Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Last "Intake Monday"

This essay about retiring first appeared on my "Growing Bolder" blog last August. But it just won FIRST PLACE in its blogging category in the Illinois Woman's Press Association's annual communications contest!  

After eighteen years of spending all of my “working” Mondays in the intake branch of Wisconsin’s criminal court system, I had my last pedal-to-the-metal “intake Monday” yesterday. Retirement, complete with punch and cake and goodbye hugs, is just hours away. I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt quite…unmoored. It has been quite the amazing journey. Rather than having an "empty nest" at my own home, I suddenly feel like I am leaving a sheltering nest of my own. What a cosmic turnaround!

To mark the occasion, I wore one of my stalwart pairs of stiletto heels, pumps with a grey and white faux snakeskin pattern and an equally fake illusion of having more expensive “stacked” heels. After ten years, the shoes had become a little wobbly, and one of them occasionally squeaked as I walked. But they were like old friends, and a familiar sight in court.

The other thing I made sure to wear was the ornate carved silver bracelet that my godmother had given me at my law school graduation. She envisioned it as my “signature” piece of jewelry, something that would catch the light as I made theatrical hand gestures in court. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my wrists and hands were so tiny that if I made such a flourish, the bracelet would likely fly off my arm and clock someone on the side of the head. But for the last day, I wore it to honor her. She had been a trailblazing, world-traveling high school teacher, and had served as the inspiration for many, including myself.

This becoming-a-lawyer thing was my second career…or my third, if you count the “soccer mom” years where I multi-tasked by writing magazine and newspaper articles while my youngest children were napping.

I was forty when I started law school as a part-time student, with four kids ranging from kindergarten to high school under the familial roof, and a life-long, bone-deep fear of public speaking. Only a year before I had spent several months in a body cast, the result of a horseback riding accident that left me with a broken back and a wake-up call to start heeding my “inner voice.”

Three and a half years later, I was getting sworn in as a newly minted attorney and soon found my dream job as a state prosecutor, working part-time handling everything from speeding tickets to appeals before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I worked in an incredibly beautiful Art Deco courthouse on the shore of Lake Michigan, and always felt like I was working on the side of the angels, blessed to be charged with a job whose professional ethics literally required us to seek justice rather than just to win at any cost. Talk about being part of a real-life “Justice League”!

As the part-time prosecutor, I had few cases of my own that I followed from start to finish. Rather, I provided backup for the other full-time prosecutors, who were called to be in two places at once on a regular basis. Mondays in particular were top-heavy with cases as the attorney “on intake” spent the morning reviewing police reports and dictating criminal complaints for people who had committed felonies over the preceding weekend, and I furiously worked to get up to speed on a combination of pending cases and new “initial appearances” for folks who had been given misdemeanor citations and told to come back to face the music and their formal charges several weeks later. I describe it as “catch and release.”

And over time, I overcame the challenges of public speaking…and picked up the challenge of mastering life in high heels. I was a late bloomer when it came to this, way past the age of 40 when in a moment of weakness and curiosity and urged on by my younger daughter, I bought a pair of sling-back faux alligator brown stilettos. And then bright pink stilettos. And then plaid stilettos with little bows.  And then…you get the picture. I figure that after tomorrow, unless I’m giving a speech somewhere, I’ll be in flats for the rest of my life. No more the echoing snap of spike heels on a polished stone floor, announcing that trouble is just around the corner…and closing fast.

But that was just a bonus. More than the challenging and personally rewarding work, and the steadfast and wonderful people I worked with and the friendships that bloomed, and the closeness to the Lake Michigan shoreline that drew me to the water on so many lunch hours…the past eighteen years have also provided a solid anchor during tremendous personal storms.

My tenure at the job has seen me through the end of my marriage; the divorce; several serious health crises involving my kids; my own health setbacks; endless 240 miles loops of crisis management and medical response involving relatives in my home town of Chicago; the decline and deaths of my father and godmother; the wrenching move from my “empty nest” home of 32 years in the country to a place in the city close to my job; the whole “empty nest” thing at all; the passing of several beloved pets including the two horses I had loved and cared for since I was a teenager; and just this year the typhoon of chaos revolving around my 94 year old mother suffering a broken hip. Whether up or down, feeling depressed, exhausted, elated, triumphant, happy or some combination of all, I could count on the fact that every single Monday I had a seat in a courtroom and a job to do, frequently starting with the words “The State appears by…” It provided me with a routine, and a structure, and a set of familiar duties, and a specific place in the universe. And now, in less than a day, I will be casting off from this solid, secure dock and setting sail on unknown seas to a new stage of life and adventure.

It feels more than a little scary!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite as dramatic as all that. I still have the same children, the same friends, the same hobbies, the same inquisitive nature. Perhaps instead of looking back at the past eighteen years as a prosecutor with such a sense of wistfulness, I ought to look back at a few years before that, when I threw myself off the familiar path of journalism and with a “carpe diem” sense of destiny, took the plunge into law school.

Perhaps. All I know is, when I was starting to take things down from my office bulletin board this week, I not only uncovered photos of some treasured moments, I also found a pin that a friend had given me when I graduated from law school nearly twenty years earlier. I laughed when I studied it closely before packing it to bring home.  Right now, I can’t think of a better message to begin this new journey with!

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