A 1L with POA
Written December 24, 2020
Warren H. Butler
Sept. 23 1936 — Christmas Day 2020
I am writing—or at least I have been intending to write—about the experience of getting a JD in my 50s. It turns out that the experience of getting a JD (especially on the two-year accelerated track that I’ve chosen) leaves little time for reflection, let alone writing, about that very experience, and here I am already at the end of my 1L year with not a single new post in this collection. But I have many thoughts, and hopefully I’ll gradually find moments to share some of them over these next months.
It’s difficult to separate the element of my age from the other factors that have characterized this JD adventure so far, most especially my anomalous idea of “fun” (which already involved reading SCOTUS opinions and law review articles) and the COVID-19-shaped wrench in the works of my 1L year. I can’t report on whether the academic work is “hard” or “easy,” because my standards are probably skewed; and I can’t say whether I like “going to law school,” because I’ve never yet physically been there for a class.
Sometime I hope to explore the cultural differences between the several generations represented in my accelerated JD cohort at Drexel, and celebrate the diversity of our group, cohesive despite the wide range in our ages. But today I find that the most salient feature of pursuing a JD at age 51 is my generational location between my parents and my kids. I started this day fielding a call from an ER doctor, because I hold Power of Attorney for my elderly dad who has vascular dementia and now COVID—and then packing a hasty bag lunch for my 22-year-old son, because he had slept through four alarms and was now late to his caregiving job. So this entry is a reflection on being daughter and mom while juggling Civ Pro, Pro Bono, and Blue Book.
My father graduated from Yale Law School in 1961, but I didn’t know this until I was in my 40s. We weren’t a storytelling family, and he hadn’t practiced law in my living memory, gravitating instead to policy and consulting. Whenever I spoke to him by phone over this past year, from the start of my studies in May until just before he was hospitalized this November, he was delighted to hear that I was going to law school—every single time. His short-term memory had been reduced to a span of about twenty minutes, and his understanding of the contemporary world was locked somewhere around five years ago; but he could remember with precision the name of the undergrad who had inspired him to apply to YLS, and also how hard contracts class was.
I expect it’s uncommon for a 1L to have Power of Attorney while studying to join that profession. Though my responsibilities for my two kids, 17 and 22, have gradually decreased, the reality of being on-call for my aging dad this year has increasingly been the subtext of my days, compounded by the threat of COVID. If he or my mom had gotten ill at home, I was the daughter who could most reasonably move in with them from my home in another state, especially since I was attending Drexel remotely anyway. Awareness of this possibility lit a fire under me for studying, as I calculated how far ahead I could get and still survive catching the virus myself without having to drop out.
First semester passed without incident. Meanwhile, I learned the joy of delegating meals and shopping to my college senior son and his high school senior sister, whose experimental culinary endeavors have added spice (sometimes too much) to our home life during COVID. Caleb stuck around for his fall semester, and Susanna was already home schooling, so here we were, the “Always At Home Club,” together again. Unexpected benefits of our quarantine days have included Caleb’s daily curating of the latest coronavirus news and Susanna’s reading of Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education the same month my Con Law class tackled them.
I said my responsibilities for these two wonderful humans have decreased; but they haven’t entirely disappeared: I’m still the mom they talk to, the kitchen boss, and the go-to parent for extra phone data and college recommendations (as the home school coordinator I count as Susanna’s “counselor” for the Common App). I learned, after more than one unfortunate incident, that I should delegate meal prep when I have a memo due, and that people won’t know to not talk outside the office door WHEN I’M TAKING A TIMED EXAM unless I tell them. Still, this is nothing like the parenting challenges of my classmates with younger kids, who still have to do taxi duty, make schedules and meals and doctor appointments, and persuade born performers not to steal the show on Zoom during Property. I really have had it easy on this front.
Second semester of 1L brought new frustrations (Civ Pro) and challenges (Pro Bono) and headaches (Blue Book), and again I worked as far ahead as I could in case something happened with my dad. And this time my manic pace paid off. Right before reading period, he took several falls and could not stand up again without help—EMS help, since my mom couldn’t lift him either. My heroic husband broke quarantine to stay with them for a weekend, and within a day my dad was admitted to the hospital after falling out of bed.
The next weeks were a muddle of medical decisions, new contacts, and unpredictable texts and calls as my dad’s care moved from the ER to hospital admission to a bed at a rehab facility. These also happened to be the weeks I was supposed to write two final papers, wrap up several shorter projects, and study for two exams. It all got done, with the help of an amazing team of siblings, spouse, and offspring—and compassionate professors who understood that if I vanished from the Zoom class, I was probably taking a call from the nutritionist or speech therapist, or giving permission for new medication.
Mercifully, my dad’s condition mostly stabilized and did not worsen until after I had completed my exams. He was diagnosed with COVID one week ago, and the family has watched from afar as strangers have coaxed him to eat, to face time with my mom or my sisters, to interact at all. Today I made the difficult call—the reason we arranged for POA in the first place—to forgo invasive measures and just provide my dad with palliative care, there in the COVID unit of a hospital in Maryland that I’ve never seen and probably will never visit.
As I write this, my dad is not expected to live out the day. I’ve made my peace with his passing already, over these last years of his declining cognition. But I’m regretful that I’ve done this law school venture too late to really share it with him.
In Property class we touched on the topic of eminent domain, and of cities reviving “blighted” areas, often to the detriment of long-term residents who have everything to lose from the arrangement. I never really understood what my dad did for a living—we were not a storytelling family, and consulting with cities for block grants was not a concept readily adaptable to a child’s understanding—but reading over the biographical sketch that he prepared while he was still cogent, I suddenly realized the connection. Ten years out of law school, my dad was (as he tells it) helping to write legislation intended to benefit, not harm, the residents of poorer urban neighborhoods. It’s all still hidden for me in the mists of my early years in the 70s, and I am left with so many questions.
But hey, now I’m at law school; I can research this, and finally begin to understand my own father and his contributions, for better or for worse. I may not have Power of Attorney much longer, but I have some powerful attorney tools and skills at my fingertips. And Susanna has developed an interest in city planning, and Caleb is intrigued by public policy—so between us, we may just get to know my dad after his passing better than any of us did in life.
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