August 28, 2014

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Nobody's Fool

She was nobody's fool, but you would never have known it, unless you got to know her.

Her name isn't important. She didn't think it was important. When it came up, she always gave it like it was statistical information. It just happened to be her name. If you needed it, then you probably had a reason for needing it, like a form or some requirement for the government. Or maybe she thought it was a little less than important because it was her ex-husband's name. Years of being beaten, and watching your child be beaten, by your drunken husband can cause you to feel a little less than proud that you carry that name.

Until she got sick, she worked in the school cafeteria, feeding kids. Cooking and feeding kids was what she did for a living. I don't know anything about how good her food was or how the kids felt about her. I only met her after all the tragedy that can happen had long since begun.

Many years before, she and her husband had adopted a child that they knew would have a hard time. Things weren't all bad with her husband, but eventually she couldn't take the beatings. She got a divorce and custody of her son.. The boy loved both his parents, but particularly wanted his father's approval. He didn't get it. Just his mother telling him she loved him, that it would be all right and to do better.

As a teenager, the boy got into stealing and getting caught. Psychiatry --- medicine and talk --- never helped for long. He'd go back to stealing, and getting caught. Then his father died and the intermittent child support stopped. In school he showed some real mechanical abilities, but he finally got really caught. Caught up in the system, which sent him to a real prison, although he had no history of being violent. His mother protested to the authorities and visited him as soon as she could get time off from work.

Almost as soon as he got there, he was repeatedly beaten and raped by his fellow inmates. He wouldn't tell his mother what had happened, but the prison authorities told her what they suspected and what he'd told them. She fought and fought and got him moved to another facility. Then some idiot snuck a gun into that facility and her boy tried to make a prison break with the gun. When it didn't work (he was going to have to start killing people with the gun), he sat down, thought about it and killed himself instead. He was 17 years old.

Reasons. Reasons and explanations. Reasons and explanations and theories. She got all of those from the officials who were responsible for the facility where it happened. But all the talk was general and very limited, because they didn't know, or couldn't tell, the facts.

There were visits to her home and condolences from those in charge, from those in charge of them and from those in charge of investigating all of it and all of them. Her questions were sometimes diverted with expressions of sorrow and grief or concern, but she usually got her questions answered --- sort of. If what they could say didn't satisfy her, then they just couldn't be sure enough to answer. Of course, they weren't sure exactly what happened, how the gun got in to a supposedly secure facility, how it got past the metal detectors ("oh yes, they were all working") or most important to her, what her son said and did in his last few minutes.

I met her because she wanted to sue the state and make them tell the truth about what had happened. She wanted to know, because it was about her son. He was her only child. She wanted to know. Sure, sue them for the maximum. The limit on suing the state is not nearly what a life is worth, but maybe they will have to tell. She said, "maybe it won't happen to somebody else's child", if they have to tell. But she only said that once to me, because that was just another reason for suing. She wanted to know what happened to her child.

She didn't necessarily believe the reasons she was given. When something that's wrong has happened, reasons are just excuses. Excuses made by people who won't take responsibility, because taking responsibility would interfere with what they want. Sometimes the excuses even sound good enough to get people to quit asking. All she really wanted was the truth about what had happened when her son died.

There had been a special investigation by one of the State's top investigators. We had learned that much. There were third or fourth hand rumors, which seemed to start with employees at the center, that the metal detector system, which wasn't broken, had been fixed. Whenever we talked, she would ask a question or volunteer an insight that showed that she was thinking about the situation and the people involved. Sometimes she had a point you hadn't thought of and couldn't honestly get around.

We talked about what she could do to make the State talk about what had happened. It could be ordered to answer our questions, even though it claimed that much of the information was protected by law. It could be made to produce the people with knowledge and their depositions could be taken. Everyone involved could be put under oath and made to tell what they knew about what had happened or they would have to be willing to go to the judge about not answering the questions.

When we talked about deposing the officials in charge, she showed some enthusiasm. But she wanted the actual facts of what had happened, not the official story, from the people who knew, the people who were there. Those people had jobs that had involved them with her son. Whether they, or anyone, had done anything wrong, telling the truth could only threaten them, their friends, their bosses and ultimately their jobs. It sure couldn't help them.

Imagine being put under oath and asked pretty much any question a lawyer wants to ask about your job and how well you do it. Now imagine that the lawyer is somebody who doesn't get paid unless someone you work with did something wrong. Finally, imagine that the lawyer intends to prove that "wrong" with your answers to his questions, which he gets to ask until he is satisfied. There is no upside for the individual who is having his deposition taken.

