Photo: Interior of Louis D. Brandeis Hall of Justice of Jefferson County, Kentucky. Photo by the author.
Day 6 of Lent
I witnessed something today that still has me shaken.
Today business took me to the Louis D. Brandeis Hall of Justice, the seat of various judicial functions in Louisville, Kentucky. I had a visit to pay to the District Civil and Probate Court clerks. The Hall of Justice is not what I would call a terribly happy place even on the best of days, although usually only a dull cloud of dreary necessity hangs over it, the persistent aroma of small criminal offenses and expungements and official records beyond count.
Today, though, was different. I arrived at about 4 pm, near the end of the work day, when the place is nearly deserted and the clerks are getting ready to wrap things up. When I walked into the District Civil clerks’ office, there was a white woman, at least eighty years old, seated and sobbing uncontrollably. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone cry like that outside of a hospital emergency room. It was the kind of crying that had evidently been going on for a long time before I entered the room and was going to go on for a long time after. She was utterly consumed by some tremendous grief.
Seated with her was a woman who appeared to be in her forties. I do not know the relationship of the younger woman to the older one, whether daughter or caregiver or simply friend. The younger woman was consoling the older one. Her voice was gentle and solicitous, but also patient, caring, and strong. She was a genuinely powerful, stabilizing presence for someone who desperately needed it.
Her words, though, were not having any immediate effect. The older woman continued crying, utterly unable to speak, barely able to move.
I stood there, not quite looking but also unable not to pay attention. A clerk behind me asked me quietly, “How may I help you?” Gaining my composure, I explained the nature of my business, and she then proceeded to help me with what I needed. In the meantime, the older woman, with her younger companion’s help, got up and went into the hallway outside.
After they had left, the clerks, visibly shaken, discussed what had just happened. I do not know if they were accurate in their understanding, but, as it was a clerk of court’s office, one presumes the woman had been there on some legal business or other, and court clerks know legal business.
The clerks said in hushed tones that the older woman was being abused by her own son. I heard them say that she did not want to take action against him, but that she was absolutely, utterly terrified of him and did not want to go home with him there. Yet it appeared that she was without any choice.
I did not know whether their assessment was correct; I do not know whether the impasse the older woman had reached was because she had exhausted all of her legal remedies, or whether she had simply exhausted all of her moral and practical ones. In a way, it didn’t matter; whichever it was, the woman had obviously reached something like the end of the world, and there wasn’t anything left there that she could see.
When I finished my business with the District clerks, I walked across the hall to the Probate clerks. The older woman and her companion were seated in the empty, cavernous hallway. The older woman was still sobbing uncontrollably, the younger still right there with her. I stood there for a moment, looking. It seemed a bit indecent to look, me a stranger to the woman’s grief. But it seemed far more indecent not to look, not to let it register, to go on across the hall oblivious to someone’s world ending outside. There was absolutely no one else out in that hallway, just the older woman and the younger and their grief. It was there, overwhelmingly present, raw. It would have taken someone inhuman to disregard it.
I did go into the Probate clerk’s office, got what I came for, and went out. The women were gone.
I walked down the cavernous concrete hallway, just a few feet down from where they had been sitting, and sat down. And I cried.
There was nothing I felt I could do for the crying woman. She was scared and unbearably sad; her sadness cut through the hardened air of resignation and moral compromise of a municipal courthouse. I hoped that her companion would be able to help and shelter her, and that, in any case, God would be with her.
I don’t know what moral to draw from this story. It weighs on my heart as I write this. I have never been near desperation that profound. I hope that she finds aid and comfort, but I fear I shall never know for sure.
The best I can make of my part of the situation is this. I think that often there is little we can do. People and the world are very, very broken. We can struggle, we can fight for justice; we have to do these things in order to honor the humanity of others. But we none of us ever seem to stop this world from being the kind of place where sometimes adult sons abuse their mothers, and their mothers feel utterly, completely powerless to stop it.
In that case, the best we can do sometimes– the best I felt I was able to do then– is simply to see it, to note that it happens. There is so much denial, so much erasure of abuse, of violence, of oppression, of injustice, of everything that multiplies human misery and leaves people staring out past the end of the world. It is hard to look at, and harder still to do so when you are implicated in it, when you are of it. But look and note we must. To do anything else is to surrender at last to inhumanity, to a world where such misery becomes routine, rationalized, and normalized.