Hey RLD Family! I took a bit of a summer hiatus..but I’m baaaack! It’s time to explore the importance of wills, especially for people of color. This is my first piece published for the blog The 94 Percent.
Aretha Franklin. Prince. Bob Marley. Barry White. Marvin Gaye. Tupac. The list of celebrities of color that have died without a will goes on and on.
As we grieve the latest loss of musical icon, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, we should also take the opportunity to learn some lessons. Many in our community seem to think that wills are for white people. As a result, they do not seek the protections they need and often die intestate (without a will).
I’m struggling with my emotions this morning. Late Sunday night, I discovered that a friend, George Cholakis, suddenly passed away while at a Miami Dolphins football game. I’m completely saddened and stunned. Not more than 2 weeks before, we laid another friend to rest, J.C. Dugue. He passed away from a massive heart attack just before Hurricane Irma hit.
These gentlemen were attorneys that were a few years ahead of me in my legal career. J.C., who was a defense attorney, knew me pretty much my entire career as a prosecutor. His sense of humor always added levity to tense moments as we stood across from each other on opposite sides of the courtroom. Just looking at him sometimes would have me in stitches. He was just that way.
George was helpful to me as a young prosecutor, as I was floundering (as we all did) to stay afloat with the heavy caseload. He’d often have words of encouragement, or the right answer when the judge was grilling me. He was senior to me, having tried intense homicide cases. He was kind, always pleasant, down to earth, and a fun guy. A few years ago, a really tragic incident occurred that pretty much cost him everything. George took responsibility, and started from scratch to rebuild. He began his own legal practice, and brought the same personality that he always had to his new line of work. I had such respect for George in doing so. Sometimes when folks fall down, they never get back up. He did, which showed the strength of his character.
What bewilders me is that they were not old. I know, the definition of “old” tends to shift as one ages upward, but I’m talking maybe 10 years older than me. I get it — when you hit your 70’s and 80’s, you expect to lose friends. Not in your 40’s.
Earlier this year, we lost two more members of our legal community to suicide. We all were devastated, and started work among our voluntary bar organizations to address depression. We lost J.C. and George to natural causes. Now, it’s time for us to talk about self care of not just the mind, but the body as well.
It takes wild horses for me to drag the men in my life to the doctor. I joke that for my husband and my dad, if an arm fell off, they’d pick it up and keep going, still refusing to go to the doctor. We have to be more forceful about getting the ones we love to the doctor, and heeding whatever warnings are given.
And, we ourselves need to take responsibility for our own health. Taking on too much, unmanaged stress, and ignoring what our bodies tell us is the formula for a fatal disaster.
We have to take care of each other. The pain of those left behind is immeasurable.
I can’t even get my mind around the fact that she’s gone.
It doesn’t make sense; one minute she’s here and we’re joking around, the next minute her heart gave out, and in a few days she was gone.
Cecy was my assistant at work for close to five years. She was my right hand, and my confidante. She was the cool auntie you had drinks with — a few years ahead of me in age, filled with life experience and great advice. Not only did she keep my cases together, she kept my head together during some very challenging years of my life.
What I adored about her was her good heart. The love story she had with her husband Tony, and the journey to love the second time around inspired me, giving me hope when I was in a dark place before meeting my husband. I was working through the aftermath of a destructive relationship — she was an amazing support. She had the ability to have me in stitches, while simultaneously telling me to get myself together. She was an amazing mom, and so thrilled to become a new grandma. I will never forget the unabashed joy on her face at my wedding — that mental picture will stay with me forever.
Although I was frightened, I went to see her at the hospital. Through the tubes and machines, I saw my friend. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and cracked a few jokes about the fun things we were going to do after this scare was over. I tried desperately to keep a brave face in front of her husband and family. I got into the elevator with my husband, and an uncontrollable wail came from the depths of my soul.
Because although my mind said that she can get past this and be fine, my heart already knew the truth.
The funeral of Michael Brown today is another chapter in an ongoing tragedy. In moving forward from here, the discussion needs to be had regarding what do we tell our children about how to interact with police? How should we interact with police?
Essence.com published my tips this weekend:
In the wake of the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., as well as the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York, and the others killed by police in questionable circumstances, the question is “What do we tell our children about interacting with the police?” It’s not about assigning blame on the victims’ actions. It’s about arming our young people with knowledge that could help save them in the future.
