“I really had no choice. I did what I had to do.” The standard cliché of my guilty clients. The refrain of my morally vacuous clients. The explanation for something – and everything under the sun – in the story of any of my clients.
But it is true. I had no choice.
I am writing this to get all the pieces swirling and battling out of my head, in the hopes that a clear, logical approach will show a path out of the maze. I have always written. It is the mainstay of a lawyer’s profession, our ‘product,’ if you would. Titling it ‘My Confession’ amuses me – a small attempt at gallows humor.
When I have written, and decided, I will destroy this. It is only a tool.
I am 60 years old, and at the end of my rope. I face my future with dread.
Before I feel too sorry for myself, I will clearly and unambiguously admit that I am fully responsible for my actions. I knew then – and I know now – exactly what I was doing. Well, maybe not at the beginnings, but definitely when the consequences started appearing.
The original decisions I will own – by saying first, that I am the standard-issue man; and second, that I thought I had all potential consequences understood: I took, I thought, only those risks I was willing to live with.
But life has its own little ironies. I suppose it is bred into the race, a race which would not exist had Nature not found myriad ways over the millennia to circumvent the proprieties: who of us has no bastards in his genetic line? No ancestor of rape or incest or the desperate maneuvering of a woman with a barren husband? No one.
At least I am pretty certain where my child came from.
When I met my to-be wife Carola, she was a college senior in English, twenty two to my thirty, a stunning blonde, planning on a law career, interning at our firm. She was a light in the office, intelligent, well put together, not flashy.
I had no intentions of marriage when I seduced her, against the firm’s rules, but before the other young bloods made their drone-lines to her sweetness. But I had no major objections to a permanent relationship with a young mentee, and when the obvious hit the fan, and a senior partner called me on the carpet, it was easy to follow my stated intentions to him with a proposal to her – and the first paving block was set into my road to ruin.
Carola turned out exactly as she had promised, one level or two down: she was admitted to law school, but found it tedious, and decided to teach elementary school instead. I told her I believed she was underutilizing her gifts, but went no further: a dedicated teacher/wife was still quite acceptable in my quest for my own goal, to make partner. Or so I thought: a rival with a lawyer wife was offered the only opening when our cohort’s opportunity for partner came up.
I was offered second-best: to remain at the firm, utilizing my undergraduate engineering background, and add becoming our firm’s specialist in patent law, to my already heavy load in family law. Gradually the divorces and custody cases were taken out of my hands, and the time-consuming patent law applications became my daily grind. A solid, if not protected, position, one in which I have done much good and useful work for the firm. I could have made a move then – lawyers who do not make partner often try some other firm at that point, or go into practice for themselves, or go to work for the government…
Instead, I swallowed my disappointment. I suppose I also held it against Carola, a single and tiny bonelet of contention which I intended never to bring up. And I have not, at least verbally. Small source of pride. I expect she knew; then again, maybe she did not. Her behavior to me certainly never altered. Possibly I was too subtle.
Our lives went on merrily. Our relatives were distant and rarely visited, nor did we often visit them. Our unhappiness was ostensibly created by the fact of our childlessness: apparently she was not fertile. Or, to be charitable, not fertile with me. In any case, we were not blessed with small fry, and it grated on our nerves, differently for each of us, as we never spoke of it.
She knew I was not a fan of adoption. We had somehow held that conversation on one occasion – and I had pointed out the legal complications, the enormous expense and time commitments, the dashed hopes of so many of my clients (for so I had spent my time in my early years at the firm), the difficulties with state laws which gave all kinds of rights to the birth parents and could result in losing a child years after the adoption because some technicality had not been followed. As I said, I had some special expertise in the area.
Even after several years proved we had what the doctors call “primary infertility,” failure to conceive after a certain period of ‘trying,’ Carola did not bring the subject up again. She accepted that ‘her’ children would go home at night to their parents.
It irked me – from the typical macho standpoint. I was young and healthy – but utterly unwilling to become the subject of the machinations of the fertility specialists. No, thank you. She had herself ‘checked out’, the ‘problem’ turned out to be some physical limitation she had not been aware of, and I did not have to refuse the male participation which would have followed. My disgust toward the medical torture did not have to be examined or explained.
If anything, it made her more loving and eager to please me in our comfortable life together.
