Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dre's Anatomy

Life, and death, are measured by the function of two organs:  The brain, and the heart.

Thankfully, my brain not only works, but I would say it has served me well.  I got through high school, college, graduate school, and the bar exam with relative ease.  I enjoy thinking and writing and some people even say I'm pretty good at it.  Intellect and wit carry me in this life.

And so the irony is not lost on me, that I gave birth to a child with a defect termed "anencephaly," which means, "without a brain."

Having never heard of anencephaly before my son was diagnosed with the defect, I struggled to imagine what an anencephalic baby must look like.  In my mind, I first imagined a baby that literally had an empty skull, until reason took over.  I began to study anencephaly, and learned that there are varying degrees. A more accurate term is "acrania," meaning, "without a cranium."  Acrania can lead to anencephaly.  A baby with acrania hasn't formed a complete skull, and accordingly, the brain may either fail to develop completely or will be damaged due to exposure to amniotic fluid.  But the anencephalic baby has a brain, and that brain has activity, albeit limited activity in some cases.

An ancephalic baby also has a heartbeat.  My anencephalic baby had a heartbeat that was strong and steady.  Just a few weeks into my pregnancy with Gabriel, I laid on an examining table while the nurse practitioner advised me not to worry if she couldn't find my baby's heartbeat with the Doppler monitor that she was about to apply to my belly.  "It's very early, so don't be alarmed."  But she swiftly drew a breath and smiled.  "There it is."  Tears streamed involuntarily down my cheeks.  My heart's desire had a heartbeat.

As I read about anencephaly, I refused to look at pictures of the exposed birth defect.  I was warned that these images were often not representative, having been taken from babies who were aborted early upon diagnosis.  Instead I focused on viewing pictures of capped anencephalic babies, taking the opportunity to marvel at how otherwise-normal these babies looked.  I tried to trust that when Gabriel was born, I wouldn't see a defect, but only see perfection, though I struggled to believe it.

When Gabriel was born and as he continued to hold on day after day, I was struck by wonder that this child, brain exposed, could function so normally.  He tried to raise his head, he gripped my finger, he resisted diaper changes - he required diaper changes.  I looked at him, and I knew I was looking at a scientific and Godly miracle.  Gabriel's life wasn't supposed to happen.  Anencephalic babies aren't supposed to live for ten days.  Their open skulls are like open wounds susceptible to infection, their brains have been damaged and limit the child's function - indeed, Gabriel was almost completely mute, and we believe he was blind - and people aren't supposed to live when their brains are outside of their skull.  But there he was, with a living, functioning brain.  There I was, holding my child, staring at this living organ that I would imagine most doctors haven't even seen exposed and alive.  I could touch it.  I could spend hours staring at it.  I saw a functioning human brain, outside of a human skull.

Of course, it makes sense when I consider that holding my son was like holding my own beating heart in my arms.  I longed for him, my heart ached for him, long before he was born.  He kept the blood pumping in my veins; love for my child sustained me.

Then one day Gabriel's body stopped functioning.  His excretory system shut down first, I believe.  His breathing became labored and he gasped for air, seizing so that he body would freeze in tension, then shake wildly.  His beautiful brain stopped working.  In my arms, his heart stopped beating.

And when it did, mine did too, even if just for a moment.  I feel sometimes that I must will my heart to beat, I must make myself take each breath.  I must make myself carry on.

"They" say that an anencephalic baby only reacts to stimuli; he doesn't feel, he doesn't act voluntarily.  He's some sort of zombie, with only a brain stem telling him to move or eat or smile.  But I saw my son live; he was alive.  Many days I'm the one just going through the motions.

My heart has been exposed.  It's been taken from my chest and has been made vulnerable.  It is prone to loving and aching; it is highly susceptible to being broken.  It's no way to live.

Then again, "they" said living with your brain outside of your skull is no way to live.  There is no quality of life.    But I would readily take ten days with my son, his brain outside of his skull, over no time at all.  I would take him, defective and perfect all at once, any day.

I've thought about shutting down my heart, freezing it and making it purely functional.  I just don't think I can. My heart doesn't wait for my brain to tell it to react - it just does.  My heart doesn't take signals from my brain most of the time - though God knows I wish it did.  My heart just acts, sometimes in risky, reckless ways.  Still, I suppose I would take my heart with its fractures and defects over no heart at all.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Compromise & Release

"What do I do with this one?"  I asked Pam of a file among a stack of files that she transferred to me my first month at M&F. 