Pull right over. If your child is driving a car, and sees police lights in the rearview mirror, he or she should pull over immediately. If it is not safe to pull over immediately, slow your speed and signal that you are pulling over. Failure to pull over puts police officers on high alert that there may be a problem (even if there isn’t one). Think about it from a police officer’s perspective. Why wouldn’t you stop? Do you have an open warrant? Do you have guns or drugs in the car? Based on their occupation, police officers are trained to assume the worst in every situation.
It was April 21, 2012. My mother had been battling cancer for three years. I was running errands, and got a call from the hospice nurse. With her sweet Creole accent, she tells me ” Ms. Melba, your mom decided to leave us this morning”
And with those words, life as I knew it ceased to exist.
Sounds dramatic. But it’s so true. Yes, the sun continued to rise and set, life continued, another Bond movie was released, no one else missed a beat.
But I did. My father did. Our close relatives and friends did as well.
There is something uniquely intense when it’s your mom. Soul groups, hip hop artists like Tupac, and country singers have all sung about their love for their mothers. She’s the only person that literally pushed you into this world. And if you were as blessed as I was to have a close relationship with your mom, it’s a hole that never quite gets filled.
Life has a weird way of working. Eight months before, my husband lost his mother. I remember emailing my mom a lot during that time, trying to figure out how to help him. Loss and death is truly something you have NO concept of until it happens to you. She gave me a lot of great advice, sharing with me the pain and sometimes resentment she felt towards others for still having their mothers while she had lost hers, along with the simultaneous guilt she felt for having those emotions.
In a way…she was teaching me how to grieve for her.
It’s been two years now. I remember the kindness that people I wasn’t that close to showed me. I remember being disappointed in those who were close to me for not being as supportive. One thing is for sure: people deal with loss differently, and you need to forgive those who have no clue how to deal with you.
Losing your mom makes you part of this weird kind of club. When you’ve been through it, you get it. When you find out that someone has that loss, you immediately act, and try to comfort them, even if they are practically a stranger.
I still hear her voice, telling me her Mama Pearson-isms. Such as “There’s more behind you than in front of you“, “Can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear“, and the most relevant one to my life at present, “When it’s for you, it is for you, and nothing will stop it from happening.” I love her classic when it comes to advancement in the workforce, “If you can’t jump up, don’t jump around“.
This past Easter Sunday, I kept hearing her voice say “Happy Easter!”, with that sweet upbeat tempo. My mom loved every holiday; somehow I’m a grinch, but appreciated how cute she was. Last month, on the morning of the two year anniversary of her passing, I had a dream. She was running late for work, and said she was going to leave. I asked her to stay a little longer. She said to me “I will stay for as long as I can”.
And I believe it was true. She did stay for as long as she could.
When she was undergoing the awful treatment for cancer, she reached a point where she realized that nothing was going to work. The tumors were not shrinking. Her nurse later revealed to me that they had an understanding– continue the treatment so that she could attend my wedding, and once she came back, she would let nature take its course. To me, that is a true testament of my mother’s love for me.
In some ways, I’ve become my mom. She was classy, responsible, very blunt and had an amazing sense of self that only comes from overcoming adversity. For sure I’m responsible…and have become very blunt!
I’ve also realized that losing your mom makes you that much stronger, because once you’ve been through that pain…there’s not a whole lot (other than the loss of a spouse/partner) that can ever hurt you that deeply again.
RIP Mama Pearson. Love you and miss you. And please continue to speak to me, as well as through me.
Everything has a price. It may not be monetary; it may be physical, it may be emotional. But everything has a price. Success has a price. Happiness has a price. Freedom has a price. The question is, how much is something worth, and more importantly…are you willing to pay?
So for the last time (for this season at least), I’m plucking another example from the show Scandal. The fictional president in the show, Fitz Grant, won a second term in office. It was a great accomplishment; but in the process, his son was killed, his marriage collapsed, and he was estranged from the woman he loved. Of course, the woman he loved was not his wife…the show IS called Scandal. But regardless, in this moment of victory, he had an emotional collapse. He fell to his knees in the Oval Office, and was overwhelmed by the extreme sacrifice it took to get there. And he was not happy.
So switching gears to the real world. As Americans, we enjoy certain freedoms. As we know from history, it came at a price. We have the freedom of expression. But that freedom sometimes results in a lack of civility. We are free to express agreement, disagreement, and even hate. I am reminded of the awful shooting in Overland, Kansas this past week. The perpetrator is a white supremacist. He will likely face the death penalty for the three murders he committed.
