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Judge Takes Solace in Her Faith Amid Life's Ruins

November 27, 2005|Mary Schmich | Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

Joan Lefkow thinks back now on a story her mother used to tell about their Kansas farm. She recounts it in the cadence of a Bible parable:

"There hadn't been rain. Then there was rain and everyone was happy. Then a hailstorm ruined the crops. My father looked out the door and said, 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.' "

Out the door of the Chicago high-rise where Lefkow lives today, nine months after the murders that changed her life, federal marshals camp around the clock, waiting, waiting, waiting for the next terror or, more likely, for the next time the judge is ready to step outside to Barnes & Noble or the hair salon.

"As a sojourner on this Earth," she continues, trying to explain how in these months she has kept her sanity and her faith, "I don't feel terribly entitled. I do believe the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. It's your responsibility to accept the adversity as well as you accept the abundance."

"Adversity" is too small a measure of all that has been ripped from U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow since that February evening when she came home from work, walked down to her basement and saw the blood on the floor.

Her husband. Her mother.

Her sense of safety. Her sense of self.

Her home.

All gone, along with her privacy, her autonomy, her vision of her future, certain dreams for her daughters, reliable sleep.

In the remains of this exploded life, Joan Lefkow reaches backward, back to the lessons about fate and fortitude she learned as a girl in a land where the summer sun was as pitiless as the winter wind and the snow along the empty roads could dwarf a man.

When people marvel that she's strong, as they so often do in admiration and bewilderment and relief, she shakes her head, says no, she's not strong. She's just from Kansas.

"It's something about growing up in the Plains," she says. "Weather is harsh. The crops may fail. On the farm, you know your destiny is subject to the forces of nature in a way that people who grow up in cities don't learn."

*

The first time I met Joan Lefkow she said, "I feel dead inside."

This was on a sunny April day, six weeks after 2/28.

Two twenty-eight. That's what she calls it, an icily precise term evocative of a terrorist attack.

On that day, Feb. 28, 2005, Lefkow's 64-year-old husband and 89-year-old mother were shot to death, in her Chicago home, because of her job, by a man who would have preferred to kill her. She found the bodies.

Even on days that impersonate the ordinary, that staggering array of facts never leaves her mind.

"It's like a ringing in the ears," she says.

In Chicago, around the country, "the Lefkow murders," as they were branded in the news, felt like an alarm and an assault, as if what had happened to this judge had happened to us, to our rules of justice and our faith that the law would keep us safe.

Then the alarm faded, drowned out in the public realm by other cataclysms, heartbreaks, horrors.

At 61, Joan Lefkow was left to salvage from the ruins.

*

The last time Joan Lefkow saw her husband alive, on the morning of Feb. 28, he told her he wanted to drive their 1998 Windstar minivan that day instead of the 1992 Ford Tempo. He was staying home after surgery on an Achilles' tendon he had injured playing tennis, and he wanted to drive to nearby Cafe Boost.

She'd already loaded her work things into the minivan. Wouldn't the Tempo suffice to get him to his morning coffee?

She was annoyed and he was annoyed, but they'd kissed goodbye as usual and he watched her from the doorway as she drove off in the van.

After that day, Lefkow would rarely cry in front of other people. Joan, her friends would say, was shouldering through, as if grieving were just another job. Even at her husband's funeral she comforted weeping mourners more than she wept.

But on a day two months after Michael's death, Joan Lefkow went to his office, looked around -- at the swamp of papers, the poster of Spain, the family photos, the diplomas -- and wept.

"All this man's life activities," she said. "Phone message lists, calls to return. Now they're just papers in people's way."

*

These days she devotes herself to the business, the busyness, of grief. She packs. Unpacks. Untangles the family finances.

On Sundays there's church and, once a week, therapy.

Religion, she says, "is the floor I stand on." Therapy coaxes her below ground.

"I have a hard time digging into what I'm feeling," she says.

She'll concede to sadness. She can admit, quietly, that she feels betrayed by life.

But anger? The full scream? Not yet, anyway.

Every now and then, as the anesthesia of disbelief wears off, she feels the anger. Not for herself, not that she can recognize, so much as for her daughters.

What can she say when one of the girls phones at midnight, sobbing? When another wonders how she'll tell her own children that her father was murdered?

What can she say when they cry for the injustice of what's been stolen from them, except to say this is not an issue of justice?

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