Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Secret

The upscale restaurant was quiet, except for the stealthy murmur of conversations at a few nearby tables, punctuated by a clinking of cutlery from time to time. We four lawyers sat by the window, sometimes peering out into the dark streetscape to watch a late evening commuter or two hurrying for home somewhere nearby. Paradoxically, I felt both tension and comfort at the table, as if two wrestlers were struggling for supremacy. But assessing the scene with the objectivity of a professional observer, I found this conflict almost normal and acceptable.  Except that I knew each one held a secret tightly and awkwardly in some hidden place.

There was Ed, the slightly tense, dark-haired barrister still in his court garb, having arrived earlier than the rest to enjoy a short liquid reprieve from the rigors of a trial that he announced was destined to run a number of weeks yet. He talked easily, as do those of our comrades who frequent the courtroom, somewhat preoccupied with the judicial battles of the day, most of which he had won. But he dared not disclose his secret.

Karen was confident, yet obviously caring and unconventional for a lawyer as she talked about the diversity of her roles within the legal profession. Her world seemed made up of people rather than focused on the technical issues that plague the billable time of most lawyers. Clearly she had the ability to succeed in any number of circles, as she described her relaxed relationships with names that everyone recognized. But she kept her secret safely hidden.

Ken, on the other hand, was casual. Older than the rest of us, he eschewed formality sporting shorts and sandals, regaling us with his counter-culture adventures as a reporter in his pre-law school days. There was a hint of homesickness in his voice as he reminisced about those days of his youth and its lopsided lack of schedule or steady income. He might have come close to betraying his secret, but he held back at the last minute it seemed.

I, however, was unable to contain my secret when the topic of Parkinson's disease unexpectedly leapt into the conversation like a lion's roar that could not be ignored and demanded of me my carefully concealed packet of truth. Ken had commented on a friend with PD and I knew I could protect the secret no more.  There was a barely noticeable catch in the breath of each of my 3 dinner companions, some forks hesitating in mid-air just a second as they each took in the news of my diagnosis. Their consequential questions were polite but understandably na├»ve because for the most part lawyers thrive in the rarified atmosphere of disease-free living. After 30 years of living out the role of a professional problem solver, advocate, diplomat and wordsmith, the old adage of "never let them see you sweat" was never truer.

It is not that lawyers lack compassion anymore than anyone else. It is just that in their world there is little opportunity to recognize or express vulnerability, or any other "softness". We are "fixers" who must stand firm and fight, staunchly and unemotionally defending our clients and protecting their rights. We cannot sacrifice the confidence of our clients; so no tears or looks of dread or dismay.

But despite how it felt to surrender my secret to my classmates, I knew that they had secrets too.  Ones that could only be unpacked when it was safe to do so, and where that "weakness" would not be despised or derided. Certainly, it was for those of us called to the bar a very rare circumstance that would allow any unveiling of the personally painful or the frightening. In fact, many of our professional friends will likely go to their graves wrapped in, and clinging to, their cloaks of self-confidence.

So my secret had been shared. But in doing so it had lost its power over me.  It was my hope that, opposite to that truly pitiful Gollum, the loss of my prized ring would empower and embolden others. And if not (even Gollum said, "They do not see what lies ahead"), I still do not think it was a mistake. For the truth will out, and better it is to be spoken first by me rather than about me. It has a marginally better chance of sustaining a semblance of reality that way, and I am less likely to be described as nearing my grave or courageously battling some crushing medical monster.

The tremor along my right side was more noticeable as I drove home that night. I wondered whether it was the disease inching along its inevitable path, or a physical manifestation of the regret that sometimes follows having told one's secret.

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