But I must admit that it changed my attitude in some small way to know I could not accidentally get my wife pregnant, that there was no need to be ‘careful’ or to use artificial forms of contraception. And there must have been, somewhere underneath, an unhappiness on my part because I was not to enjoy the sight of my children playing happily on my hearth. These small points are visible to me at this distance; at the time, busy with a heavy load of work – one must not make the partners unhappy at one’s contribution – I was ignorant of them.
Then came the second small ‘accident’ of my career. During a period in which Carola and I were experiencing some ‘difficulties’ in our appreciation of each other, most probably brought on by an overload of work demands, as I recall evenly divided between us, our firm took on as a clerk a particularly attractive young woman, granddaughter to a senior partner, in the summer between her high school and college years. Juliette was 19, vivacious, intelligent, determined to learn, and in no doubt at all about following the family profession.
Juliette worked hard. She worked late. And somewhere in my subconscious, she filled the lows in my disappointments at my lot in life. It would have meant nothing – just wistful dreams on my part – had she not taken an interest in me. It was extremely flattering to be sought out and asked all manner of legal questions by an eager inquiring mind.
I have been told I am ‘handsome.’ Carola had stopped telling me so, Juliette had started implying so. With no intentions whatsoever to do what we did, we began the kind of sordid little affair one always regrets. Maybe it was the proximity. Maybe the danger. The risk. An early mid-life crisis. Anger at the firm. The scent of beauty and privilege she radiated.
So many excuses, none of them valid. I will state categorically it was mutual, passionate, extremely good for my ego, and, as I should have known, fatal. Out to dinner one late night, accompanied by the stacks of papers we used to justify such as working dinners, and in a very public place, Juliette presented me with the immortal phrase: “I’m pregnant” – and the whole castle-with-an-ocean-view collapsed in an instant as a tsunami sucked out the foundation of sand.
I find I have not mentioned several relevant facts: Juliette was Irish Catholic – and personally opposed to abortion. She had no intention whatsoever of changing her own career plans. She did not want to be a single parent nor bring up a fatherless child, with or without my financial support. To her credit, she also had no interest whatsoever in me – she had far greater plans for herself in the marriage department. I had been a wonderful fling, she stated, and she would “always love me” – more immortal words – but “her family would never accept me.” In that she was most exceedingly right.
I should have immediately “done the right thing.” I should have told my wife – risking divorce. Probably she would have forgiven me. Probably. I should have taken my lumps with Juliette, supported in her whatever solution she chose, helped her give the child up for adoption, and lived with the terror I would not only lose my job but my career. I should have faced the consequences of my own actions squarely, without self-pity, cut my losses, admitted my misdeeds, and lived with the results of my own bad choices.
Instead, my clever little mind compounded my transgressions, coming up overnight with a plan of such obvious brilliancy even Juliette was impressed: I would solve all our problems simultaneously. Juliette’s, mine, the child’s, even Carola’s unknown problems would be solved with one master stroke. And we could find no flaw in it, oh hubris. Just that fact should have deterred me.
In its simplest form, I shall summarize. With my own knowledge of the law, and contacts with officials in the court system, I would do what no lawyer should do: I would make my own wife complicit in my tryst by offering her the child when it was born, to bring up as our own, without the small detail of telling her why this child was available. Juliette assured me the solution was indeed masterful, stroking again my quivering ego, when I brought up the means: she would deliver the child at the hospital as if she were my wife, so the birth certificate would be in name of my wife and me. This would circumvent the letter of laws requiring birth parents to sign away their legal rights.
Juliette would hide her pregnancy – at college this would be far simpler than if she were still living at home – a solution which turned out to be exceedingly simple, aided by her parents’ choice to take a vacation for Christmas that year – without her. By the time she did see them, at their annual New Year’s party, there was nothing for them to see.
The fact that it would also compound our felonies with insurance fraud – payment for the birth would come out of the firm’s medical insurance without their knowledge – was both additional risk and a sop to my pride. A small added fillip.
To comply with my legal and moral responsibilities to Juliette and the child, I would have been required to sign adoption papers giving up my parental rights, papers which would then be on file forever. Even if sealed originally, the capriciousness of future generations of do-gooders could expose me: indeed, I have been proven correct, as there is now an unbelievable degree of laxness in providing the secrecy young women used to be able to depend on.
But I digress.