"I don't know what's going to happen with that one.  One of the co-defendants desparately wants to settle.  One of them seems to be sticking their head in the sand.  And our client seems content not to worry about it.  The applicant is a pro per.  This case has been going on forever. Contact the client, and see what he wants to do."

Eight months I traveled to the Riverside District Office of the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board to settle the case between three co-defendants, including my client, and the applicant by Compromise and Release .  One of the co-defendants joined us from his Culver City office to make sure things went smoothly.  As it turned out, the applicant had her days jumbled, and the co-defendant and I had to wait over two hours for her to arrive to complete the settlement.

"Come on.  I'll buy you coffee.  No sense in us waiting around up here." 

My first thought was that I have been having great success in scoring free coffee when I wear a skirt.  My second thought was more of a question, whether the same might apply to scoring free cocktails.  I made a note to myself to test the theory over the weekend. 

In a coffee shop next door to the State building, we discussed our unique area of practice.

"What made you decide to do Comp?" 

"I didn't really decide to.  I needed a job.  My husband and I were splitting up, and I needed to find something quick.  I thought I was just applying to have something.  Turns out I really like it.  I've got a plan.  I'm going to give this five years, and reassess whether its what I want to do.  I think I need to give it at least five years to know.  But, I really wanted to do jury trials.  The thought of never doing a jury trial makes me sad." 

"Jury trials are tough.  I know great jury trial attorneys who have miserable home lifes.  Their wives hate them; their kids hate them."  My mouth twisted.  I have no spouse.  I have no living children.  "How old are you, if you don't mind my asking?" 


"You're still young enough to do whatever you want in this profession.  If you wanna do Comp for a while, fine.  You'll still have plenty of time to try other things.  Open your own practice.  Build a family." 

In the grand scheme of my plan to live to be 100, it's true that 31 does seem young.  But those 31 years flew by, and I feel like I wear every one of them on me like a wet coat.  I woke up one day, and I was 31, and suddenly alone when just the night before it seems I had all I wanted.  69 years doesn't seem like nearly enough time to do the things I want to do, like write a book, swim with the dolphins, starte a non-profit organization in Gabriel's honor, pet a tiger, have my teeth whitened, end abortion, meet Madonna, visit France, find love again, and have more children.  I glanced at the clock.

"Do you suppose she's here now?" He paused. 

"Yes.  Let's go find her." 

The applicant was still a few minutes away, but when she finally appeared my co-defendant, who has been involved in the case almost since the date of injury back in 2001, recognized her immediately and summoned her into the hearing room.  We discussed the settlement and held our breaths.  After 12 years of litigating this claim, we watched as the applicant signed her settlement, then the co-defendant stood in line for our chance to talk to the judge. 

The applicant and I hung back. 

"Andrea, I want to thank you for getting this all together."  I shrugged. 

"I'm glad you're getting your settlement.  Now you can control your own treatment."  A compromise and release agreement is indeed a buyout of future medical care, so termed because the parties compromise as to the value of future medical care, and the applicant agrees to release liability for treatment of work-related injuries in turn for the lump settlement.  The applicant can then see any doctor they choose, and my client doesn't have to administer their treatment any longer.  My job makes me most content when everybody wins, when we can all agree to compromise and release.

"You're so young, Andrea."  I tugged unwillingly and the skin under my eyes where the creases have begun to form.  How can they not see it?  How can they not see the grief that has aged me so? 

"Thank you for everything,"  the applicant said as I handed her copies of the settlement and my business card.  I didn't really do anything exceptional.  It's just a job.  Most of the time, it's just a thankless job and I frequently miss bartending full time though I haven't forgotten how thankless that job can be too. 

I have a strong need to be needed.  At times it leads me to be overbearing, and at other times it turns me into a doormat.  When I think of my relationships with my siblings, with men I've dated, and with the one man I was married to, I know that I have been both of those things in each of those relationships. I'm still struggling to find the balance.  I'm struggling to find the compromise.  I long to find the release. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Iris

On Saturday I noticed the hearty leaves that sprout on the side of my house in the spring had developed a bud, with deep purple petals beginning to push through.  I snapped a photo and sent it to Lindsey, who responded, "Ooo, purple!  I bet it's an iris."

I had admired my neighbors irises many times, but had no idea the plant that grows every year had the potential to be a blooming iris.  Sure enough, when I pulled into the driveway on Monday, I noticed immediately that the flower had bloomed.  It was stunning. 

