I have recently started to repeat a new mantra in my head: I survived being left at sea. I can handle this. Over the past month, my final one in my 30’s, I have been riding a litigation roller coaster.
A fight over protecting a client’s home found me embattled in an hour and a half oral argument with a representative from the US Justice Department before a federal judge. We won the battle, but the war is still raging. A second fight over a home is carrying simultaneously in state court for a different client. We’re opposing a major law firm and its big bank client. My client lost her job only a few months away from paying off her 30-year mortgage and is now at risk of losing everything. A third legal battle with another big bank and a legal team of adversaries from 3 of the biggest law firms in the area has advanced to the appellate stage now. These are not simple property disputes. These are people’s homes. And the emotions are raw.
My criminal practice is expanding too. A young black man who is the primary caregiver for his toddler son was targeted by a SWAT team with what we are arguing is an illegal search warrant. The warrant alleged he was selling large quantities of cocaine from his house in a predominantly white neighborhood. He is a barber and keeps a haircutting kit with him in his car. The police raid found a smoked marijuana cigarette in his bedroom and a razor with “white residue” that tested negative for drugs. My personal razors have white residue too. It’s called shaving cream. But this man has been charged with maintaining a drug house. His family lacks the means to pay the cash bond for his release pending trial. This is one of two pending, criminal trials I am handling where I firmly believe a client was treated differently because of his race.
And finally I have litigated a custody trial like none I have ever experienced. The circus that opposing counsel set into motion was nothing more than a tactic to attempt to humiliate my client’s family. It’s times like these I understand the deep resentment many people feel toward lawyers. We will learn the judge’s decision in about a month. I suspect we won. But the embarrassment and harassment of the public trial cannot be undone.
In the middle of these ordeals, I remind myself of an event that happened almost 15 years ago. It was New Year’s Eve Day, December 31, 1999. I was on a boat off the coast of Cuba, a few miles from the island of Cayo Largo. I was probably in the best physical shape of my life. I ran 10 miles per day and swam an additional hour afterwards. My mind and body were well-conditioned for endurance. I didn’t speak Spanish then, and I still don’t speak Spanish now. An announcement was made in Spanish to those of us on the small craft. I caught a few things, but not the important detail: stay close to the boat, because there is a strong current. I went swimming in the open water around a massive coral reef. No islands or other boats were in sight. I was such a strong swimmer at the time, I declined the flippers and snorkel that were offered to me.
And gradually, without realizing it, I was swept away from the boat. I lost track of time and looked around for the boat. It was gone. I looked for a landmark. Nothing but sea in every direction. I did not realize this at the time, but the captain of the boat counted the snorkels and flippers, raised anchor and headed back to land. I had been left at sea, and I had to swim to Cuba.
The current was strong, and there was no way to gage my progress as I swam my hardest. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was becoming dehydrated. The sun was beating down, and I was getting badly sunburnt. I did not even let the remote ideas of what may be watching me underneath the surface enter into my mind. I just observed where the sun was in the sky to guess which direction would be north. I stayed focused on the task at hand, and swam and swam and swam. When I finally cross the path of a boat, I had no idea that I may have narrowly avoided death. I was embarrassed at my stupidity, rather than pleased with my survival skills. It’s only years later that I can look back on the situation and realize: I survived being left at sea, I can do anything.
Today, the metaphorical ocean currents are pulling at me, and I am enduring. I just hope that when the next rescue boat arrives there’s a cocktail bar this time.