“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” – Plato and Ian Maclaren
Later this summer I will mark six years without my dad, but I am amazed by how often I am still connected to him – and the loss – through everyday life experiences. One of those events was so strong for me that I need to reflect on it.
My dad was a judge in my hometown, having spent more than 30 years on the bench at the time of his death. He was still hearing cases up to the day he took his life and his job always intrigued me.
Working in circuit court, he rotated every couple of years through the different judicial areas, from civil to criminal and family to juvenile. In my childhood, I thought it was incredibly neat to visit the courthouse with him, see all the law books on his office shelves and explore the expansive old courtrooms. I’d sit in the jury box on occasion while small hearings were proceeding and listen intently. While my dad read and formed decisions in his chambers, I’d sit in his judge’s bench and say silly things into the microphone or wander through the sea of viewing benches. Sometimes, we’d even tour public areas of the local jail. Needless to say, I admired him and all that he did. And, I liked so much that he included me in his life this way. At one point, I even aspired to follow in his footsteps by attempting part-time law school. (This turned out to be an expensive experiment and I ended up staying in my current and studied field of marketing.)
A couple of years after he died, I received a summons for civil jury duty in a Chicago suburb. While others may have cringed upon getting this notice in the mail, I was exhilarated. It felt like an opportunity to experience a small sliver of these nostalgic memories. I had never been called for jury duty while he was alive, but if I had, I would have loved so much to talk about it with him once the trial was over.
I reported bright and early for my day and sat eagerly in the waiting room hoping for my name to be called. It tried my patience to wonder if I would be able to participate. No one had ANY idea how much it would have meant to me to be involved like this. By early afternoon, I was heartbroken to receive word that I was being dismissed. No jurors were needed that day. It actually brought me to tears. Didn’t they know I NEEDED this? I needed to feel this connection and to sit in that box again and see the judge up on that bench and wonder what life would be like with my dad still in it. They told me I was off the hook for at least three years and it took me an unbelievable amount of time to recover from this disappointment.
Imagine my excitement when that summons arrived again recently. But, this time, it was for something even better – a huge federal jury trial in downtown Chicago. The federal building is where all of the “famous” cases take place. Admittedly, the timing wasn’t as great because I was 8 months pregnant and not super thrilled about putting myself in that position, safety wise. But, deep down, I was happy when my name was the first one called to serve after an extremely intense and hours-long vetting process of dozens of people. For over a week, I had to report to the courtroom with my peers to participate in this significant trial. Each day, I took copious notes and thought long and hard about the evidence and arguments. I soaked up every single second of my duty. The sights, the musty scent of the old wood in the courtroom. The dark brown wood color of the benches and also the formality of the judicial procedures. It was everything I needed.
Beyond the surface benefit of feeling this deep emotional connection to my dad, I was surprised by something else I “uncovered” during this experience. I was able to get a glimpse into the potential effect this job may have had on him after multiple decades. I felt it myself in one week as I worried about the fate of the defendant if she were to be found guilty. I will never know for sure, but it has to be hard to hear “arguments” all day, especially on both sides of tough issues and crimes. And, not being able to fix everyone’s problems. Facing difficult personalities and influencing the path of peoples’ lives. You certainly have to have a thick skin, that’s for sure. There were times growing up where we lived through the fallout of people being unhappy with the outcome of their case.
It was quite bittersweet when the trial ended. I was all that much closer to having a new baby, but I wasn’t able to talk at length with my dad about what I had been through. I so badly wanted to know what his thoughts would have been on my experience in a federal court and also with the specific case once it concluded. I even went as far as to call the U.S. attorney’s office who won the trial to compliment their great efforts. (I think in part because I wasn’t ready for it to be fully over. This, too, turned out to be a mistake as he asked me not to call again to prevent showing any partiality on jurors’ parts, oops.)
It’s funny how life experiences affect people in different ways. Of the dozens of people called for jury duty that week, or working in that courtroom, not one of them would have any idea how much being there meant to me – or why – and that it helped me so much in my grief journey. On the other hand, I know how many people did everything they could to avoid being there.
I would go back into that situation in a heartbeat. I have even contemplated going back to watch open, public cases to feel a little bit of this connection again. We’ll see. I appreciated the way fate brought this opportunity back to me. And, perhaps it all lined up to bring me this bigger, better experience and perspective once I was further into my journey.
I conclude by tying back to the kindness quote I began with. You never know what moment or place – even seemingly minuscule and insignificant – carries the weight of the world for another person.