June 10, 2014

On Tuesday, I woke up at 10:30 to the sound of the phone ringing in the other room.  I had conditioned myself over the past few months of living in my parents’ house to ignore the phone and let the machine pick up, but something in the back of my mind made me realize that I should probably pick it up this time.  Especially once it hit that third ring and nobody had answered it yet.

“Hey, Mom just got into surgery.  Everything looks good for now.  She wants you there when it’s over.  It should be around 12:30.”

“OK.  I’ll head over soon.”

* * *

            I swiped open my laptop to check email, Facebook, etc.  I take a look at Twitter, and see news of another shooting, this time at a school.  I do some searching, and find out that two students were dead at Reynolds High School, about an hour away from my home.

* * *

            I walked into the kitchen and see Dad sitting next to the table, looking to the ground.  He informed me that he just got an email from Cyprus, and that his family finally received the news that they had waited fifty years to hear: his brother had been found.

* * * * * * *

            We received the diagnosis only a week before, on the 2nd.  Mom had been going back and forth to different doctors and specialists and testing facilities for months now, to check in on a variety of ailments that you assume are the usual accompaniment of old age, but needed further inquiry to make sure there wasn’t a more serious problem lurking underneath the various aches and pains.  We were prepared for something, just not this particular news.

She had breast cancer.  They found a lump, and further testing had shown that it was malignant.  They scheduled the surgery for its removal immediately, with talk of further treatment delayed for now.  Due to its relatively early detection and its location, there was confidence that we shouldn’t worry too much about it, but that kind of goes out the window once you mention the c-word.  You can comfort yourself with facts, figures, and expert opinions, but deep down there is still a visceral reaction to hearing a cancer diagnosis.

In many ways, life would remain normal for the next week, as everyone went about their daily routines.  We didn’t make a conscious decision to do so; we simply didn’t discuss the diagnosis any further beyond determining the logistics for various hospital trips.  We refrained from informing my sister until the weekend, so as not to upset her; besides, at this point there was little that she could do, and it would be better than going through days of unnecessary worrying.

However, after Mom called her up, my sister immediately decided to come back home as quickly possible and made the necessary travel and work arrangements.  She said that she wanted to be there to take care of Mom and do any of the needed cooking or household tasks, as if I or Dad couldn’t be trusted with either of those tasks.  I brought this up to Mom, saying that this wasn’t a good idea and that the result would be too much chaos around the house.  She understood my concerns, but responded that it was my sister’s decision to make and that she couldn’t blame her for rushing back.

I remembered that we had gone through a similar situation years ago with Mom, when she had an operation on her lung while I was away at college.  I had wanted to take at least a couple of days off to be there for this serious procedure, but my parents insisted otherwise.  Besides, what parent wouldn’t want their child to spend their winter in a frozen New Hampshire winter instead of resting back home?  I recalled my frustration from that time (a feeling that was reinforced later when I found out that the operation initially did not go smoothly), and reconsidered my position, deciding that I was fine with my sister’s choice.

So my sister came home, and life appeared from the outside to be the same as if it were the holiday season when the entire family is back together.  I excused myself from a couple of outings with friends that week, giving the minimum information required to explain the situation, and spent as much time with the family as possible as we awaited the surgery.

Considering how little there was for most of us to do, I stayed at home while my parents went through the necessary pre-op procedures early in the morning at the hospital.  The initial plan was for my sister to stay home as well, but she was understandably antsy and instead joined Mom and Dad.  And that’s how we got to the phone call on Tuesday morning, June 10.

I made it to the hospital a little before noon, and after some confusion about where I needed to be, I touched base with Dad and my sister.  Within minutes, the surgeon came out and informed us that the operation had gone as well as they could have planned: the tumor was removed, and the early indication was that the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes.  The tumor was slightly larger than they expected, but nothing that necessitated concern.  Everything was looking good for now, and we would just have to wait for a few hours as Mom recovered from the anesthesia.

The next couple of hours dragged on, as we leafed through the handful of reading materials cover-to-cover, including a “Travel Salem” guide and a “March Madness” edition of Sports Illustrated; at this point, the tournament was so long ago that I had trouble filling in for my dad which teams ended up in the Final Four.  I burned through most of the battery on my cell phone scrounging through Twitter and trying to do some mobile web browsing from my outdated device, but the tedium became overwhelming after a certain point.  It then became time to explore the various nearby waiting areas, if only for the sole purpose of moving around.