It was clearly a sign, I thought.  Something fantastic was about to happen.  And I needed something fantastic to happen.  Sender and I, who had been involved in a casual relationship for several months, had been in the process of figuring out what to do with our romantic relationship that seems to have evolved into more of a friendship.  It had been a tiring process, as he and I started to let go of the security we'd found in each other.  I'd come to count on Sender to be available for dinner, companionship, and a shoulder to lean on that somehow provided a different sort of comfort than be found among family and platonic friends.  He took me on my first post-divorce date, he was the first person to hold my hand again or put his arm around me in romantic affection after nearly a year long void of that sort of special, intimate, contact.  I needed him, right at that very moment, and he will be dear to me always. 

As our relationship fizzled the way these things do, with a reduced amount of text messaging but still the occassional, "Wanna go to lunch this week?" I felt at once scared of treading the single waters again, and hopeful.  I had a plan.  I had always had a plan.  And when I have a plan I am focused, and driven.  That beautiful purple iris bloom was my sign that my plan was right on track, no matter how scared I was feeling. 

My hope was promptly cut short, though, with an unexpected - unplanned - message.  A kink in the plan.  A great, big kink, and the kind I can't unravel.  The kind that is completely out of my control.  The kind of kink you feel in your heart; the kind of helplessness you feel in your gut.  The kind of kink that I had considered might arise, but which I waved off because I knew I couldn't plan for it or do a damn thing about it if it ever came up. 

I'm a planner.  I'm a go-getter.  "Why do you pursue men?" my therapist asked.  I do for a lot of reasons.  I do it because most men who I would be interested in are not the type that would pursue someone like me.  I do it because I like to be in control.  I do it because when I want something, I go out and get it.

"You do," said my mom.  "Like a law degree.  But some things aren't yours to have."  I picked at my plate while I considered what she'd just said.  Not mine to have?  Like people? 

I wanted a husband.  I searched and searched, my eyes on the end goal, passing on anyone who I didn't think I could get to the finish line.  I caught him.  I married him.  I began working on my plans for the rest of my life until I planned, and organized, and scheduled myself into an unplanned divorce. 

I wanted a baby.  I wanted several babies.  I had wanted them for as long as I can remember.  I'd been naming them since I was 13.  I calendared their due dates even before they were conceived.  Like clockwork, their existence was detected with a home pregnancy test two weeks after they came into being.  I began stockpiling diapers, clothes and furniture.  I made lists of names and meanings and practiced writing them and saying them out loud.  I picked out nursery decor.  I planned, and organized, and scheduled my children's lives never imagining with either pregnancy that all of the plans would be unnecessary.  I planned them, until I broke them.  That was NOT part of the plan.  That was NOT supposed to happen.  I learned a hard lesson that people, not even our children, are not ours to go out and get, and have, and keep. I was shocked to learn I was miscarrying my baby.  I was shocked to learn I would lose my next baby.  I'm always shocked by this kind of news because I don't really hope and dream tentatively, I hope and dream with faith and confidence.

I can say that I'm a planner, but my plans are often born out of impulse and governed by emotional wants and childish impatience.  I don't feel halfway, I feel from the bottom of my heart and it drives me and that drive is my success and my undoing all at once.  I set my sights, and I march ahead and I pursue what I want because I want it.  Gabriel was just as determined.  He decided he was going to live ten days, and so he did, in spite of statistics. I'm not sorry that I gave him my strong will.

I'm not sorry for the way I love and care - deeply, and with abandon.  I'm only sorry for the way I show it - desparately and wildly and unrestrained. It strikes me now that maybe this isn't the best MO. 

I wanted grass.  I got grass.  Every day I find myself fussing over the grass, watering the dry patches of sod that haven't taken quite yet, scolding Noelle for trying to pull up the sod, tip-toeing across a lawn that two large dogs run across and wrestle and play on all day while I'm at work.  The dry patches still haven't taken. 

But before Saturday I don't think I had ever touched the iris.  I didn't pull the leaves in the spring, or trim them back when they wilted in the fall.  I didn't give it any special attention.  I just let it be, and it became this beautiful thing that I never even noticed was there.  It makes me wonder what else I have missed in my narrow focus and pursuits.  I wonder what I've lost because I've fussed too much or tried too hard.  What kinds of things would have grown if I hadn't tried so hard?  How many more irises are out and the next time I see one, will I have slowed down enough to recognize it? 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hope's Alive

Since 2007 I have been waiting. 

