Aug 012016

In the gray warmth of an October evening four weeks after Deloris’s stroke, I sat on our deck, a cup of coffee in hand, and reviewed my life. It had been three years since we moved to Whidbey Island from Seattle. It was a transition I had resisted, but was happy I had let Deloris talk me into making. It was also one month short of three years since Deloris’s Aunt Kay moved in with us, at age eighty-nine, to spend the remainder of her life. After several heart attacks, the aftermath of a massive right brain stroke had ended her life five months before. Without conscious intention on my part, caregiving had become constant in my life. I’d had no real preparation for this role; both my parents had died suddenly, obviating the need for my brother and me to care for them. I was trained as a lawyer: a left-brain, rational being.

I hadn’t dreamed of becoming a lawyer when I was young. Who does? Like many boys of my generation, my career fantasies ran more to being a cowboy. Academically, I had an aversion to science and medicine. My family expected me to get an education and a profession. There was no family business to inherit. I didn’t want to be a teacher or college professor, and I had a strong desire to avoid military service in Vietnam. I liked to talk and argue, so law school seemed a logical alternative.

My first day of law school remains indelibly etched in my mind. With about two hundred classmates, I sat on an unpadded wooden chair at the back of a long rectangular classroom, writing tables rising on three sides, forming a deep well in the middle of the room. The instructor stood behind a podium in the well, disdain evident on his face. I think most of us were excited to be embarking on this journey toward what we hoped would be a fulfilling and lucrative career, and a bit anxious about what lay in store for us. I certainly was. The teacher stared at us for a few uncomfortable and quiet moments before he spoke: “Clear your desks. Take out a piece of paper and a pen. This is a test.”

I was incredulous. What could he be testing us on? Is this what the next three years held in store? Oh . . . I remembered. He had given us a pre-class reading assignment. I had skimmed it, not understanding much of what I read. Now I discovered I didn’t know the answers to most of the questions we were asked. This provided me with my first lesson in law school: read the assignments. The second was this: make yourself as invisible as possible when the instructor is looking for someone to call on in class. Lesson number two was especially important on those occasions when I had not followed lesson number one.

During the course of the next three years, I was academically and intellectually challenged in ways I never experienced before in my life. I learned to “think like a lawyer, talk like a lawyer, and write like a lawyer,” as one of my professors described the transformation the law school faculty was attempting to bring about in their students. The problem was that once they had done their job, we—the students—were capable of conversing only with other lawyers.

Another apparent law school initiation rite I’ll never forget involved my contracts professor, one of the eldest faculty members, who looked considerably frailer than he apparently was. Using a textbook he had written, the professor attempted to teach us the intricacies of contract law, one of the foundations of the profession. He assigned court opinions from his book for us to read (all of which, we subsequently learned, had been selected because of the erroneous decision reached by the judges.) In class, he called on students to discuss the assigned cases by summarizing the facts, the issues before the court, and the judges’ reasoning. When the student’s presentation was finished, the instructor would ask a series of questions and pose “what if” scenarios, probing the student’s understanding of the court’s decision. Once the student had been drained of all knowledge and reasoning, the professor would move to another sacrificial lamb. This Socratic questioning was the standard pedagogy in all of our law school classes. One day, early in our first semester, a student began his recitation by saying, “I feel the judge . . .” The professor slammed his hands on the podium, his face turning an unnatural shade of red, and roared, “Lawyers don’t feel! Lawyers think!”

Like my classmates, I feared the professor’s apoplectic reaction was going to put him into cardiac arrest. We later realized this was a routine he went through with each first year class. Early in the semester, some student would always say, “I feel . . .”giving the professor the needed opening to make the only point I remember from his class: lawyers don’t feel; lawyers think! It was the last time any of us used the verb to feel during the three years of our legal education. It may well have been one of the last times we experienced any emotion, at least in our professional capacity. It would take me years of therapy and time away from the practice of law to regain contact with this part of my emotional being.

Now, years after law school and my departure from the practice, I sat on my deck, overcome with feelings of fear and emptiness, part of me wishing I had been a better law student and learned not to feel pain. While I was a good student, I was also an emotional creature and was grieving the loss of my mother, as it was the eleventh anniversary of her death. Like Deloris’s stroke, that earlier tragedy came without warning; like Deloris’s stroke, it made me realize the importance of friends and family. The death of my mother, coming ten years after that of my father, was also the first time in my life I truly felt like an adult. I had no parent to turn to, no relative who could “make things right.” I had to be responsible and self-reliant. If Deloris was to get better, if we were to have anything approaching a normal life, even a new normal, it was up to me. I had to marshal my inner strength, to gather the resources and assistance I needed from others, and to focus on helping Deloris.

Doing anything else never crossed my mind; she was my wife, my soul mate, and she needed my help. Of course, I would be there for her. I would use my intellect, my rationality to learn and master the skills and knowledge I would need to care for her. I would use the love and gratitude as sources of energy to keep me afloat through this journey. And I would accept the help of others. I was extremely grateful for the loving support from our friends. I cannot fathom how anyone can go through something like this alone. Once I experienced the results of asking for assistance and felt how powerful the sense of needing others, and accepting their help, could be for both parties, it became easier. What a gift!

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