The way I proposed there would be no paper trail to me, the out-of-wedlock father. I would be, in fact and in law, what I was: the child’s father. I would present this slightly irregular occurrence to Carola as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – an adoption without paperwork, where the birth mother had declared to me she would be satisfied with us as parents. A sad case of a healthy young college girl in a dilemma.
I would tell Carola – as Juliette adamantly stated – that the birth mother did not want any further contact with the child. No open adoption crap to deal with, no humiliating vetting by state authorities with the ability to question and follow every detail of our personal life, investigate our home, question our finances, our marriage, our solidity.
Take it or leave it, I said casually – with no external hint of the trepidation in my heart. Something I could arrange, this once, because of my law position and knowledge, I told my wife. What did she know?
The plan stood or fell by Carola’s wish for a child, a profound wish I preyed on. I exploited her vulnerability to cover my sins. There was some small part, too, of my wish for offspring. I failed pitifully to convey to my wife that my wish for biological offspring was being granted at her expense. I did not want to hurt her – my violation of her trust was my responsibility.
I did not want to hurt Juliette – even though by her failure to observe proper precautions she had placed me in this very compromising position.
But more than anything, I did not want to hurt myself. I confess: I am only a man. I am weak. And in this perfect plan I saw my salvation on every front.
It still takes my breath away: how every little contingency was taken care of, and it was to everyone’s benefit to keep silence. Carola was indeed greedy for a child – she had almost given up hope. Or rather, she had given up hope. I need not take any responsibility – and, as bonus, took credit with my wife for arranging the fulfillment of her deepest fantasy, and with my mistress for taking and rearing our love child.
The child was born. A girl. On Dec. 28th, the day of the Holy Innocents.
And now I must switch tacks to record what I never expected: the moment she was born, I fell in love, completely and powerlessly, with the tiny creature who grabbed my finger and looked deep into my eyes and claimed me – whatever nonsense the doctors may tell you about gas and eyes that don’t yet focus.
Carola was ecstatic – but it has been nothing compared to the passion I have secretly held for this daughter of mine. She has never disappointed me; indeed, she can never disappoint me. She is a clone of Juliette, but she adores me. Her quick intelligence is my daily pride; her challenging mind, her worship of her father, my joys.
She and Carola – homeschooling with my permission – have developed the academic talents in a close bond that has given my Amantha both incredible opportunities she might not have had in school; and a charming respect for her parents’ authority and wisdom, a feature sadly lacking in many of her peers, I am told.
After Juliette went to college, I pretty much lost track of her – it would have been unseemly to ask more than the couple times I assayed a question in the early years – except to know that she had fulfilled her expectations, was married, and had gone to work for a law firm in another state which owed her grandfather a favor. And that she had been, confident and commanding as she was, quite successful. It was posted on our board when she made partner there, a bittersweet occasion I could share with no one. But such is life. She knew where I was – and every year before Amantha’s birthday she would send me an envelope addressed to herself wherein I could put the pictures I promised I’d send, and a few words on how our daughter was doing. As far as I knew, that was all she wanted. She never asked for more, and I got complacent.
And now I come to the part I have to figure out. They say that if you want to make God laugh, you should make him cognizant of your plans. The aphorism is true. And each point of the downfall I am trying so desperately to wriggle out of has its origin precisely in a point I was so proud of when the plan seemed God’s unwillingness to punish my beautiful Amantha for the sins of her forebears.
The trigger? Our recent economic woes. My firm, ailing a little even before, faced the downtick in client load by ‘laying off’ (they call it) those of us at the firm they were not contractually obliged to retain, myself included. Oh, they dressed it up, offered us several months severance, and a period during which we could, with no other obligations, spend our time at the office finding other employment.
I didn’t tell Carola. Why worry her prematurely? I was confident something would turn up. The firm, required by law, offered COBRA continuation of health insurance. Ditto life insurance coverage, a way to roll over disability insurance – at my expense. I had not realized how large a portion of these bills was paid by the firm whilst I was employed.
When the time was up and the ax fell, I realized exactly how far past our modest means we were living. Not too much, while I was working. Significantly more when the whole insurance payments came out of my pocket.
I was not successful at acquiring another job. My guess? The positions available were being filled by young, hungry lawyers at the lowest rates possible – when I delicately suggested in interviews that I would be happy to work for lower rates, my interviewers would invariably laugh it off with some stupid comment about how the position would not be worthy of my experience. In truth, had they realized my age and experience – I had minimized the latter on my resume, the former by not including it – I would likely have not received many of those interview invitations in the first place. I was “vastly overqualified.”