2007 was the last year a woman won American Idol - Well, at 16 Jordin Sparks wasn't quite a woman when she took the title.  Although through Season 8 I championed the unlikely Kris Allen all the way to the first place spot, I have wanted another woman to win every year since then.  Of all the things wrong in the world, of all the things to hope for, hoping for a woman to win American Idol is unquestionably trite, yet it was a fervent wish of mine as this season kicked off.

With every male contestant eliminated and five women left standing in this unprecedented season of American Idol, it appears my wish has come true. 

Why American Idol?  Because I get to watch someone else's dream come true.  In fact, I get to help make their dream come true. I get to sort through a talented bunch of people and eliminate the egos, the slouches and the hacks until I've found the singer who touches my heart and inspires me. 

I love American Idol. 

Although the top five are all women, the situation still isn't ideal to me.  As I type tonight, I watched my favorite, Janelle Arthur, get eliminated.  I think I knew Janelle wasn't going to be the winner, like I knew Haley Reinhart and Hollie Cavanagh were probably not going to be the winners.  After Janelle's stunning performance of "You Keep Me Hanging On" I felt a glimmer of hope that the rest of the world was seeing what I had seen for weeks.  I can't help it.  Though I have a frightening competitive streak, and I hate to lose, I'm also a sucker for an underdog and hopelessly romantic when it comes to a lost cause.  Some might say giving up is easy, but it's actually not.  Giving up when your heart is telling you to keep holding on even while it's breaking is not easy, or I suppose I would have many times by now. 

I keep hoping, because every once in a while, someone like Kris Allen wins American Idol, and every once in a while, the baby they said would die moments after birth lives for ten days and changes the world.  Every once in a while, the hope you were told to let go of proves itself worth holding on to. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Dootch

I lost a couple of things temporarily in the divorce:  Amestoy's, and Narducci's. 

Though I am an East Bakersfield native and Ben migrated here from Orange County, he quickly took to the local food and bar scene.  Certain places just became his.  Amestoy's, just down the street from the house, was one of them.  Narducci's, affectionately called "The Dootch," was another.  I've known bartenders and patrons at both places for many years, having become a staple myself in the East Bakersfield bar scene after nearly 10 years of service in it.  But Ben was a regular at both spots, and after so many years in the business, I know how comfortable - and talkative - regulars can be.

For years I've listened to men complain about their nagging, crochety, bitchy wives.  Their wives who just don't understand them.  The wives that just want to keep these independent, hard-working men under their thumbs.  The wives whose phone calls are rattling the men's cell phones while they ask for one more drink.  Now that I have been one of those wives I shudder to think about what kinds of things have been said about me. 

When the time came to walk into Amestoy's again, the fear was a little bit more mild.  I'd been to Amestoy's many times before I'd ever even met Ben, and the bar is in walking distance from my home.  Besides, the crowd at Amestoy's had been instrumental in raising funds so that Ben and I didn't have to pay for Gabriel's funeral, cremation, or interment services.  The names of patrons and bartenders from both Amestoy's and Narducci's decorate the pages of Gabriel's funeral guest book.  They know.  They know, to some degree, what we went through.  They witnessed the progression from happy newlyweds to crestfallen post-miscarriage parents, to blissfully expectant parents, to grieving parents, to fueding parents, to distant parents, to divorced parents. . . They know the ride that lasted just slightly under three years had been fast, and hard, and disastrous. 

Yet I was afraid to walk back into Narducci's again.  I kept my distance, having never been much of a patron their to begin with.  Every once in a while, one of their bartenders would pop into Charly's and ask how I was doing.  And if I'd heard from Ben. 

On St. Patrick's Day evening I got a simple message:  "Come to the Dootch."  The sender and I had been casually dating for a couple of months, and St. Patrick's Day was his birthday, a bit of a milestone birthday this particular year.  I hesitated when I opened the message.  Sender had graciously been my date and companion on a number of occassions in situations that probably made him less than comfortable.  And it was Sender's birthday.  And it was a holiday. . .

"Okay," I responded.  I called for back-up, dragging another friend along with me with promises of being the driver for the evening.  I slunk into the bar and bee-lined for Sender.  Sender was lively with celebratory spirit, and I imagined that I felt the eyes of the people I knew boring into me.  The place was packed, and the bartenders barely had time to think, let alone think about me, but my paranoia bubbled inside of me. 

"There she is. The ex-wife of the ex-chef at the Marriott.  You know, the one with the dead baby.  It's so sad.  That must be why she drinks.  I would too, if everything I lived for were gone.  Is she here with Sender?  Isn't it too soon for her to be dating?  Pretty convenient, huh?  No kid to look after - She drove the ex off to South Carolina so now I guess she thinks she can just run around doing whatever she wants." 

