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!

Aug 012016
 

Deloris and I had met twenty years earlier, in the mid-1980s, at a party given by mutual friends, Ben and Fredericka. It was the first Saturday in May, the opening day of sailing season in Seattle and, in my childhood home of Louisville, the annual running of the Kentucky Derby. Opening Day is celebrated by a parade of yachts, which pass by our friends’ waterfront home. It’s an opportunity for friends to gather, enjoy food, drink, each other’s company, and the spectacle of watching highly decorated boats pass by. It was also a day when displaced Sons and Daughters of the Bluegrass, Louisvillians like myself, even those with no particular interest in horses, can celebrate their heritage by drinking mint juleps, the traditional drink of the Derby, and watching the horse race on TV.

I arrived at Ben and Fredericka’s, having already consumed several juleps and carrying with me the fixings for more. After greeting my hosts and several friends, I went upstairs to the TV room where I knew people had gathered to watch the Derby. “Anybody want a mint julep?” I asked. Heads swiveled in my direction and hands were raised. I took a count and headed downstairs to prepare the drinks. When I had finished, I returned upstairs and distributed them to everyone in the room except one woman who seemed surprised by my return and my actions.

“You were serious?” she asked, surprise mixed with disappointment in her words. “What do I have to do now to get a julep?”

Through alcohol-hazed eyes, I looked at this woman whose reddish-blonde hair, falling in a pageboy and bangs, framed an attractive face with clear, intelligent eyes. I didn’t know her but felt an immediate desire to do so. “You have to be very, very nice to me,” I replied.

“Okay,” she said, and followed me downstairs.

Using the beverage exchange as an excuse to introduce myself, I mixed another julep, handed it to her, and said, “Enjoy. By the way, my name is Allan.”

“Thanks. I’m Deloris. I’m an old friend of Fredericka’s.”

“Me, too,” I replied. “Nice to meet you.”

***

Two years later we married, neither for the first time. Both of us considered our previous relationships, whatever their legal status, as practice for this main event.

Deloris made me laugh and, like me, took joy in intelligent conversation and wordplay. We shared a desire to understand how things worked and what ideas meant. In slightly varying degrees, we were both attracted to the offbeat, the arcane, the eccentric. We both loved to read, although usually in somewhat different genres. We appreciated similar movies and television shows and were both engaged in spiritual explorations. Our collective taste ran more to cats than dogs, Asian art more than European, progressive Democrats over conservative Republicans. We liked foreign travel, Thai food, good wine, and Mexico.

There were also lots of differences and, on the surface, we may have seemed a surprising couple. Raised in a close and happy family, I was instilled with self-confidence from an early age. Deloris’s family background, though loving, was a bit dysfunctional. Following her mother’s abrupt disappearance from the family when Deloris was ten, she and her siblings were raised by a number of aunts and a less than loving stepmother.

Also the difference in our ages meant we had different cultural memories. Eight years older than I (she was fifty-three when we married, I was almost forty-five,) Deloris grew up before the age of rock and roll and was a productive adult by the time the ‘60s rolled around. As a pre-teenager in the early ‘50s, I listened to Black rhythm and blues on a powerful out-of-town radio station and never lost my taste for the bluesy roots of rock and roll. I had a Black blues band playing at my bar mitzvah party, was one of the few Caucasians at both a Little Richard and an early James Brown concert, and heard Jimi Hendrix play the National Anthem on the Fourth of July at the Atlanta Rock Festival. Deloris, on the other hand, loved classical music, especially opera. This difference in musical appreciation resulted in an early agreement we made whereby she would not have to go to sporting events with me, and I would not have to accompany her to the opera. In spite of the times we violated this agreement voluntarily; it has held us in good stead throughout our relationship.

Spiritually, we were on similar paths. While I was born and raised Jewish and had developed Buddhist overtones in later life, Deloris was born Methodist, raised in part by Mennonite relatives, followed her own path to Buddhism, and was considering conversion to Judaism when we met. She ultimately achieved this goal shortly before we married. Belief was more important to both of us than rote practice or blind faith.

