I hate being a lawyer. There. I said it. Out loud. I fucking hate being a lawyer. I dread getting out of bed in the morning. I feel utter despair when I think about doing this job for Ten More Years. Or even five. I spend a lot of time at the office these days crunching numbers on the Best Retirement Calculator, frittering away countless billable hours plotting my escape. Hours I should spend doing billable work in 6-minute increments at $53.50 a pop. I wonder how long I can continue in this manner before the equity partners at the top of the pyramid determine my contribution to the pile of money they share isn’t big enough. And if they were to make that determination, I wonder if I’d care.

When I was a 3L and clerking at a mid-size firm, I had a conversation with a young female partner, Patty. Patty impressed me because not only was she a female partner in firm with a predominantly male partnership (men by far rule the profession, to this day), she still managed to dress like a cool chick. (Later, I would learn she’d been reprimanded for not dressing in the standard uniform: dark suit, white blouse, pantyhose, dark pumps.) I was in her office with another law clerk, and we were discussing our excitement about being nearly finished with school, and on our way to actually practicing law.

“Don’t you love being a lawyer?” I asked her.

“It’s OK,” Patty said. “It pays the bills.”

“But isn’t it cool? Isn’t it fun?” I implored.

“Sometimes. But mostly, it’s just boring.”

This undoubtedly is the most honest conversation I have ever had with a potential legal employer. At the time, I thought she was being ironic like the cool kids often were. Luckily for Patty, she left the profession a few years later, after marrying a lawyer. In fact, I have several friends with whom I went to law school who went on to marry lawyers and quit practicing law. In the two decades since my portentous conversation with Patty, I’ve come to learn that boredom is only a hint of the negative aspects of practicing law. In fact, it’s much worse.

  • It steals your time. Not only are you chained to your desk for far too many hours of the day, you are chained to your smartphone once you leave. You can never, ever escape. Unless you’re somewhat rebellious, like me, and take vacations in places with no cellular coverage, like the Great Bear Rainforest or a cabin on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. In addition to the office hours spent billing time, BigLaw strongly encourages you to volunteer what little time you have left serving on State Bar committees and local boards of directors. Marketing. Rainmaking. All part of the job.

 

  • It steals your creativity. I’m in the middle of a 4-week evening writing Webinar about (re-)finding my writing voice. One of the first exercises we did was to write about a time when we abandoned ourselves to the joy of creativity. I spent the 10 minutes, while others wrote, trying to think of a time I’d recently abandoned myself to any creative endeavor (aside from this blog). When I couldn’t conjure up a single moment of joyful creative abandonment over the past decade, I spent the rest of the meeting distracted and deflated. I used to be creative. In addition to personal essay, I wrote poetry and fiction. I listened to music. I danced. Where has that girl gone?

 

  • It steals your health. I’ve gained 50 pounds since my boutique firm merged with BigLaw. Granted, the dying didn’t help, but having time to heal and nurture myself, having time for my grief, might have lessened the impact. In addition to the weight gain, there’s the overactive bladder. For years I’ve thought it was just some hereditary thing I’d have to deal with. (I’ve come to learn many women suffer from OAB, and so I allow myself to write about it in some detail. Yes, I’m Ella, and I pee myself from time to time.) Lately, since I quit the medication, I’ve noticed something. When I’m away from work, my bladder is relatively calm. When I’m in the office, it goes haywire. So I’ve taken to wearing pads to work. I prefer to use them over the medication. My bladder’s reaction to the office is quite telling. It’s like a clap-on light: Office-On, Office-Off. Having OAB is a minor effect of the stress compared to what some lawyers suffer. Substance abuse, depression, suicide. Here’s an excerpt from a recent CNN story on lawyer suicide:

“There are a lot of high stress professions,” said Yvette Hourigan, who runs the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.”

I’m so fucking sick of adversity, I could vomit. And my disdain for adversity has been increasing exponentially since the dying. I don’t have the stomach for it. I don’t care. It seems so pointless. To try to center and ground myself, to try to lessen the stress of the job (coupled with the stress from the dying), I’ve finally begun to soothe myself in ways other than alcohol and food. Yesterday I completed 30 consecutive days of meditation (and still going strong). I’m feeling a bit better. My sleep is improving. I’m finding the motivation to do consistent daily exercise. This week I began week two of morning walking. It feels wonderful to get out of bed in the morning and start the day outside, moving my body. But none of this is helping to make work more tolerable. In fact, it’s only getting worse. The healthier I get mentally, the less I can stand going to the office in the morning. I’m getting better. And the job is getting more distasteful.