I rented an office downtown, broadened my “area of expertise” (basically, to anything legal). I continued to leave the house every day at the same time. The office setup required a large downpayment from our savings, returned almost nothing. But potential clients, especially inventors, must see prosperity, or would take their cases elsewhere: success in lawyers is as much an illusion as it is anywhere else – appearances imply competence. Every client wants a successful lawyer – at an inexpensive price. On contingency, if possible. And inventors are notorious for being unable to put a monetary value on their productions – and for having used every cent they have to get to the point when they are forced to seek representation to protect what is often, to put it lightly, “not ready for market.” In need of legal help, yes. Able to pay for it, no.
I have not acquired the big clients, the corporate clients, the fabled “deep pocket” clients; the few clients I did attract were pitifully small: a will or two, a child to be wrested from the state’s “protective services” for a client who promised “never to drink again,” a dispute with a builder over a leaky roof.
Well, it is enough. I find I am postponing the inevitable. In writing as in life.
I was, in sum, not successful. To my eternal shame, I proceeded to the unthinkable. I was the ‘guardian’ to my daughter’s college fund, a tidy accumulation which would have seen her comfortably – indeed we had discussed it often – through the college of her choice, so that she would start her working life without the crushing burden of student loans so many of her peers would acquire. I had, until she required these funds for college – or until her majority – complete control of these funds. There is no supervision of the guardian.
In a few more months, under the pressures of home expenses, including a hefty mortgage and payments for two cars (and knowing Amantha would soon be driving and I had promised her a car for herself), an extremely ill-advised and expensive vacation including lessons to teach Amantha to ski on powder in the west, and the “office,” and I was essentially bankrupt. To say nothing of morally bankrupt, as well.
As I write this I am in the last month of being able to pay our bills. I have absolutely no prospects. I have stopped paying the premiums on all insurance policies – each policy will quietly lapse – as my life insurance policy indeed already has – as it reaches its expiration date. I doubt sale of my office furniture will bring in ten percent of what it cost, new, a few months ago.
It is too late to do what I should have done: to tell Carola what happened as it happened, to save the monies I have hoped to replace, to economize – how I hate that word, to force my daughter to attend public school, my wife to find paid work after all these easy years. It galls.
Oh, yes. I forget. Or rather, have left the worst for last. How to put this? Our friends, the Millers – rather Carola’s and Amantha’s friends, a homeschooling family down the block – moved back to manage his father’s farm in rural Wisconsin. I happened to see the new occupant outside one evening when I came home from ‘work’. Postponing going into my home to lie again by omission, I stopped by to welcome her to the neighborhood, and got the shock of my life.
“Hello, Harry,” she said, as she turned from the bush she was pruning, shears in hand. My Juliette. Older of course, still breathtaking. I had then a vision of the avenging angel.
No need to review the blurted and stammered ‘conversation’ that followed. She had followed, from afar, what she could of Amantha’s life. Her own career had just been terminated by a hefty golden parachute when she saw the opportunity to ‘retire early’ as her firm trimmed employees. Added to the divorce settlement she had received from a ten-year marriage – “he didn’t want children, we grew apart, worked too many hours” – such clichés, and so true, they all are. She had decided to move in close to us, to see our – our! – daughter in person, to investigate ‘her options’ with respect to ‘her’ child, as she had none other.
“We need to talk, Harry. I want to be, somehow, a part of her life.” And I’m sure we will.
To make matters worse, far worse, she knew I had been terminated – she had asked the questions at the firm I had prevented Carola from even considering. She does not yet know the dire state of our finances.
And so I stand – or sit – a victim of my own cleverness and the economy and a series of abysmally bad decisions, with no clear path for the next month – much less for the future.
The emotion I should be experiencing is guilt, or shame. Instead, I find myself paralyzed by a fear which grips me in its bloody claws, keeping me from sleeping or thinking, waiting for the inevitable, not knowing what form it will take…
I still affirm I had no choice.
** Contents of encrypted file recovered from hard drive of laptop submitted during financial autopsy for the estate of Harold T. Sumpter, Esq.
Date of file – two days before date of death from myocardial infarction.
Disposition of file – ? as not strictly part of analysis.
JKE, Tech. Analyst
Copyright by Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt 2013