On a drive through Kansas City's northeast section last night, my husband gestured to block after block and building after building, telling me what used to be on empty lots and in barricaded, burnt-out structures. We drove around mansions and the old museum, stately, eerie, rising in the darkness. He slowed the vehicle as we skirted the eastern border of the Elmwood Cemetery, in which his great-grandfather and great-great grandfather sleep. I gazed mutely out the window onto the Paseo, at a figure clad in layers of clothing far beyond the need on a spring night, piles of bags in a shopping cart, bony hands gripping its cracked handle. Friendless, genderless, the bent form slowly trudged north under the moonless sky. I closed my eyes and felt the wind through the open window. I did not see the face turned toward me as our car moved on.
I spent a few wicked hours in Juvenile Court this week, and the grime of that experience clings to my soul. I shudder and shake the dust from my hands, letting the coating of another's grief fall from me. A fifteen-year old girl, child of a child, with a child of her own. The pattern persists like a broken genetic code. Four lawyers deep, we bobbed out of our chairs in turn, while my client sat scared and silent, tears barely contained in her wide eyes. She's warned on the record, by a judge who tries to speak her language but uses metaphors from a different world than she will ever know: "You're skating on thin ice," he tells her. "Come back to the shore with the rest of us." She looks at him with her bottomless eyes and nods, but I know she feels only fear, only pain, only the overwhelming burden of a life started far too soon. I pull my tablet back into its case and gesture that she can wait outside. I speak to the other lawyers for a few minutes and then stand by my client and tell her, "I know you don't like this foster home, but girl, it's better than jail." Tears roll down her face.
Her only crime is being born to a woman with a dangerous wandering mind. My client did what she could to help her little sisters, but with the lights out and the cupboards bare, she went begging. The state's duty to protect its children brought a cadre of social workers into the dingy apartment. My client must regret that she knocked on one door too many, a door behind which a compassionate neighbor dwelled. "I should have just stole us some food," she mutters, as the tears gently fell on her sweater. I place my hand on her arm.
The foster mother's voice penetrates my reverie. "Why would she want to go back home," she demands to know. I marvel at her naivety. I try to explain: "She knows only that way of showing love; the mother only home once in a while, no rules, no restrictions. She knows only the body against hers of that boy who impregnated her; the small hands of her sisters, their arms around her neck. Those four walls: you and I might have found them uncomfortable, but for her, they meant home."
The foster mother shakes her head. I see she has forgotten everything the trainers taught her. "Look," I say. "Children crave love, and safety. But they don't judge by the same measure that we do. What they have always known, they call safe. What they have always been given, they call love." I can tell my words mean nothing to her. She talks of expectations, and structure, and the need for my client to do what she is told. I see her point of view, but I can't accept the blame she wants to cast on my client's slim shoulders. "She's never had boundaries; you can't expect her to value what you're doing in just the few weeks you've had her," I say, finally. I stop asking her to let my client have a little leeway, and go back over to where my client stands against the wall, still silent, still crying.
I suggest that I come to her high school one day next week and take her to lunch. I ask her if she's doing better there, at the city school. "It's too ghetto," she tells me. I smile, then; and she acts like she might too. "But with all your gorgeous self there, maybe you can bring something special on," I suggest. I see just the small flicker of a smile cross her face. I ask her where we should go for lunch, and she shrugs. She doesn't know the neighborhood yet. But I do; it's not that far from my home in Brookside. I'll figure something out. I promise. I give her one of my pens and remind her to keep it, so she'll have my phone number. I say: If she plays by the rules, even if she doesn't like them, I can keep her out of jail. She flicks her eyes up, meeting mine. She takes that promise, I can tell. Maybe it will be enough.
As I walk away from the courthouse, lyrics from a Kasey Chambers song rise in my mind:
If I was good,
I'd tell everyone I know
If I was free
I wouldn't be so keen to go
If I was wrong
I would take it like a man
If I was smart
I would get out while I can
If I was broken
I would probably let it be
If I was dying
I wouldn't go out quietly
If I was lost
Well my heart would feel the same
If I was honest
I would probably be ashamed
But if I were you
I would notice me
If I were you
I would wait for me
If I were you
I would easily hold me
And say, It's all gonna be okay.(1)
In the car, I turn on talk radio and play it, too loud, as I drive through the streets of Kansas City, back to my office, willing myself to banish the sight of my client's crying face to the grey, foggy corners of my mind.
(1) Kasey Chambers, "If I Were You"
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Saturday Musings, 26 April 2014
Posted by M. Corinne Corley at 6:08 AM
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- 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.
Your soul is showing, sister colleague. This Calling (might I suggest Callings: Finding and following an authentic life by Gregg Levoy for a fine read) of ours is a siren master - inviting us to choose daily between hope and despair. It seems you more frequently choose your angels over your demons - thanks for sharing your questions and your journey.ReplyDelete