WritingI can’t take it another 5 or 10 years. I just can’t. And so I need to figure out a way out. I feel in my gut that the way out is through writing. I don’t know what form that writing will take. How the escape hatch will manifest. All I know is that if I keep writing, I’ll find my way out. Writing is the key to my freedom.

Being alive is weird. I’m sure being dead is weird, too. Or maybe not. Maybe your consciousness is dead along with your body and so there’s nothing left of you to witness whether being dead is weird, or not. But back to alive weirdness.

We put my mother’s beach house on the market this weekend. (It’s been 20 months since my dad died, and I’ve finally moved from calling things “my parents'” to calling them “my mother’s”.) My parents bought the beach house when the grandchildren were little. My brothers were still married to their wives. They were still alive. They spent weekends at the beach house with their wives, and kids, and with my parents. My sister and her husband and their kids went, too. No one knew yet what my sister’s husband had done (was doing) to their daughter. My brothers’ alcoholism hadn’t yet stolen their lives. Dementia hadn’t stolen my father from us. And now my brothers and my dad are dead, and we know what my brother-in-law did. And the beach house is up for sale.

We’ve spent the past weeks sprucing things up, moving things out, and dealing with my mother’s need to hang on to her things. Her memories.

“I can’t leave that coffee table. Mike made that. I won’t just leave it with the house.”

Mike. Her oldest son. Oldest child. Dead in April 2012 at 56. Liver failure. Fucking alcohol. It’s a god damn thief.

I didn’t know it was going to be hard to sell the beach house. I didn’t know I was going to well up with grief all over again. My sister, who is not terribly sentimental, couldn’t bring herself to throw out an old metal dog bowl.dog bowl

“It was Sandy’s originally,” she told me. Sandy was my dad’s boxer. The first family dog after I was born. I recall a photo of me as a little girl, leaning over toward Sandy, pressing my forehead into his. After Sandy, there was a series of black labs. Rebel, then Nugget, and then Lacy. Each of those dogs had, over four decades, lapped water from that metal bowl.

“Maybe you should take that,” I told my sister. And so she did. She took it to her beach house, where the dogs of her daughters will drink from it. And maybe some day, the dogs of her grandchildren. Dogs that will be around long after my sister and I are dead.

We die. And the beach houses and dog bowls remain. Weird.

My writing spot at Doe Bay

My writing spot at Doe Bay

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a writers’ retreat on Orcas Island taught by memoirist, Theo Nestor. It was a momentous four days. Four days of clearing the hurdles I’d constructed between me and writing my story. I thought, having cleared those hurdles, I’d come home and begin filling the pages. But up until today, I hadn’t written a word. As I worked my way through this post, writing and rewriting, adding and deleting huge chunks, I finally realized: I’ve been mentally working through the events of those four days. But mentally working through things doesn’t work nearly as well for me as working through them via writing. And so today, I wrote through them.

One of the most formidable hurdles I would work through at the retreat was how write my story with the specter of my sister’s husband hovering over me. How to write about his sexual abuse of their daughter, my niece, and my possible (probable) abandonment by what’s left of my family when I do so. Just look how I phrased the issue: (1) To write my story I have to write about my brother-in-law’s pedophilia/sexual abuse of my niece (and to a lesser extent, me); and (2) if I write about that, what’s left of my family will abandon me. Yeah, that’s a little bit of a block, don’t you think? And what about my arcless story; the not knowing where my protagonist is headed, if anywhere? Not knowing how she’ll be transformed? If she’ll be transformed? And if she is transformed, whether it’s the kind of transformation anyone will give a damn about? Without an arc, without transformation, there is no story. How can I write a storyless story?