It took about three hours, but we were finally allowed to come into Mom’s hospital room and provide her with flowers and comfort.  She looked a little frail and rather fatigued, but she was still smiling.  We passed on the good preliminary news and talked a bit as we discussed the protocol for her departure.  Once everything was cleared up, I headed home as Dad and my sister waited for Mom to be discharged.  I could at least get in a solid run on the treadmill before all was said and done and Mom was back home.

* * *

A couple of nights before the surgery, I excused myself to go for a drive.  One of the nice things about living in Salem is that you have all the convenience of a city, but it is only a few minutes drive from the country.  I had taken up the habit of picking out a CD and hopping into my car, setting out a course to take me around the city while an album blasted through the stereo system.  Not only could I get a different perspective of the music, since the equalizer/speaker setup focused on different parts of the sound, but at least for an hour I could focus my attention on something else besides myself.  And sometimes, the view was pretty great.


Sunset in Independence

On this particular night, I was debating between two Elliott Smith albums, XO and Figure 8.  Though I love both, I tend to forget which songs are on which album, and ended up selecting the latter by chance.  I was enjoying the music, until my ears perked up at a familiar intro:

The question is: ‘Wouldn’t Mama be proud?'”

I pulled the car over to the side of the road, and cried.

* * *

The shooting at Reynolds High School was seemingly just the latest in a flurry of similar crimes around the country that week, from Georgia to Seattle.  But the school shouldn’t be remembered just for this tragedy, no matter how much the loss of young Emilio hurts (when the Portland Timbers and their fans announced several tributes for the aspiring soccer player, I was particularly moved).  The first things that will instead come to mind when I think of Reynolds High will be from an event from two years ago.

One of the admirable things that the Oregon Supreme Court does is travel around the state so that students and other members of the public can see firsthand how the court system works.  The Court travels to the three law schools in the state, as well as different high schools each year.  In the fall of 2011, back when I was a clerk for one of the Justices, the Court made the trek up from Salem to Troutdale and Reynolds High School, who would host oral arguments for two cases, State of Oregon v. Lawson and State of Oregon v. Mills.

These were particularly important cases, as the two combined would possibly determine a new standard for Oregon in admitting eyewitness testimony.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the issue, there have been advances in science over the years that have proven in several circumstances the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and as a result numerous defendants convicted on the basis of dubious evidence.  The problem is that intuitively we sense that “seeing is believing”, and that memories pretty much work like videotapes, in that we can easily go back and forth and pick out details from what we remember.  In reality, memory is a much more complicated process, and the legal system has wrestled with various approaches to admitting such evidence and presenting the proper context for a jury.  To understand just how big a problem this can be, the Innocence Project has helped overturn hundreds of convictions based on faulty eyewitness testimony after DNA evidence exonerated the defendant, including several prisoners who were serving on death row.  It is in our collective interest that we come up with the proper procedures so that any potential terrible injustice would be prevented.

The oral arguments were held in the school auditorium, and the students got to witness some of the finest prosecutors and defense attorneys in the state make their case, as the judges peppered each side with questions.  Afterwards, the judges opened up the floor to a Q & A, explaining to the audience how the appellate case that they had just witnessed differed from the usual trial experience that they were familiar with from the media.  We then broke for lunch, as judges, lawyers, and clerks ate with the students and got to talk with them on a more individual level.  The students whom I talked to all had great questions, and I remember walking away impressed with their insights (though I remember cracking up when one of them asked if I had kids—kind of need several steps to fall in place before that ever happens).  At the very least, they didn’t sleep through the arguments, unlike some lawyers I’ve seen in other cases.

My judge ended up getting the case, and I along with another clerk would work on researching and drafting the opinion over the next year.  We pored over the extensive trial records, studied advances in psychology and neuroscience from the past four decades, and analyzed previous cases that attempted to tackle this problem.  In the end, we came up with a procedure that relied on the state evidence code to help shift the burden of admissibility to the prosecution, as it is with the introduction of most other evidence.  In addition, we provided an extensive record of several problems that have occurred over the years with improper eyewitness identification that judges should look out for, as well as an explanation of the science so that lawyers understood why the court was concerned with the proliferation of faulty admissions.

