My friend died last week. He was diagnosed with lung cancer 3.5 years ago, but underwent several courses of experimental treatment and was doing remarkably well for a long time. Then he wasn’t.
I met my friend 23 years ago, when I started my job at one of Connecticut’s legal aid organizations. I was so excited to get the job after being self-employed for a long time. It meant a steady paycheck and employer-supplied health insurance!
The staff in my organization belong to a union. This man, who was the heart and soul of the union, greeted me by saying, “Welcome! We’re planning to go on strike.” Whaaaat? Was he crazy? Didn’t he realize what the real world was like? We never did go on strike, but I learned something with that shocking introduction. As time went on, my friend showed me the value and power of our union, and I was hooked.
He was president of the union for many years. Part of leading the union involves defending staff members when they file grievances against management. I helped a few of our members with their run-ins with management during my tenure as president. Most of them were successfully resolved. But I never dreamed I would be one of the people suffering at the hands of management and filing my own grievance.
When I was put into this position in 2013, my friend defended me. The management of the organization to which I had given over 20 years of my life decided to make me into an example of their new crackdown on the relaxed methods that had been a hallmark of the previous decades of our law practice. I was out sick with pneumonia, and five managers descended upon my office, going through every file. My office wasn’t neat, but neither were other people’s offices. My files were not in perfect chronological order. A few of them were missing our version of a legal retainer, which the rules of ethics say is essential for an attorney charging a fee. We don’t charge fees. This omission, while not ideal practice, was not a violation of the rules of ethics for legal aid organizations. Nonetheless, that is what I was charged with doing. I was given a written warning which would stay in my personnel file for 15 months. That meant that if management decided I did one thing wrong during that time, I could be fired immediately.
My friend threw himself into my defense and represented me at the first grievance hearing. I was in awe of his brilliance. He was calm but firm and had numerous counter-arguments to management’s position. Unfortunately, the manager deciding the grievance at this level was unmoved, as we knew she would be.
The next step was to go before the Executive Director [ED]. At this point, I was ready to give up. It’s hard to listen to someone pontificate about what a terrible person you are. I was not looking forward to another session. My friend said, “No. You have to do it. They are wrong. They broke the law. Come on, it will be ok.”
We went into the meeting. My friend had a WHOLE NEW legal argument prepared on my behalf, one that had never crossed my mind. He pointed out that, between the search of my office, when management professed they did not understand that my chronic Lyme disease contributed to my disorganization, and the imposition of the penalty for my alleged crimes, they had received a letter from my Lyme doctor specifically stating the effects of the chronic Lyme. The ED was quick to say, “Oh we checked with our legal counsel and we were told we were within our rights to search the office.” My friend said, “No. Assuming you DID have the right to search her office because you claim you were not on notice AT THAT TIME about the effects of the Lyme, that was Step One. You then were put on notice, by the doctor’s letter, a few weeks after the search. Yet you still issued a written warning for violating the rules of ethics AFTER YOU KNEW that the effects of the Lyme impeded her ability to obey those rules. It’s Step Two that is the illegal step.” ED gulped.
Still curled up like a fetal armadillo after listening to the ED elaborate on what vermin I was, I asked to take a break. I said to my friend, “I can’t take it. I will plea bargain. NOW I UNDERSTAND why people plead guilty when they are not guilty. It’s the emotional beating up that is intolerable, and I just need to make it stop.” My friend agreed to present my offer to accept a shortened sentence, and it worked. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time in 6 months, the elephant stepped off my chest.
I wrote my friend an email of thanks for all of his support and skillful advocacy. Typically, he responded this way:
I am glad to know that this agreement has brought your stress level down and quality sleep up. While I thank you for your kind words, I personally think what really made the difference with ED was your own statements—you were your best advocate. I think that what got lost in the shuffle was the personal aspect of this, and that what happened was that it went from being an exercise of policy and theory to something human and real….Then he could hear our pitch in a way that it hadn’t been heard before.
My friend did this not only for me, but for countless union members who were misunderstood (at best) or demonized (at worst) by management. He never revealed any confidential union information to anyone – and he was married to one of our managers for decades! As I write this, I realize that no one but my friend knew the complete story of his years of union advocacy, and now he is gone. I am heartbroken.
This fine man was so much more than what I have described. He and his wife fostered and then adopted a troubled 6-year-old who has grown up to be a lovely woman. He was able to see her get married a year ago. He was an amazing attorney in the field of housing law, who won several cases that changed the legal landscape for the better for poor people. He was an avid environmentalist, and would go through the office turning off people’s computer screens at the end of the day to save energy. He never took himself too seriously and was always ready to laugh, especially at himself.
He was so generous that he spent over 6 weeks in the hospital and in hospice, so that all of his friends and colleagues could visit him and tell them they loved him, and start to face the reality that he would be leaving us. I have had family members die suddenly and it is brutal for those of us who are left, but merciful for the person who dies. This was the opposite. My friend suffered so that we could have time to say goodbye.
Last Wednesday, our office was ready to make another visit to our friend at hospice when we got the call that he was near the end. It was a terrible day of waiting. But my friend chose January 15th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday, to leave this world and end his pain. It’s so fitting that the two of them will always be together in my memory, as men of justice and men of peace.
Why is this my blog entry this week? Well, it does relate to being a mom and a human being. We all think we are immortal, especially when we are young. Losses like this one help to remind all of us to live the right kind of life before it’s too late. Marcus Aurelius said:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good person should be. Be one.” And that was my friend.