I decided to be brave and meet privately with Theo hoping she would have some sage advice on these issues. Turns out, she did. As for the abuser, I simply need to write the story to sort out how I want to deal with it. Do I need to employ a take-n0-prisoners approach, and torch the whole village? Will I feel OK if I omit the abuser and the abuse entirely? Or will I find some middle ground that feels like truth? It all depends upon what kind of memoirist I want to be; which depends upon who I am. Writing it will help me sort out whether I have to burn it down to feel I’m being true to myself; to my art.

Next up was how to deal with my seeming lack of arc–a protagonist who has not had a readily identifiable happily-ever-after transformation. Theo suggested that if I write the story, I might find the transformation I’m in search of. She then asked what I hope to find. What drives me to write my story? Well that’s not hard. I want to find Peace.

Peace.

And when I thought about that word–Peace–I thought about Sophie, the little black stray cat. About the months and months, amidst all the death and despair, I spent trying to save her. How I did save her. And then I had it. My story was about saving a little black stray cat named Sophie. And through saving her, I would find Peace. And my Arc.

Last night my mom called me from her assisted living home. Her cousin, my Uncle Gary, had died. Gary has been sick for years. Diabetes, kidney disease, dialysis, heart attacks. He’s younger than my mother. Seventy-four, we guessed. His father, my Great Uncle Heinz, was from Germany. Heinz was a tall, hulking man with a thick German accent. Heinz fascinated me. But I was also a little afraid of him. Heinz was missing half his index finger on is right hand. His trigger finger. The story whispered amongst the family was that Heinz had accidentally cut off the tip of his right index finger in a wood shop. Accidentally during the war after he had received conscription papers. Heinz, who had become an American citizen, would have to have fought against the Germans, his countrymen, had he had a fully-functioning digit.

As I brushed my teeth before I went to bed last night, an image of Heinz’s son popped into my head: Gary in a shower cap, paint brush in his hand, standing in front of a two-tone cabin. We had all pitched in that day to paint my parents’ cabin on Lake Superior for my father’s birthday present. It had been log-cabin red for many years. The new color was to be slate gray–the color of the lake with the sun dancing of its surface on that hot September day. My mom’s brothers had organized the painting party, and my aunt and female cousin had pitched in. My dad barked directions at us, and the cabin went from red to gray as the sun set.

Gary in his shower cap to keep the paint out of his hair. He worked with his paintbrush on the bottom half of the cabin. His wife wouldn’t let him climb a ladder due to his health issues. My cousin and I did the second story, along with my mother’s youngest brother. The brother who is now helping me save my dad’s business; his legacy.

The Out House

The Out House

It’s funny how we can be in the midst of life’s best moments and not recognize them as such. Painting the cabin on an Indian summer day on the shores of Lake Superior. Everyone was still alive. Still healthy. A fresh coat of paint. The cabin ready for the winter storms. I still have the periwinkle blue tank top I wore that day. Periwinkle blue with dabs of gray paint. I haven’t worn it since. But it hangs in my closet. A reminder of the painting party. My mother’s brothers. My aunt. My cousin. My father. And my mother’s cousin in his shower cap flecked with slate-gray paint.

I’ve been avoiding the page for the past two weeks because I haven’t wanted to deal with life head on. The year anniversary of the death of my brother was a couple of weeks ago–March 25. I took the day off work and drove out to Pedernales State Park to commune with nature and my brother’s memory.

DSC_0834

Pedernales River March 25, 2014

I generally don’t like people in my nature photos, but if you look closely you can see the itty bitty people standing on top of the rocks right of center, which gives some perspective as to the vastness of this place.

On my way home, I saw these little guys, so I pulled over to stop for a visit.

As spring finally appears in Central Texas, I’m only now beginning to appreciate how weighed down I’ve been by all the grief. The change of seasons is prodding me to awaken, and the fact that it’s so difficult to do so highlights grief’s impact. As I hiked around the park, I thought of Steve, and my dad, and my other brother, Mike. All the loss has changed me. Irrevocably. It had to.

I no longer know what I want from life. I don’t think I want much of anything, in fact. I don’t want to excel at my job. I want to do good work, but I don’t want to achieve, get ahead, become a star. I don’t want to pass the time in idle conversation. I don’t want to buy things. I’m not much interested in world news or politics, including Facebook bickering. It just seems so inconsequential. To me. (I did accidentally shake hands with a tea party candidate at my office last week. One who is expected to win a powerful post in my state. I felt like I’d contracted cooties, afterward.) I used to care deeply about this stuff. But many things that used to matter, don’t now.