It was a very thorough opinion, and it was praised as a landmark decision in publications like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Slate.  Within my first two years out of law school, I had played an important role in crafting a significant opinion, one that would be a model that other states could follow and would make a real positive impact in helping overturn false convictions and ensure fair trials in the future.  Most lawyers don’t accomplish something like that in their entire careers.

The Innocence Project wrote a press release expressing their adulation for the decision, and back in April of this year, I got to speak with the Director and Co-founder, Barry Scheck, a hero of mine.  When my boss introduced me to Barry as the clerk who helped write the opinion, Barry shook my hand and offered his praise: “So THIS is our savior.”  He then gave a speech to introduce the new Oregon chapter of the Innocence Project, and took time out to specifically praise Lawson as “the most brilliant decision I’ve ever read”, noting that he liked to read over favorite sections from the opinion on many nights before he goes to bed.  Sure, some of this was hyperbole and flattery for the person who invited him out to Oregon, but for once, it was nice to feel acknowledged and appreciated.

Of course, the reason why I was able to listen to this speech and hear this praise at 9 am on a Wednesday morning was because I don’t have a job.  Ever since my clerkship ended, I’ve been unemployed.  That’s 18 months and counting.

I have always wanted to become a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.  I can sense the eyerolls already, but it’s the absolute truth; I’d like to see you try to come up with a decent law school admissions essay when the facts sound like a ridiculous cliché.  I first picked up To Kill A Mockingbird before a summer vacation trip to Greece back in elementary school, and was thoroughly engrossed by both the story and the lessons of fairness and equal justice.  Atticus’s final arguments before the jury were some of the most powerful words I had ever read, especially the notion that though we may not be physically and mentally created equal, under the eyes of the law we were.  I would reread the novel the next two summers, and to this day my parents periodically give me new editions for Christmas presents.  It’s true, I also read Jurassic Park multiple times over those years, but the passion to become a paleontologist never struck me as much as being a lawyer did (though for years I would read articles on genetic engineering with interest).  The novel was a true inspiration for me.

For years, the lessons of To Kill A Mockingbird and others like it pushed me in a more general sense of to “try to do good for others less fortunate”, but when I graduated college, I was still searching for a purpose.  That was when I decided to commit to law school in earnest, and after a few months of applications, waitlists, and acceptances, was excited to enroll at NYU.  I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of my classes and loved the friendships that I built with my classmates, but it wasn’t until my 2L summer that I felt could accomplish what I long had sought, and that was to help others.  I was a law clerk at the Oregon Department of Justice, working in the Consumer Protection/Financial Fraud section, where I had volunteered before as an intern back during a couple of off-terms in college.  I had enjoyed my time at the DOJ in those previous stints, but my work was limited to getting consumers in touch with people better prepared to handle their complaints and other behind-the-scenes work.  This time, however, I was handling claims and doing all sorts of real legal work, and I spent the majority of my summer helping victims of mortgage rescue fraud.  Yes, you read that correctly—people who desperately were trying to hold on to their homes were being cheated out of what limited resources they had left.  During my first week, I helped finish a settlement where one Oregonian got the entirety of her money back, and had the honor of presenting her with a check that Friday.  She expressed shock that 1) she was able to receive any money whatsoever and 2) she did not have to pay us for our work, and she thanked us profusely.  I responded by informing her “hey, that’s what taxes are supposed to pay for,” but of course, as an intern I was working that summer for free.

That summer I helped settle numerous cases for the DOJ, to which the Department itself earned close to six figures.  Regular Oregon citizens received even more.  I spent the summer working for three supervising attorneys; two of these attorneys thought that they were my sole boss, while the third saw that I handled the workload with ease and kept silent.  In addition, I did work for the nascent Civil Rights Division, as well as whatever side project any other attorney would toss my way.  Despite this stellar record, once I got my clerkship, I would only be granted one interview with the DOJ, despite applying to dozens of openings.

And nobody else gave a shit either.