Our differences were more than superficial. Inherently shy and introverted, Deloris always preferred solitary endeavors—reading, writing, watching TV. Socially, she is most comfortable interacting with close friends or small groups of people. Parties with large numbers of people, or mostly strangers, have always made her uncomfortable. On the other hand, I enjoy being in sizable groups of people. While I also like small, intimate dinners, I am completely comfortable with larger numbers of people sitting around my table or in my house. I am happy when my friends get to know each other and conversations become stimulating and highly interactive because diverse opinions are being expressed.

To accommodate our different social tolerance levels, Deloris and I often took separate cars to parties. Early on we agreed that neither of us had to go somewhere just to accompany the other. This is another agreement that helped our relationship thrive.

In many ways, I found the differences between us to be instructive. One difference that caused some issues over the years stemmed from the manner in which conversations had been conducted in our respective childhood homes. My mother had a temper that flared often and dissipated quickly. I inherited this tendency and developed an admittedly aggressive manner of presenting my thoughts and opinions. This style had been honed through collegiate debates, political activity, law school Socratic educational techniques, and years of being a trial lawyer. I never thought of myself as being verbally aggressive or seeking confrontation and was, in fact, often consciously uncomfortable with it. When Deloris and I met, however, I was considerably more competitive than I was willing to acknowledge.

Deloris, as I’ve said, is basically quiet. She dislikes confrontation and raised voices.

Eight years after we married, one disagreement stands out in my mind. Deloris exercised a quality of hers I cherish: an uncanny ability to identify a personal dynamic. Deloris and I were sitting across from each other in our living room, each with a glass of wine, recounting our days. This was a common end-of-day activity for us, one we liked to indulge in when no meeting, social engagement, or other evening activity demanded our attention or time. I don’t remember the specific topic of conversation or exactly what I asked that elicited Deloris’s response. Her response, however, I will never forget.

“Why are you cross-examining me?”

“What do you mean? I am not cross-examining you. We’re sitting here having a drink, talking about our days, and I asked you a question.” In my mind, I was visualizing the courtroom in which I had spent the earlier part of the day. A witness, under oath, had attempted to avoid making damning admissions under my questioning. This was not how I interpreted the conversation with Deloris, but I apparently had said something she took amiss.

“I feel like you are cross-examining me, and I don’t like it.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable talking to me.”

As I’ve said, I knew Deloris disliked confrontations and raised voices. In my childhood home, exchanges with my mother often were done at a volume somewhat louder than a person’s normal “inside voice.” The tone was not meant to connote animosity or anger; it was for emphasis. Or, I don’t know, maybe such volume was cultural. What I came to realize was that similar exchanges in Deloris’s childhood home, if they took place, probably had different connotations. Whatever the cause, Deloris’s accusation shook me. I had no desire to bring my work persona home, especially when doing so could negatively impact the relationship with my wife. While I didn’t have the luxury of immediately processing the conversation to its fullest, I knew her comments were a sign I should re-evaluate how I lived my life. I did that, and Deloris’s perspicacity turned out to be the catalyst for a major transition. I mark this conversation as the beginning of the end of my career as a lawyer, which happened only a few years later. My transition from the law—and from the constantly competitive, combative stance it necessitated for me—was the most significant shift of my adult life and, in some unforeseen ways, made this latest change in circumstance a lot easier to handle. If truth be told, it is also a transition I still struggle with maintaining.

Leaving the law is not a decision I ever regretted; it was one I think I had been contemplating taking almost from my first day in law school. I started law school almost by default—I didn’t want to be a teacher, especially in higher education, science was never a strong suit, and going into the workforce was not attractive. And there was this war in Vietnam I had no interest in joining. I began the practice of law, as many lawyers do, with a strong sense of idealism and a desire to see justice done. That didn’t last long. While I enjoyed some of the theatrical aspects of criminal defense and trial practice, the nature of that practice was combat, and my professional relationships were frequently confrontational. That wasn’t what I wanted in my marriage. As I thought about it, I understood that it wasn’t at all what I wanted in my life. The clarity of Deloris’s comment, which brought into focus for me this disparity between what I wanted and what I was living, is something for which I will be forever grateful.

This is the nature of our relationship, and now, after eighteen years of marriage, I was faced with the possibility of losing it—losing my partner, my friend, my love.