The Dootch was wall to wall with drunk young, barely-of-drinking-age girls, rowdy men, and a band.  No one would have cause to even take notice of me as I sat inconspicuously.  Reason tells me now it was all in my imagination.  But at the time it felt painfully real. 

I made it out of The Dootch that evening relatively unscathed.  The same can't be said for Sender - mid-morning text messages informed me that he was feeling the effects of a long day of celebrating. 

I've gone back to The Dootch a few times, and each time it gets a little easier.  I do find myself wondering what life might have been like if there were no Narducci's - but I know that there's always a Narducci's.  If it's not Narducci's, it's a Shooters, or a Sandtrap.  It's not lost on me that my life with Ben began and ended in a bar and that maybe a lesson to take away is to just avoid them.  But I know that the problem wasn't the bar.  The problem runs much deeper and the problem runs through us both.  I've spent the last year wrestling the problems, trying to accept responsibility for my faults, and making conscious choices to do things differently now. 

I've done a lot of growing up in bars and all in all, I think working in bars has given me courage, strength, and confidence.  I'll awlways be a bar girl.  But I won't always be so broken.  In fact, every day I find that I've healed just a little bit more. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Trial and Error

There was never any question for me upon entering law school that I should be a trial attorney.  Anyone who knew me prior to starting law school also knew I would come out the other side a trial attorney.  Like being a mom, being a trial attorney is just sort of what I was meant to do.

My heart has been in criminal law since I understood the importance of law.  For 27 years my mom was legal secretary to arguably the best criminal defense attorney that Bakersfield had ever seen, and for as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be Stan Simrin when I grow up.  I want to be the kind of lawyer who practices with the burning belief that every person accused of a crime deserves a defense.  I want to be the kind of lawyer that MAKES opposing counsel prove their burden, and who argues every case with the fierce zeal that we are ethically bound to demonstrate.

Over cocktails and karaoke one evening, a fellow attorney who passed the California bar exam the same year that I did said to me, "I can't believe you're doing worker's comp.  You are a criminal defense attorney at heart.  You believe in it.  I respect that."  As he slurred his way through a David Allan Coe song I thought wistfully about what he'd said.

Criminal defense isn't the most respected area of legal practice, because it's frequently misunderstood.  There's a belief that if a person would defend a criminal, they must somehow approve of crimes, think victims are "asking for it," or that the lawyer must also be a crook and a criminal just trying to rake in retainer fees.  I think some people must think we are vulnerable fools, or at least that's what I gather every time I comment publicly about the Jodi Arias trial.

"I can kinda see how things happened as she describes," I'll say, and jaws hit the floor.  It's undoubtedly easier to believe that Arias is just a sociopath and a liar - we know at least the latter part is true and likely so is the first.  But, as they say, as children prosecutors and plaintiff's attorneys like to build things, and defense attorneys like to tear them down.  From the time I was a child I was picking cases apart and I know that I was just a born defense attorney.  If there's reasonable doubt to be found, a defense attorney can spy it.

After years of dreaming about what my first "real trial" would be like, the real thing couldn't have been more anticlimactic.  Though I had done hearings in civil court where there was action and interaction with witnesses, and come very close to taking a case to jury trial, my first actual trial was a lien trial.  At lien trials, stipulations and issues and a list of exhibits are read into the record, with the parties appearing to either approve or dispute what was read on the record.  Then everyone just sorta goes back to their office.  Brilliant, lengthy arguments aren't delivered.  No one stands up.  The parties aren't even all lawyers.

A lien trial isn't what I envisioned for my first trial.  Then again, life isn't really what I planned it to be either.  Life, both professionally and personally, has been full of trial and error.  I never thought I'd be practicing administrative law, but I love it.  It's never dull - except when it is.  My colleagues are bright, adept attorneys; the firm that employs me is respectable and good to me; the applicants are interesting; I get to travel; and I love going to work every day.  I'm not just biding my time with this position. I love my job and so I'm giving it an honest shot.

I know eventually I'll find my way back to criminal defense.  It's in my heart.  It's who I am.  I wonder sometimes if I'm just a fool, clinging to romantic notions of justice.  Why can't I just be satisfied with what I've got?  How can I have so much, and still want more?  But in my heart, I believe the time was just wrong for me to be in criminal practice right now.  Someday, the time will be right.  Until the it is, I suppose I'll just keep trying to make the most of what I've got right now, and learning all along the way.