Saturday, October 27, 2012

Parkinson’s Disease on Trial

Pulling open the heavy oak door Stephen stepped into Courtroom 412.  No one else was there except the court clerk, who busied herself getting ready for the morning trial.  Although he could no longer smell, he remembered the musty odor that came from decades of dust and seeped out of lingering sweat stains on the arms of the red leather chairs.  Despite being traditional and formal by today’s standards, the oak paneled room gave Stephen a reminiscent sense of calm as he began to set out his binders of legal briefs, cases, affidavits and documents on the counsel table in front of the judge’s dais.  Whatever the middle-aged lawyer personally thought about any particular judge, judicial respect was demanded by forcing him, even when standing at the lectern that sat in the middle of the counsel table, to look up at least 33° to look the judge in the eye.  As opposed to some of the newer courtrooms, number 412 exuded reverence and respect, as if justice lived there. 
But the silence was broken as opposing counsel yanked open the door and strode into the courtroom oozing confidence.  Richard was one of those “hail fellow well met” lawyers who had a strong handshake, smiled knowingly at his opponents, exchanged pleasantries with everyone easily and laughed more often than seemed necessary.  Immediately upon seeing him, Stephen’s right side began to shake uncontrollably.  The comfortable confidence he had enjoyed just moments before vanished like a frightened child, hiding no doubt under the clerk’s desk or behind the prisoner’s dock.  “Hello, Richard” Stephen said in the boldest voice he could manage.  The two courtroom combatants shook hands, but Stephen could not help but notice Richard gazing at Stephen’s right hand.  Pulling away, Stephen explained nonchalantly, “My meds don’t seem to have kicked in this morning yet.”  He winced as he gave words to his weakness.  “Not a problem.  ” Richard said, half laughing, “We all have bad days.”

Stephen’s mind, and the wall of legal training he had over the years so carefully built around it, suddenly seemed incredibly vulnerable.  He felt fearful, like it was he who was on trial.  He was arguing for his own not his client’s credibility.  Self-doubt chopped away at the fortified conclusions he had so rigorously formed over the past weeks of research and preparation.  Suddenly, he was incredibly tired.  He just wanted the trial to be over.  Parkinson’s disease was defeating him. 
But giving up was not an option; not for Stephen and certainly not for his client.  He had over 20 years of courtroom experience.  He had been successful and PD was not going to take that away from him.  He had known fear before and stared it down, refusing to blink.  But that was before Parkinson’s, like some unwelcome guest, had taken up residence in his body and mind.  It seemed to ridicule him, cause him to stumble, to forget words and spill things, taunting him during the many sleepless nights.

“Order in court” the court clerk barked, announcing the entry of the judge.  “No escape now”, Stephen thought, as he noticed he was sweating more than normal.  “Ironic”, he thought, given his slogan, “Never let them see you sweat”.  He reached for the glass of water in front of him on the counsel table but stopped before reaching it, imagining the embarrassment of spilling its contents all over is nicely bound legal argument.  “My lord, I believe I am on page 52 of my written submissions”, Stephen started in.

By the noon break, Stephen was exhausted.  Perhaps he should have reviewed his remaining submissions, considered the questions that the judge had thrown at him or developed responses to the objections Richard had made, popping up from his chair as if launched off a springboard.  Instead, Stephen retreated to his vehicle parked in the underground parkade and slept for a half-hour before returning to the battle in the courtroom. 
It was Parkinson’s that was on trial.  And like most trials, there would be brief moments of excitement when it seemed one was making headway against the sneering enemy.  But there would also be deflating times when one realized that ground was being lost to the undaunted disease.

A long time ago I learned that good legal counsel don’t just take cases that are “winners”.  There is limited skill or merit in that.  Skillful lawyers fight the battles that need to be fought.  Those cases are rarely easy.  In fact, even with great legal skill and courage, they are more likely to be lost than won.  But where would we be if lawyers only took the easy winners.  Perhaps it is taking the tough cases, the ones that sometimes seem hopeless, the ones that demand a lot of you that make you worthy of your calling.

Life is not easy for any of us. 

But what of that? 

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. 

We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained. 

Marie Curie

Saturday, October 13, 2012


It was 1979, the year I graduated from law school, when the term "boat people" sprang  into common use. It was a phrase that spelled desperation and defenselessness. Scraping together everything they had, Vietnamese families bribed government officials, left everything they knew, paid enormous fees to board dangerously overcrowded, unseaworthy fishing boats, and set out for "friendly" foreign ports. That was only the beginning of their saga of uncertainty, sadness and suffering.

Pirates, as in centuries before, attacked, plundered, raped, terrorized, and even murdered the vulnerable freedom-seeking families. The 'boat people' who avoided the pirates often suffered shipwreck, starvation and sickness, ultimately facing test far from their native land. And the few fragile craft that straggled into some foreign shoreline were often refused safe harbor, kept "quarantined" offshore as if they carried an epidemic. Fear filled the minds of would-be rescuers. Hardened hearts portrayed pictures of being overrun, resources exhausted and stability upended, not so much by the frantic demands of those dying offshore, but by those who would follow.

