unopened bottles of wine.

My downstairs neighbor raps on my door a half an hour early.  His name is Richard.  He's an artist.  He's wearing cut-off shorts, artfully tattered, cut at the hip and unbelted.  He has strong legs, well-developed arms, and paint spatters on his shirt.  He's gay.  We get along well and I consider him a friend.  

He's brought some of his newest pen-and-ink sketches to show me; that's why he's early.  He's excited about his work and speaks rapidly, happily.  He's drawing his dreams, lurid and lovely, stark and stunning.  They depict acts of sexuality; moments of tender touches between parents and their children; demons rising behind unsuspecting souls.  I scan through the book and feel moved but also frightened.  I suddenly wonder if Richard is a bit much for my grad school friends, for the few who are conservative, the ones who aspire to be lofty, or the ones who still stumble through life, unsure of their path.  It's a mixed group, and some of them combine their traditional backgrounds with a desire to explore other ways of living; others had liberal parents but now wear button-down shirts; and a few will come in beads they salvaged from the sixties at Vet's Village.  Other than Richard, and one same-gender couple who lives in another section of our building, all of my guests are straight.  And that other couple thinks Richard is a little weird, truth be told.

An hour later, my fears have been chased into a cupboard.  Everyone is there.  Strains from the stereo mask the racket from the window unit, which desperately tries to keep pace with the rising heat in the crowded room.  August presses against the window, with its lingering heat, holding even after the sun sets.  

I go into the kitchen to fill the ice bucket.  Two of my friends stand at the little counter.  They've found Richard's sketchbook.  I see from their faces that they don't exactly appreciate the frankness of his drawings.  One of them turns to me.  "This stuff is gross," he says.  "Who did this?"  He has the book open to a page that shows two male angels copulating.  Their faces radiate with glory and joyfulness.  I take it from him.  And then I flash my Judas face and say, "Oh, just my neighbor.  He's gay."  Like that was a disease.  My friends look beyond me, and I turn.  Of course, Richard would be standing in the doorway, a platter on which there is nothing but crumbs in his hands; he has brought the tray to be refilled.  He wanted to help me.

He casts the dish onto the counter, and eases his artwork from my hands.  "Yes, he's gay," he says.  "And now, he's gone."  He turned away; and I never spoke with him again, except in monosyllables, at the mailbox, in the parking garage, and always, with my eyes averted.

In the decades, the years, the months, since I betrayed my friend out of some misguided belief that I would not be caught and in my betrayal, would endear myself to those judging souls in my kitchen, many times regret has risen like bile to choke me.  I've had many friends since then, some gay, some straight.  Some who wore their sexuality with such ease that I couldn't have said, unless I saw their partners, which way they leaned.  I have loved; and I have failed at love.  I have seen love take hold of people and keep them in its tender embrace without regarding to anything other than their need for each other.  When such people join, their gender doesn't really matter.  All that matters lies within them.

Some time after that party, I heard that Richard died.  I realize, looking back, that he must have  been swept away in the early AIDS epidemic.  That realization came  later, when I testified at a will contest hearing.  I had written a will, my one and only, for someone who left his house to his male companion, and then died, from infections secondary to HIV.  I had known he had some illness, but that was 1983, and no one spoke of this ravaging disease at that time.  The world had not yet readied itself for anything other than fear of those who bore its stamp.

My client's will was challenged by his ex-wife and their children.  They claimed that my client had been unduly influenced.  They accused his heir of treachery, debauchery, and debasement.  I sat in the witness stand and spoke of his composed demeanor, his calmness, his certainty.  The lawyer defending the heir later died of AIDS himself.  He won that case, as well he should have.  In my memory, I withstood the blasting cross-examination that day.  I hope this memory is not false.  But this I do know:  As I left the stand, I wondered, not for the first time, if Richard ever brought himself to forgive me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saturday Musings, 08 February 2014

Good morning,

My tablet tells me that we've climbed to 20F this morning.  Yesterday, as I shed my heavy coat and wound my two thick scarves around the coat rack's hook, I remarked to my secretary that in August, we would be lamenting the heat and wishing for cooler weather.  She laughed.  "We should take pictures now," she suggested.  "We can look at them next summer and remember how cold we were."  I finished shedding my down-filled skin and moved to the coffee pot, but my mind, as minds will do, wandered to summer, August, after my second year of law school.