What does matter is this beautiful rainy Sunday. The squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. The gold finches and the doves. The cat on my lap. My visit with my mother at her assisted living home yesterday. The doctor told us last week that based on her EEG results, she’s got dementia. They are starting her on Aricept and Namenda. I kept hoping her memory loss was due to grief, but it’s only getting worse. The doctor says she’s still very high functioning. And she is. But I can’t help but think of my father’s deterioration and the fact the Alzheimer’s killed him, albeit indirectly. (Disorientation caused him to fall out of bed and hit his head on a nightstand–he died a year and a half ago from a subdural hematoma, exactly a month after emergency brain surgery.) I asked them to do an MRI of my mother’s brain, which will be done next week. Hopefully it won’t reveal any additional concerns.

All of this has brought me back to a familiar spot. Wanting my mother to live and enjoy life for many years to come. But not wanting her to live long enough to make it to the devastating late stage of dementia. My father got close, but the brain injury spared him (and us) from the worst of it. And now with both my parents having been diagnosed with dementia, it’s bound to catch up with me at some point. I’m trying to stay in the present. Focus on the beautiful moments in front of me. But my mind keeps racing ahead.

Here is a photo I took last weekend, to bring me back to now.

Texas Bluebonnets

Texas Bluebonnets

I used to dislike the holidays because of the family dysfunction. I now dislike the holidays because of the lack of family to create dysfunction. This time last year, we were adjusting to the death of my oldest brother (April 2012) and father (October 2012). I was in the midst of putting together an intervention for my remaining brother so we wouldn’t lose yet another family member to an alcohol-related disease. The intervention worked: my brother went to inpatient rehab, quit drinking, and died three months later of acute myelogenous leukemia (March 2013). That’s how it goes.

This year, my remaining family members remain a bit shell-shocked. None of us really knows how to do Christmas. My sister has a pretty good gig–she just leaves town and goes to her daughter’s home in Dallas to hang out with her new grandbaby. I, on the other hand, will go to Houston to try to cobble together some sort of Christmas get-together for my mother. I haven’t written much about my mother of late. I suppose I should pause and insert a quick update.

In July, my mother had minor outpatient surgery to suspend her bladder. Now that she was no longer spending all her time and energy caring for my father and alcoholic brothers, she began to care for herself. The minor bladder surgery turned into a major medical emergency when she got deep vein thrombosis in the days that followed. She spent two weeks in intensive care, during which time the doctor informed me that a vena cava filter she’d had inserted during a hip replacement years earlier likely saved her life. Even so, I found myself putting together my to-do list in the event of her death. It had sort of become old hat. But, she didn’t die. She went from intensive care to intense inpatient rehab for a month. People gave me funny looks when I told them my mother was in inpatient rehab. I had to pause and explain it was not the kind of rehab my brother had been in just months earlier. From there she went to normal rehab at a skilled nursing facility, where she stayed until the Medicare ran out–three months. That took us through late October, where she made the transition to assisted living. Insurance does not cover assisted living. That’s running about $6500 a month. Yes, I lose sleep worrying about money. Often. But I’m also becoming quite thrifty with my own finances. Better late than never.

So here I am, the estranged white black sheep of the family, now in charge of all things: probating my father’s will, managing my mother’s finances (which includes three houses and not much in the way of liquid assets), and running what’s left of my father’s business from afar. White black sheep, you query? Yes. I considered myself the black sheep because I was different from the rest of the family in that I was the only child of four who did not work for my father’s business. Instead, I went to law school and basically ran away from home when I moved from Houston to Austin. (My sister and her husband quit the business a few years back, and my brothers quit by dying.) I considered myself the white black sheep because I wasn’t a bad sheep. I was different from the rest of my family in that I ran from the dysfunction, rather than embracing it. Upon further consideration, black sheep get a bad rap. I think I’ll drop the “white” from my self-description, and just go with black sheep from now on.  Seriously. Look how cute she is.