Later on that Tuesday afternoon, I received a phone call once again from my alma mater, begging me once again to send some money their way, as if the fortune that I paid was not enough.  I reminded them once again that same as before, I still did not have a job, and expressed shock that nobody in their staff could write (or would even think to write) a note about my situation.  Mainly, I was upset that of all the days they chose to call, it was the day of my mother’s surgery, but there was no need to explain this to complete strangers.  Still angry, I went to the kitchen to talk to my dad about the phone call.

* * *

Growing up, whenever I was asked about my ethnicity, I always stressed the fact that not only was I Greek on my mother’s side, but that I was Greek-Cypriot on my father’s.  To some, this may seem like an arbitrary distinction, and in some ways they are more correct than they may realize; if an American was speaking to someone from Brazil, what would be the point of mentioning that one part of the family was from Missouri while the other hailed from New Hampshire?  From an outsider’s perspective, what’s the difference?  Greece and Cyprus share a common history and lineage, as the island has been populated by Greeks for thousands of years.  How could the birthplace of Aphrodite not be Greek?

[Long history lesson forthcoming; you may skim or skip ahead]

The initial creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus was an accident of history, but its current status is the result of both inaction and malevolence.  If you’re unfamiliar with its history, I’ll offer up a quick and general history.  After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Greece was occupied by the Ottomans for centuries.  In 1821, the famous Greek revolution for independence began, a cause that was celebrated by many luminaries across Europe (perhaps notably by Lord Byron, who took up arms himself and whose efforts are still appreciated in Greece today).  It was a struggle that lasted for years, but eventually the Greeks were successful.  However, the boundaries of Greece as we know it today were not established for years after this initial triumph, and only a small section of it received independence initially; it took years of other actions for the rest of Greece to be liberated.  Territory was gained gradually over the years, but Cyprus, way over in the East, was unable to join up with its Greek brethren.

Instead, Cyprus was purchased by the British from the Ottomans after the end of the Russo-Turkish War.  For years, it would remain a British colony; my Dad, born a few years after the end of World War II, was born a British subject.  It didn’t matter that Britain and other nations had given up colonies around the world in the wake of the war as the principle of self-determination was being instituted; hell, there were important military bases on the island to consider, and the close proximity to the Middle East was a consideration that you can’t just give up that easily.  Cypriots eventually decided that this situation could no longer stand, and so began to push against their colonialist overlords, and began fighting for a union with Greece (a movement known as “enosis”).  The British did not appreciate this, and the Cypriots began to openly rebel; in response, one of the maneuvers that the British pulled was invoking the support of the Turkish Cypriot minority to fight against the Greeks, stoking fears that they would be persecuted if the island joined with Greece.   This gambit would have lasting consequences.

After years of struggle, a compromise short of enosis was reached, and the independent nation of Cyprus was created in 1960.  However, a faulty system of power-sharing between the Greek majority (80% of the population) and the Turkish minority (less than 20%) would effectively prevent any hopes of effective governance on the island.  This resulted in various uprisings over the years, but had generally settled by the early 70’s.  However, this all changed in July of 1974, when an ill-advised coup backed by the ruling military junta in Greece temporarily ousted Archbishop Markarios, the President, throwing the country into chaos.  It was clear though that this coup had no support, as the Greek junta fell immediately after the coup.  However, this was enough for Turkey to launch the long-planned Operation Attila, and Cyprus was invaded on July 20, 1974.  As Turkish troops pushed their way through the island, political negotiations restored constitutional order within a couple of weeks.  But since they were already on the island, the Turks thought why not grab more of this for ourselves, and launched a second invasion on August 14.

The invasion resulted in the killing of thousands, the rape of thousands more, and thousands missing to this day.  Ethnic cleansing resulted in the displacement of a third of the Greek population from their homes, which to this day they have been unable to return.  As it stands, Turkey occupies the northern 37% of the island, with a heavily patrolled green line separating the two parts, and running through the only divided capital in the world, Nicosia.

