Today Would Have Been Lisa’s 58th Birthday 1/29/11
My sister Lisa would have turned 58 today. I do find myself dwelling on the unfairness of her exit from this life. I think about my own good fortune and wonder why. There is no good or fair reason. I find the arbitrariness ridiculous.
I do not think that Lise would have spent much time complaining about the arbitrariness or randomness of fate. She was enormously purposeful even in the face of ultimate absurdity. She derived great satisfaction from caring for family and tending to her clients. I have never met a more dedicated and devoted lawyer to her clients. She really took them in. She was that way with her kids too. She was driven.
She used to keep crazy hours. She hid this reality as she did many other realities. Lisa led a life of dark secrets.
She would often get up at 3am to write briefs or to work on her cases. i think this was partly connected to her inability to stay up late, even moderately late, at night. She had a long history of crashing early. This pattern pre-dates her last years and actually goes back to at least her teen years. She always used to fall asleep on the twin bed in my bedroom at 284 Melrose Road in Merion where we grew up. She would come in ostensibly to do her homework and I would look over and she would be asleep. It might have been 7:30pm.
I used to tease her about it because, for whatever reason, she could not stay awake. She was a morning person and I think she was highly productive early.
The extreme hours pattern was also connected to a choice. There wasn’t enough time and she was aggressively cramming in work in the only time left. Her getting up at 3am happened often especially in her last years. I told her she was nuts but she kept this pattern up long after her recurrence of breast cancer. I don’t think she ever stopped it actually. She always had reasons for burning the candle at both ends. While she did not have her former energy, she struggled to maintain a frenetic pace. The chemo and multiple doctor appointments, her kids, her family, her friends – all these squeezed the time available for her clients. And she had so many.
There was always a client to save and she was going to save them.
Lisa and time – time was the enemy. I think as her illness evolved she stayed up later at night. She took more cat naps. That was her compromise with chemo. I used to worry she was exhausting herself and further compromising her health. When I whined to her about it she would say something like “Shut up Boo-boo.” She was obstinate til the end.
Lisa’s tendency to take on too much, especially after she had no support staff, left her in a chaotic place that most lawyers never would have tolerated. I think it was unfortunate that she was a solo practitioner late in her career. There was no organization around her to say “no” or to set limits.
The disorganization of her legal files did reflect a failure on her part to recognize limits. I suppose it also reflected Lisa’s devaluation of routine, normalcy, and organization. I think she saw her life as being more about substance than form. She knew things had spun out of control but I don’t think she saw any way to fix the problem. She had rationalizations. There was only so much time. Maybe her files were all over the city but her health was deteriorating and she had no help. She did not tell others about how chaotic things had become as her illness advanced.
Her heart was set on saving the clients which she could do better than most anybody. Lives were on the line and she knew the stakes. The truth is that Lisa won many victories that other more conservative lawyers never would have even attempted. And that is not just because the clients would not fork over a large enough retainer. Lisa took longshot cases. A number of her wins were anything but routine. She had some great wins at the Third Circuit that made law. After Lisa died, my mom received a lovely note from the workers at the Immigration Court in Philadelphia, including personally inscribed notes from the judges, expressing their admiration for Lisa and sorrow about her passing.
Before I leave the subject of personal chaos, I did want to mention one other black humor aspect: Lisa and Philadelphia parking tickets. She had a history with parking tickets, mostly getting them. i think she had some good experience going to court and arguing her way out of tickets as well as arguing her fines down.
For whatever reason, the parking tickets never stopped. I don’t know but I suppose parking in the city is hard. Maybe Lise just accepted parking tickets as a fact of her life as a lawyer. There was something of an oblivious quality. My mom and I used to laugh about it except the ticket costs mounted and it seemed like the parking authority was like a mafia.
Lisa did have a wonderful sense of humor that helped her navigate through crises and her life. She also had a great laugh.