Embrace the Black Sheep

Embrace the Black Sheep

All this babbling is leading up to something. It really is. It’s just difficult to go at it directly. My niece (the eldest daughter of my sister and her husband) has a new baby girl. My sister’s husband molested their other daughter for many years until she spoke up at age 15. My sister didn’t divorce him. Aside from the molesting part, he’s actually a kind man. Whereas my sister is a cold, cold woman. It’s all very complicated for them, to be sure. For many years I found it all very black and white. He was horrible, she was just as bad (and maybe even worse), and they both should rot in hell, if only there was one. Rather than getting into how I feel about it now (if I even know), I want to talk about how disturbing it was when I was with them all over Thanksgiving. Yes, I waxed lyrical in an earlier post about how the baby brought us all together. She did. But what are my niece and her husband thinking when the molester holds the baby? Have they discussed with each other how they’re going to deal with grandpa? Have they had a conversation with him?

Dad, here are the rules:

  • You are not allowed to be alone with my baby. Ever.
  • You are not allowed to change the baby’s diaper.
  • You are not allowed to be in the room when the baby’s diaper is being changed.
  • You can’t give her a bath.
  • You can’t go in the bathroom when she’s having a bath.
  • You can’t bounce her on your knee.
  • You can’t dress her.
  • You can’t take her temperature.
  • You can’t play horsey.

How in the world is she navigating around the landmines? How does her husband feel about it? How horrible is it to have this dark cloud over the joy of being a new mother? I did notice when the baby’s diaper was being changed, he left the room. Which led me to think they do have rules in place.

Would things have been simpler if my sister had left him? Would it be easier to disown your father (and in my sister’s case, to leave her husband), or to continue to have him as a part of your life, but erect strong boundaries to prevent history from repeating itself?

These are very difficult decisions, to be sure. For some, I expect the answers are black and white. As they were for me for many years. But when everyone starts dying, you begin to see the gray edges. (I will refrain from picking the low-hanging fruit–making a 50-shades-of-gray joke.) You begin to see the good and bad in everyone. Including your crazy family. And you find yourself wanting them around, despite the bad. Which is difficult, too. Because in a way, it makes me feel like a sellout. Maybe I should get a new boyfriend, instead.

It’s in the 20s and 30s in Austin. Just a few days ago, it was in the 80s. I’m lounging on the sofa covered in a faux fur throw, a pot of Bolognese simmering on the stove. (Less than 2 hours to go!) Sadie is napping on the green silk chair.

Is the bolognese done yet?

Is the Bolognese done yet?

Sally is doing the rolly pollies on the dining rug.

No, I'm not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

No, I’m not currently using the rug as a scratching post.

Sophie is upstairs in her room snoozing on the hand-crocheted blanket on her sofa.

imageOr at least she was until I attempted to photograph her, at which point she got up, went for a quick scratch, and refused to pose further.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

You may photograph my hind quarters. That is all.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

Damn, the paparazzi. Always intruding on my naps.

This time last year, Sophia hadn’t yet appeared on my doorstep. This time last year, the temperatures hadn’t yet reached freezing. Thank goodness she was lost last year.

Later, I’ll lie on her sofa, and she’ll jump up immediately, meowing and trilling repeatedly, until she settles herself on my belly. She’ll lie there, purring and drooling, as I tell her what a lucky little cat she is. No hiding from storms or the cold. Or dogs. No scrounging in the trash for food. No matted fur. No protruding bones. No resorting to rubbing against bushes for petting.

This holiday season, she lives in a warm house with all the tuna she can eat (Whole Foods pole caught albacore, no salt added). She has her own room with a sofa, sheepskin, blanket, and jungle gym.  She has two not-so-wicked-after-all stepsisters who’ve all but stopped hissing at her. They’ve even allowed her onto the two-legged mama cat’s bed. She’s got a clean litter box all to herself that is scooped twice daily. And she gets to lie on her mama’s tummy every night, purring and drooling to her heart’s content.

I can’t help but think in these freezing temperatures what Sophie would have done had I not found her. How she would have fared on her own. But I did find her. Or rather, she found me. She gave me something good to focus on in the midst of all my grief. She warmed my heart. And I warmed her paws.

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