[Long history lesson complete]

A lot of my friends know that my Dad was back home in Cyprus for summer break from law school here in the States during the Turkish Invasion.  He was called up to the front lines and helped try to fight off the invaders, but they were woefully outnumbered and undersupplied.  Over the years, we’ve heard small details of the experience that help paint a picture of what occurred, like the fact that my Dad was grateful to have purchased a pair of Keds back in the US before returning, that almost none of the soldiers actually had a weapon, and that the thing that he thought Saving Private Ryan got absolutely right about war was how LOUD it was.  Many have also heard the story of how he was hit by a mortar during the war and was injured, that it was by a miracle that his helmet protected him from further damage.  They also know that to this day he still has this helmet.

It’s amazing to think how close I was to never existing, if not for that helmet.

Fewer friends know the story of my grandfather.  During law school, we were all required to write a thesis-like paper as a requirement for graduation; from the beginning, I was dead-set on writing about the topic of torture, something that was unfortunately a current issue due to American policies stemming from the War on Terror.  When pressed why this issue was so important to me, even though it would have little importance to my post-law school career, I would eventually mention my grandfather.  During the time of the rebellion against the British, my grandfather, who was an important village leader at the time, was imprisoned by the British and held without trial for two years, and was routinely tortured during this time.  I think of this, then I think of my sweet old grandfather; though we were separated by a language barrier, I often felt a deep connection with the man after whom I was named, perhaps no more strongly than when we would play quiet games of backgammon together.  Though we were both known to be quite the talkers among our friends, it was in these games that we revealed the other side of our personality.  I never went into this much detail in my explanation; just a simple reference to my grandfather’s experience was enough.

I never mention that my Dad still suffers to this day from nightmares caused by the night he was awakened by a rifle pointed to his head by a British soldier, who demanded to know from this eight year old the location of his father.

Even fewer know the story of Antonis, my Dad’s brother.  In all my life, I may have told it only once or twice; it’s not exactly something that can come up in casual conversation.  I have only heard stories about him a handful of times myself, for similar reasons.  In the few conversations that we’ve had, I learned that Antonis was the pride of the family, the one that was the nicest and smartest and handsomest of all the children, the one that was absolutely beloved by everyone and destined for greatness.  I never was able to meet him; beyond these stories, the only thing I can remember is a black-and-white photograph from a visit to the old family home in Lythrodontas.

One day in 1964, Antonis was in Nicosia looking for replacement parts for his bike for work.  He was then kidnapped.  For years, his family never heard a word about his whereabouts; for decades, the only concrete thing that they knew was that he was “missing”.  My grandfather would go on daily visits to the President and Greek congressional leader, pleading for any information whatsoever.  However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that we would learn anything, when a chance encounter with a Turkish Cypriot policeman from that area finally gave us some news; he told my other uncle that “Antonis had been very brave”.  My grandparents never lived to hear this news.

My other uncle has been working tirelessly for years to champion the cause of the missing, from both 1974 and the inter-communal violence of the 60’s, working with people on both sides of the ethnic divide to try and find bodies and identify their remains.  Over the years, they have had many successes, and both sides have helped with the effort.  But it wasn’t until last month that he finally learned what he had waited decades to hear.

My Dad told me that his brother emailed him that afternoon that the body of Antonis had been found.  He told me that his body had been found among several others in a…and as my Dad searched for the term, I said “mass grave,” and yes, that was the term he was thinking of.  They sent the bones to Bosnia for testing, because they had they unfortunately had the equipment and expertise in handling these situations.  They confirmed that it was indeed Antonis.  An upcoming trip to Greece now was updated to include a trip to Cyprus, as plans were arranged and flights were booked.  Finally, we could see an end to this.

* * *

That night, I spent the hour or so before going to bed reading reviews of one of my favorite new albums, the solo debut of Hamilton Leithuaser, Black Hours.  As I was processing the events of the day, I thought back to a moment from my law school years.  I was in the middle of my nightly walk around the nearby neighborhoods, with Hamilton’s previous band (The Walkmen) providing the soundtrack on that particular evening.  For a few minutes, everything lined up with perfect synchronicity, as everything I saw came together perfectly with the rhythms and swells of the music.  As “Little House of Savages” blasted through my iPod, I remember seeing a child’s balloon float away at one point, and a patron vomiting on the sidewalk at another.

I was living in a perfect one-shot video in my head.


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