May 24, 2005

Where hope goes to die

This morning, I had the pleasure (ok, not really) of sitting and waiting for an hour while a court reporter was procured who could record our oral argument. So I sat and I watched. And I came to realize that I was in the place where dreams died, where hope is buried. I realize that sounds melodramatic but I was in a courtroom where every case but mine was what we in NY call a Domestic Relations case, a matrimonial part, a divorce and custody case.

The room was so weird. I don't do matrimonial work and I’m so glad.

People start off married, usually, in the ordinary course, with great hopes for the future and dreams about the lives they are going to build together. This is part of the American dream, the fantasy wedding, the perfect spouse, then maybe some children and picture perfect Christmas cards with the beautiful children and Golden Retriever every year on the front.

Those dreams die in the matrimonial part. People come to bury their marriages, their hopes, their dreams, to fight over the issue of the marriage (the children), to battle over money and possessions. They start from love and end up in bitter hatred. I said to the Court Clerk, who I've come to know from before this Part was a matrimonial part, how can you stand the pain in this room? And he looked at me, surprised, and said, "I don't and I'm here every day".

The people in that room were interesting. There were lawyers and litigants. The lawyers seemed, many of them, to know each other. I guess it's a small bar, even in NYC. The lawyers were on friendly terms with each other, and that's to be expected when they're not in front of the judge trying to tear each other's hearts out. But the litigants. . .

The litigants were different, although democratic in terms of social class. First, every woman client in that room, whether her marriage was officially pronounced over by the State of New York or not, had taken off her wedding band and engagement ring. Every one. And I looked, out of curiosity. Second, the room ran the gamut of types of people -- young blond Upper East Side looking women; older people; young people who looked too young to be married; a woman in the uniform of the US Postal Service and she was sitting next to a much older man in a suit and tie who was wearing what must have been a $10,000 watch (and yes, I kind of know these things). Very democratic in that sense, as all the problems were washed up equally in front of this judge's bench.

And the hatred, hiding as indifference, the aggressive indifference as people there were ending their relationships. They would refuse to look at each other, even as they had to pass within inches of each other. Why, I wondered. Two of them were there to fight over custody, neither of them in the full flower of youth anymore, why couldn't they behave like adults, I wondered. How badly had they hurt each other that it came to this?

The postal worker sat next to me for a little while. I think she was not represented by counsel and I guess she took time off from work to attend this session of the Court. She looked so sad.

And one woman, one woman hovered behind her attorney as he made his argument to the bench. And she crept ever closer as he spoke, until, when the judge made a ruling, she stood behind him and buried her face in her hands and began to cry, very quietly. And no one in the room batted an eye as she almost silently wept, except for the lawyers there with me on the commercial case. We don't usually see clients cry. But then, we don't usually hang out in a place where dreams go to die.

Posted by Random Penseur at May 24, 2005 02:21 PM

I've felt the pain of divorce second-hand through friends who have experienced the process, but your post brings that pain closer and more clear than I've ever felt it. Two excellent people studies today--thanks.

Posted by: Angie at May 24, 2005 03:00 PM

That sounds truly horrible, so I'll ask a definition to keep my mind off the subject.

What does "part" mean in the context of matrimonial part? Is that just the severing of the marriage, or is there a more subtle meaning?

Posted by: tex at May 24, 2005 04:05 PM

Sorry, Tex. Part is a technical term referring to a Judge's courtroom. Like, Judge Smith is in Part 10 of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County. It is an administrative designation. So, a matrimonial part is a court that hears mostly cases related to the NY Domestic Relations Law.

That help? Sorry about the confusion.

Posted by: RP at May 24, 2005 04:08 PM

When I was youonger I dreamed about becoming a lawyer(lawyer for the defense. My clients were always innocent, and I always saved/helped them) but I have to admit now that I am glad it didn't come to pass, at least for me. I already have so much trouble leaving someone else's sorrows behind me. I don't know how you deal with all the emotional stuff day to day (I know you don't work in the matrimonal courts, but still, emotions are always there somehow. How do you put a case behind you after it has finished if it hasn't gone the way you thought it should?

Posted by: Rachel Ann at May 24, 2005 04:53 PM

Geez. I handled domestic law and custody cases in Louisiana for years. Yours was a very apt description. You brought back shudders for me.

; )

Posted by: Christina at May 24, 2005 05:14 PM

How sad. :-(

I was lucky that my divorce was amicable. We were both ready to move on by paperwork-signing time. We even had it all done entirely by a para-legal, not a lawyer. We didn't fight over anything. House, 50/50; I took my car, he took his; there was no child support to battle over because the kids were grown. All savings/stocks 50/50. Personal items we divided fairly.

Still, the shattered dreams feeling was very hard for me to take. Even though I was wildly in love with another man by that point and my almost-ex was engaged to a new woman.

For so many years I'd planned on us growing old together. And we had so many memories of raising our kids. Hard when you realize it's all gone. Even though we both knew it was the right thing to do.

I cried too after it was done. Which totally confused the hell out of my husband-to-be. *laughs now at the way his face looked*

But then, he never really "got" me, so he couldn't understand.

Posted by: annie at May 24, 2005 06:47 PM

I feel like I was there, watching too. My heart still stings a little. How vividly told and gut wrenchingly real.

Posted by: Jennifer at May 24, 2005 07:12 PM

How very, very sad to be a witness to dreams' death. I don't think I could ever work at a place where so much pain takes place.

Posted by: Jester at May 24, 2005 11:06 PM

Your writing was beautiful, RP. Absolutely stunning.

I've had one amicable divorce and one so bad that mediation was called in. I know what it's like for ice to form between the people as they walk in. I know how it is to avoid each other's gaze.

It's hard on everyone around them, and hard on themselves, and somehow the wedding album gets chucked to the back of a box and people try to never forget these times again.

Sorry, Babe. Sounds like a rough day.

Posted by: Helen at May 25, 2005 01:56 AM

My dad enjoyed most aspects of being a courtroom lawyer but what he hated the most was any involvement in divorce and land expropriation, as both could quash dreams.

Posted by: Annie at May 25, 2005 10:34 AM

I know exactly what you mean.

"No Contest" court, on the other hand, has a nearly party atmosphere.

Okay, well, in Oklahoma it did.

Posted by: Margi at May 25, 2005 07:58 PM

My divorce was as amicable as they come (so amicable that my mom was his witness, because his witness got stuck in traffic and my mom worked across the street from the courthouse). When it was over I went to MVA to get my name changed back on my drivers license, then I went to McDonalds, then I went home and sobbed. Dreams do die hard.

Posted by: nic at May 26, 2005 08:33 PM

When you're looking for a lover
you'd better pick a friend
'cuz if you think it's a pain getting started
just you wait until it ends...

-- some unknown Connecticut songwriter

Posted by: Tuning Spork at May 27, 2005 11:59 PM

We are in the midst of our third divorce (close friends of ours, not my wife and I!) and man are you ever spot-on in this post. We now have old friends who won't look at us because we "chose" one side or the other (I like to think we have always ended up "choosing" to remain friends with the rational half, but I often wonder if that's how it seems to the other half's friends. I guess it must, I don't know).

Posted by: Mark at May 28, 2005 10:23 AM
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