There were times that it seemed that the State wanted to make the facts, or enough of them, available to her. She always told me to wait, to see what the State would produce voluntarily. She knew she wouldn't get the truth from people who thought that she had told her lawyer to bloody them. She didn't lash out to hurt others in revenge, when all she got was excuses. She didn't try to take anyone down, when she realized that the law couldn't provide the truth she sought. She publicly questioned, but never used the power the law provides to make life difficult for those who wouldn't do what she wanted.

The State had admitted that it had done something wrong, which was unique for any defendant, in my legal experience. They had let a new prisoner bring a gun into a facility that they had declared "secure". But they didn't produce the information that they were supposed to produce. Then they offered money to settle the case. Then their lawyer couldn't get it approved. Then their lawyer slowly became chronically ill. He finally had to quit practicing law and then the State had to get a new lawyer on the case and up to speed. All that takes a good bit of time. Years.

While that was going on, she developed abdominal cancer and had to quit work. She'd never had enough to live on and still didn't. Without money or decent insurance, it took about 9 months for the free clinic to arrange for the removal of most of the organs in her abdominal cavity and for the radiation/chemotherapy that she needed after the surgery.

Incredibly she survived the surgery, the radiation and the chemotherapy and sounded a lot less ill, when I had to tell her that I couldn't represent her anymore, because I was leaving the practice of law. She still wanted to know what happened to her son. But she knew the State didn't want to say. Another lawyer took over her case and it settled pretty quickly, but she never found out what happened with her son.

I didn't write this so that you would feel sympathy for anything or anyone. She certainly never asked for sympathy. She never complained about what had happened to her. And she never did the things people do to get sympathy from other people, at least not with me. She was always nice, attentive and listened to reason.

After all, to her it really wasn't only about what she wanted. There were some people that she knew had tried. There was the guard who had been in the room, unarmed, with her son. The guard who had tried for more than an hour to talk him out of killing himself, only to see him walk over to the bed, lie down on his back, put the gun to his head and pull the trigger. There were the other staff members who had tried to save his life, along with the EMTs and the doctors at the hospital, who kept him alive for 12 hours. All those people would have to relive the tragedy, probably at least twice, if the case went forward. And her boy would still be dead.

I wrote this because I heard that she died about a week ago and, although it had been about eight months since I talked to her, it struck me how much I was affected by her death. After thinking about it for a long time, I remembered why it was that she had such an impact on me. I remembered being a child and hearing, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God."

Sometimes people get famous for making peace, or at least doing everything they can to make peace. Usually there are countries and great injustices involved. Every year there is a prize awarded to those who have done the most to solve one of these problems. Their efforts bring fortune and fame to those involved. We judge those people as important people --- great achievers --- or, as Gandhi was described by others, a great soul.

We judge those people who do not exercise their rights as weak and foolish. In our world, no award of money or fame is given when nothing happens. Nothing is achieved by those who do not act. Only those things that happen can get our attention or make the news. When nothing has happened, not even a talented gossip can keep it alive.

There is no prize for keeping the velvet gloved fist of steel hidden quietly in your pocket. It's rare that another human being even knows enough to understand the restraint that you have exercised. And yet it is the hardest, most anonymous and surely the most important peace that is ever made. It is the hurt, the pain, the fear, that is not passed on --- not multiplied by those who have now been hurt. In a larger sense, it is the war that never happened, the killing that doesn't have to be stopped.

She didn't believe the reasons she was given, she never had. Talk to her for 5 minutes and you knew that much. When asked, she told the State the same thing. All she wanted to know was what had happened to her child, but she never found out. She had to accept that the law couldn't bring her the truth. Yet there was a fight she wouldn't start, even though she seemed to have nothing to lose. Despite all the temptation in the world, she wouldn't fight just to hurt those who had a hand in hurting her.

As I said, I wrote this because I will miss her. And to set the record straight for all those people that are like her. We think we see a world of winners and losers, a world of money, power, corruption and, yes, empty words. Whether we judge them winners or losers, we are all the same in one way. Each of us has an opinion and a few more questions. But when nobody has asked a question, the answer is who you are --- what you do or don't do. And only a fool would think that what people say about you, or don't say about you, has anything to do with your soul. She was nobody's fool.