I will tell one story that happened late in her life. Lisa was always driving to far away places to see clients in jail or to represent them in court. She had to go to York. Pa one day for a hearing on one of her cases. Because the hearing was early, she drove west of Philadelphia the night before and stayed in a motel near the court. Lise was very sick at the time. She had had a number of rounds of chemo after her recurrence and she had lost most of her hair. She had a wig. The next morning when she got up, it turned very windy outside. As she left the motel and was heading for her car to go to court, a gust of wind blew her wig off and across the parking lot. The wig landed in a mud puddle. Lise grabbed up the wig, washed it as best she could and on it went. At court, when she was asked about why her hair was so wet, she nonchalantly explained that she had just showered. She always got a kick about telling the story even though it was a painful subject because she hated that she had lost her hair.
I do still miss talking to Lise very much. She was a big advice giver and she always had a lot to say on my life. It is good to have someone like that in your life.
I recently reconnected with early childhood friends Jude, Sheila, and Lynne Coren. I know how much Lise would have loved this. She was very big on constantly maintaining and preserving important relationships. Recontacting Jude, Sheila or Lynne would have majorly pushed her buttons and turned her on. I almost feel like an ambassador for Lise in her absence. I know she would have been way ahead of me in initiating and promoting contact. That was Lise.
To remember and honor Lise, I wanted to offer two poems by different poets that , in my opinion, evoke her. The poems by Sharon Olds and Kenneth Patchen are poems I think she would have liked.
From Seven Floors Up
He is pushing a shopping cart up the ramp
out of the park. He owns, in the world,
only what he has there – no sink, no water,
no heat. When we had come out of the wilderness,
after the week in the desert, in tents,
and on the river, by canoe, and when I had my own
motel-room, i cried for humble dreading
joy in the shower, I kneeled and put
my arms around the cold, clean
toilet. From up here, his profile looks
like Che Guevara’s, in the last picture,
the stitches like marks on a butcher’s chart.
Suddenly I see that I have thought that it could not
happen to me, homelessness
—-like death, by definition it would not happen.
And he shoulders his earth, his wheeled hovel,
north, the wind at his back—-November,
the trees coming bare in earnest. November,
month of my easy birth.
I Care What Happens
Prodigious goals–Flakes boat starmarsh–Great Highone i care
what happens to every human being, O I live locked in that–
the smell of a stone in the sun–Locked in my heart are all the
slender still silences of the grove and there too the black cries and
the pierced beggars in fluttering doorways–Call through the
someone thinks of greater deeds than lying and murder.
Every mouth sucks at life and is filled in one way or another.
Hounds playing tennis on a pale bridge. The grim asses of trains
bluther down the valley. Nowhere to go, brother.
Even hard things hide.
But life does not break.
Let us shout in our cages! Rattle the damn bars!
Under the invisible is a man’s heart.
I am like you. We are things of the same kind.
We are all standing here among the hideous statues.
I urge you to protest this murderous swindle. Do it.
I walk out into the streets of this city.
They have made liars of all these people. They have made them
cheat and do murder. Their faces are afraid, and ugly. They live
with hatred in their hearts. They love nothing at all.
Everything in this city is ugly. It is a sort of death to walk here.
A filth of lies and hopelessness covers everything. I go into a
lunchroom and order coffee. Every table is taken. i stand in a
corner and drink the coffee. I have a feeling that at any moment
spmebody will blow up and start clawing everyone within reach.
But they just sit around in there and make the usual stale noise.
I get out as fast as I can.
Prodigious dreams–I walk down and sit on a bench by the river.
An old man sits down beside me. A sour vomit smell comes off
his clothes. he picks his nose and hums a popular song. I move
on to another bench. Two girls are sitting there smoking. They
don’t look at me. A shout from over by the drinking fountain and
a man lurches down the path with blood streaming down his chin.
I wait a minute, then set off for home
The meaning is in the wonder.
Towns and seas and all poor devils everywhere. In no way is
life ever changed.
Through acceptance of the mystery, peace.
And only through peace can come acceptance of the mystery.
We are not open. The glory cannot come in. How soon after our
best things is the taste bitter again.
As of this earth and what I am on this earth—I fiercely wish to
protect the things I love.
They fill my eyes with tears—the things I love.
Suppose they are nothing—they are all I have.