Soon food and water ran out, and desperate circumstances led to desperate means. Ships were scuttled and the near-hopeless fathers, mothers and children risked it all again as they floated towards shore like debris on the tide, their fate unknown. New dangers awaited the survivors onshore. Refugee camps were often nothing more than makeshift slums; overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe prisons where the weakest and most helpless lived in fear of the strongest. They simply survived as best they could as they waited through weeks and months of rejection while the world decided their future. 
Not often their first choice, 139,000 boat people accepted Canada's offer of shelter. Churches and charities, companies and individual families sponsored these Vietnamese refugees. It was like a blind date. Both parties were willing, but tentative and nervous about this relationship and its potential. The Vietnamese had known little but mistreatment. The Canadians were concerned that they may have let bandits into their pantry. But slowly, skepticism gave way to hope and humble beginnings. Hard work yielded results. Canada became, as it had so many times in its history, a land of opportunity, willing to welcome yet another culture into its ever-changing mosaic mural. 
Yet even today in Canada, the boat people still face hardship and lack of acceptance. Perhaps, to some extent, that is understandable. But it is the "pirates", those who prey on the peace loving and plunder the passive, that make me angry. It is not just the criminals who terrorize our newest citizens. It is often the business bully who slams his fist on the table and demands more than he deserves. Sometimes our Vietnam-born citizens must wonder whether they have exchanged one form of tyrant another.

I rarely get really mad, but late Tuesday night I wanted to curse as the acid rose to my throat. Yes, a settlement had been reached; but I saw no justice. Sure, after 32 years practicing law I knew that lawsuits usually come down to money. It isn't a matter of life and death, or physical harm. But it is still a matter of justice. And since being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease my need for justice has only increased. Not justice for me (despite my PD symptoms I can still fend for myself), but fairness for those who are not able to defend themselves. Bullies come in many shapes and sizes. But they all seek to take away freedom. In this case, it was the "boat people" who were bullied, stripped of their savings and left to re-earn the economic freedom the money represented. 
Injustice is like Parkinson's. It must be confronted at its every appearance and fought at every turn. And when we, wounded, fall we will repair and rise to face the foe again until we are victorious. For freedom is the cause for which we fight, to banish the bully that seeks to make us his.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Working Hard and Parkinson's Disease

Working on a difficult case over the past few weeks has got me thinking, again, of my father. Sometimes 16 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, he knew how to work hard (and taught his children the same). He had done so his whole life. In fact, he really didn't know how to stop. It was, to a large extent, who he was, his identity. Retirement at 65, although welcomed in some respects, left him searching for purpose and seeking to redefine himself. He never said as much, but that is how I see it from my current vantage point. Stumbling into my 60s, being chased by the spectre of Parkinson's disease, my goal of continuing to work into my 70s and 80s seems to have only the slimmest chance of survival. So, will I follow my father's footsteps into a desert of self-definition, wandering in a wasteland of purposeless recreation and the distraction of retirement?

I think not. 
There are significant differences between my father and me, and his worklife and my own (although I admit there are some similarities). I love my work. My father never had a chance to choose a profession or a calling he could love. His options were limited by his grade 8 education and the need to feed his family. A near-fatal logging accident left him unable to manage the very heavy work required of men on the front lines of the lumber industry (although he continued to work harder than most able-bodied men). Ultimately, retraining gave him a more secure and less demanding job as a school custodian. He was a diligent, intelligent, loyal, honest and, yes, hard-working man. But I don't think he loved his job.

My father had no hobbies really. When he wasn't working at the school, putting in more hours than he was being paid for, he was working in our own or someone else's orchard to learn a little extra money so my mother could stay home with the four of us children. And when he wasn't working, he was coaching his kids' baseball team, on some church committee, or volunteering to help someone less fortunate. He was unselfish to the core. Perhaps that is why he did not plan his retirement. Like many others of his generation, he was too busy thinking of others. And for me, as it was for him, it is a scary prospect to plan the years I may have when work is no longer manageable. 
Working hard, and the discipline it required, defined my father. It gave him self-worth. At the risk of self-delusion, I believe we are different. I see my work as a calling, not just a job or a paycheck (although I am thankful for both). Working hard for me is less of a discipline than the heartfelt desire to fulfill that calling. If forced to anticipate, at least on some distant horizon, a departure from the practice of law, I do not foresee a vacuum of calling. In fact, purposeful opportunities abound. My days after law will not be spent bettering my golf score (I have enough of a handicap not to attempt that) nor luxuriate on some tropical beach. But they will likely include writing, mentoring young people, trying to contribute to the lives of others and spending more time communicating my love for family and friends. 
So why do I experience such angst about that distant day when my disability outweighs my ability to carry on? Perhaps it is simply a lack of faith; the difficult letting go of one thing in order to grasp another. It is the struggle to end a chapter that has been jam-packed with significance only to face writer's block in starting a new one. Maybe it is just another manifestation of loss, the inevitable leaving behind of something that is loved.

For now, I must get back to work. Challenging, demanding and exhausting, it calls me to give my best. My hope and prayer is that when the time comes for other things to take its place that there will be a purpose and a passion for the days ahead. I'm planning on it!