I stand on the sidewalk outside of the building in which I live.  The man who has been my companion since the beginning of the year stands beside me, compact, quiet, his feet planted slightly apart in tightly tied sneakers.  I cannot discern his thoughts from the expression on his face.  He has gently set my suitcase in the back of my Nissan Sentra wagon and checked to be sure that I have jumper cables and extra windshield wiper fluid. Neither of  us speaks. There is nothing to say.  I am bound for Santa Fe, taking a vacation in the guise of job-hunting. He will shortly leave for Montana.  He will not be in Kansas City when I return.  I've timed this trip precisely to avoid being the one left standing on the sidewalk.

I don't glance in the rear view mirror.  I don't know how long he waits before getting into his own vehicle and returning to the apartment in which he has one plate, one cup, one set of silverware and two pans, one shallow and one deep.

I have an interview with a firm in Santa Fe but will spend a few days in Albuquerque first.  I've reserved a hotel for the next night, and I plan to stop along the way, somewhere charming, somewhere that I can eat breakfast with people that have accents different from my own.  I want to sleep in worn motel sheets and drink coffee from a heavy mug on a Formica counter.  I set my car on cruise control and head south by southwest, with the radio louder than it needs to be and the air conditioning on high.

But I never find anywhere to stop.

My energy soars as I whip through Wichita, going a dozen miles over the speed limit and singing with whatever pop music I can find on the car's tinny sound system.  I barely notice my surroundings.  I shed my anxieties as I drive.  The sun bears down on my car but inside I don't feel the heat.  I drive through a fast food joint and eat fries and a diet soda and keep going, thinking I will stop when the high settles or I feel sleepy.  I drive and drive.  I don't think about the law firm in Santa Fe where I have scheduled an interview or the man in Kansas City who is selling the three pieces of furniture he owns and heading to Helena.

Around dusk, I see a few motels with "No Vacancy" signs illuminated.  I wonder if I should have called AAA to plan but keep moving forward on the roadway.  I fill my car with gasoline around midnight, and get another soda, not diet this time, the real thing, the sugar and the caffeine surely combining to fuel my body.  I keep driving.

Ten hours after leaving Kansas City, I realize that my journey nears its end.  Darkness surrounds my vehicle.  Few other cars occupy the highway.  Mountains loom around me.  I keep driving.

About three a.m., I pull into a truck stop.  I realize that I have been driving for fourteen hours straight.  I haven't eaten anything since the fries-and-diet-coke southwest of Wichita and the trail mix I got at the gas station.  My head buzzes and swoons.  I lock the car and fall asleep sideways in the driver's seat, my head against the window, my hands tight on the steering wheel until just before I lose consciousness.

I wake with a start to a hard bang on my window.  A highway  patrol officer stands in the harsh glare of New Mexico morning, with his heavy gun belt and short-sleeved uniform shirt.  I roll down the window and ask him if something is wrong.  He backs away from the car, shaking his head.  "I thought you were dead, for a minute," he admits. I see how young he is, how fresh, how clean-shaven.  I get out of the car and for some reason, I shake his hand.  He gets back into his cruiser and pulls away, into the morning traffic on a ridge just above Albuquerque.  I watch him leave.

From where I have parked, I can see the town below me.  I stand by the metal rail for a moment, looking down, thinking about the next few days.  I don't delude myself; I know the firm in Santa Fe won't offer me a job, but I think I might possibly figure out some other reason to move here.  Some other draw, some other inspiration to pull me out of the rut in which I find myself.

I run my hand along the scar on the outside of my right leg.  Two scars:  One from the surgery to reduce the 32 fractures in the shattered bone, one across the top where the patella had to be repositioned.  I close my eyes, briefly, and feel the sensation of my body sailing upward, propelled by the impact of the car, the VW driven by a man unable to see in the glare of the setting sun, last February, on the 09th, at 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon.  When I open my eyes, I realize that several cars have pulled into the rest stop and three children stand nearby, watching me sway in the soft sunshine.  I smile at them a little, but they just move closer to each other and the smallest one takes the biggest child's hand.

I get back into my car and start the engine, and continue down, into the town, to find some breakfast.

Here in Kansas City, the temperature has moved up a notch to 21. The tablet's clock shows 9:30 a.m., and I realize that I've missed another chance to see the men's figure skating competition replay from Sochi.  The house is quiet.  But I am not alone.  I stand up, and go into the kitchen, and start my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Saturday Musings, 01 February 2014

Good morning,

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.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.