However, people are free to express their hate, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. As long as they are peaceful, this is a freedom that is guaranteed by our constitution. Although the majority of Americans are horrified by the fact such hateful people even exist, there is nothing that can directly be done unless a law is broken. We can ostracize extremists; law enforcement can keep a close eye on the activities of such groups just in case illegal activity is going on…but we can’t do anything more.
All we can do is educate our children that such beliefs are wrong.
This is a price we pay to have freedom of expression.
On another level, I look at those that work in the criminal justice system. The prosecutors, the public defenders and the police officers. They make the sacrifice on the daily basis so that the system keeps moving. They sacrifice high pay, sleep, and in some ways, a normal life. These are the people that spend time in the jails; these are the people who get out of bed at 3am to see death and its aftermath. For them, it is worth it so that justice can be achieved.
For me, as a prosecutor, I become reflective when posing this question. Public servants are not always respected; I have been vilified by folks who just don’t get what I do. It is also not the most financially lucrative path in life.
But, I have the freedom to try über interesting cases. I have the privilege of holding the hand of a grieving mother, and bringing her a measure of comfort by putting the perpetrator in prison for a long time. I am able to volunteer in my community, and follow my passion of helping the youth. I also get to write. So I (and others) sacrifice for the ability to be free, do justice, and hopefully make a difference.
Is it worth it?
I can tell you this. The day the answer is no, is the day you will see a drastic change in my life.
So I ask you…what is worth it to you?
What price are you willing to pay…and is the price you are currently paying too high?
Please see my take on this tragedy, published on theLaw.tv yesterday. Ft. Hood
This week, there was another shooting tragedy on the Ft. Hood military base. Ivan Lopez, an Iraq war veteran and Army specialist, shot three people to death, injuring sixteen, before turning the gun on himself. A military policewoman bravely confronted him, which brought his actions to an end.
Unfortunately, Ft. Hood has been struck by tragedy before. In 2009, thirteen people were shot and killed by Nidal Malik Hasan. The difference in the 2009 tragedy is that Hasan had a clear agenda. He had been self-radicalized and took a terrorist stance against the United States. He was given a life sentence for his actions.
In the present shooting, the Army verified that the Lopez was being treated for depression and anxiety, as well as being evaluated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, Lopez purchased the weapon used in the shooting several days before. He lawfully held a concealed weapons permit.
So the debate re-emerges. Is this another case of a mentally unstable person getting access to weapons? Are our veterans being properly treated for PTSD resulting from combat?
Keep in mind, the majority of people that suffer from PTSD, or any other type of mental illness, are not violent. Some key components of PTSD involve an inability to sleep, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty adjusting to civilian life outside of the combat zone. It appears that the Army was in the process of evaluating Lopez, and treating him accordingly. From what is currently known, it seems that the Army was in fact working with Lopez to address his mental health issues. What is not known is Lopez’s motivation for committing this horrible crime. The question will be if there were any warning signs that the shooter’s depression was turning violent and what, if anything, could have been done about it. The answer will hopefully be uncovered in the coming weeks.
The next inevitable issue is that of gun control. Many ask, “how could someone with mental health concerns be able to get a firearm?” This is a situation where the laws that are currently in place adequately addressed what was known at the time of purchase. When the shooter went to the gun shop, he was a current, serving member of the armed forces. He had not been officially declared to be mentally ill; there was no indication that he was suicidal or homicidal. There were no court orders against him, nor was he a convicted felon. If you look at his profile in a general sense, he is someone a gun store owner would have no hesitation in selling a firearm to. As such, he was lawfully able to purchase a firearm.
What is most troubling is that there is a policy at Ft. Hood forbidding firearms on the base. It is clear that this policy has not been enforced on two separate occasions. Unfortunately, Ft. Hood is a huge area, with 90,000 people. It may be physically impossible to search every person. The military is tasked with finding a solution.
At the end of the day, our vets have sacrificed so much, so that we can enjoy the liberties that we have as Americans. The biggest issue should be how can we help them? This is not a case of gun control going awry. It’s a case of human tragedy, with a reminder of how fragile the human mind can be.
This is an issue of caring for our veterans and making sure that those who suffer from mental illness have access to thorough care. And that is where our focus should be.
Melba Pearson is an attorney in Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.