November 20, 2005
A few days ago, Joan Lefkow was walking down a Chicago street flanked by federal marshals when a panhandler walked up to her and said, "God bless you, Judge Lefkow."
It has been nine months since U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow's name and face made relentless news, but what happened to her the night of Feb. 28 still haunts her days and stirs the souls of strangers.
On that winter evening, Lefkow came home from a day in the federal courthouse to find her husband and mother murdered in her basement. In Chicago and beyond, millions felt her loss and terror.
Since that night, Lefkow has done her best to stay out of the public eye. She has kept the details of what she went through private.
In April, however, she agreed to let Tribune columnist Mary Schmich follow her through the slow process of mending herself and her family. Now, as the worst year of her life comes to a close, she faces the holidays with a mix of dread and hope for the restorative powers of the season's rituals.
"How do we do this other than to rely on the age-old tradition of gathering with family and giving thanks?" she says. "There is no court of appeal that can reverse what has happened. We have to live with it and in spite of it. I pray that one day joy will return to our lives, and I believe that will happen."
PART I: RAIN
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 probably, 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 goes on, 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 the 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.
All gone, along with her privacy, her autonomy, her vision of her future, certain dreams for her daughters, reliable sleep.
Now, U.S. marshals chauffeur Lefkow around in a van with dark windows, shepherd her into elevators and down hallways, lurk at a nearby table when she meets a friend for lunch.
Now, for reasons of safety, she goes to Office Depot to buy a paper shredder but then, for reasons of safety, won't have it delivered to her new address.
Now, the Marshall Field's clerk glances at the name on her credit card and offers condolences. Lefkow appreciates the kindness, but longs for the day she isn't recognized as the black-hatted widow at a funeral attended by the national media and a team of sharpshooters.
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," she says, "about growing up in the Plains. 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.
That's what she calls it, two twenty-eight, 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 North Side 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 both an alarm and an assault, as if what had happened to this judge had happened to us, to our rules of justice and to our faith that the law will keep us safe.
Then the alarm faded, drowned out in the public realm by other cataclysms, heartbreaks, horrors.
Joan Lefkow was left to salvage from the ruins.
At 61, Lefkow is slender and wide-eyed and with her thick brown hair she can look as girlish as a cheerleader, which she was back at Sabetha High School. On this April day, she'd extended her hand with a firm grip and a direct gaze. She smiled.
But the smile flickered like a candle whose wick is almost gone, and she seemed to float more than walk. Grief uproots and hollows.
She'd met me that day to decide whether she could bear from time to time over the coming months to talk about what happened to her on 2/28, about her life as it had been and would be.
How would she mend her family, remake a home? How would it feel to return to the job that had led to so much destruction? How would she view herself and the world from now on? How would she change, and not?
OK, she finally said.
OK, even though she cringes from publicity.
OK in part because among the things that had given her courage in the darkest days of her life, one was how much the people of Chicago had shared her sorrow. It made her feel as though she were living in a small town, where people are connected, where people care.
So, OK. She would let us share what happened next as she looked for what she would come to call her "little resurrections."
PART II: HOME
She walks back into a still life of her lost life. Against a green wall in the dining room, her mother's gray crutches. On a bedside table in her blue bedroom, her husband's amber prescription bottles, a stack of his self-help books. "Compass of the Soul." "Wonderful Ways to Love a Teen." On a refrigerator magnet, a warning from Mark Twain: "In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane."
Except for plants as brittle as papyrus, everything in Joan Lefkow's house this April afternoon looks as it did when she walked in from work on that cold Monday evening in February, laid her purse on the dining room table, took off her jacket and wondered why her mother wasn't reading as usual in the red recliner in the front window, and why her husband hadn't returned her calls and why the house was so quiet.
She left her home that night in a blast of police and TV lights and went to live in hiding, estranged from her belongings, her routine and her past.
Now, after all these weeks away, she wanders the rooms and says, "It feels good to be home."
But where is home, really?
Is this home, this place where the familiar and mundane have turned into relics and omens? This house where cars slow and drivers gawk? This place without a husband?
Home is not the corporate apartment where she has been living, that blur of beige whose only charm is the gym where lately Darryl, one of the marshals, has persuaded her to go each day before breakfast even though she always resisted her husband's urgings to work out.
Home is not the apartment she's about to rent, the low-ceilinged high-rise place that yesterday when she'd pushed the door open for the first time made her feel her life had been shrink-wrapped.
Home is where her history is. Where her future was. Here. Home is still here.
And she can't stay. She can no longer risk living so exposed, even if she could live with the memory of the blood in the basement.
"There's the basement," she says, points, always quick to anticipate the needs of others. "You can go down."
From the basement of the house Joan Lefkow once considered home, you can hear the life above. Footsteps. Muffled voices. Notes plunked on the upright piano her parents gave her as a child.
The killer would have heard the lives upstairs as he waited with his gun down near the washer and dryer.
For 21 years, the house overhead vibrated with a family in motion. Four girls growing up. Michael Lefkow listening to Mozart, Aretha, bluegrass, opera. Joan cooking dinner, different meals for every girl, which she did most nights despite full days in court.
The Lefkows' colonial revival house, with the white vinyl siding they'd only recently stripped off and not yet replaced, was far from the grandest on their street in Chicago's Lakewood-Balmoral neighborhood. They spent their money on their daughters' educations, not on interminable home rehab. Or on pricey home security.
In many ways, they were an old-fashioned family. They didn't own a TV until their oldest daughter was 12. On Saturday afternoons, they held family meetings with bylaws and a minutes book to chronicle chores and vacations.
Then the girls grew up. One by one, the older three moved out, leaving behind their dollhouses, prom dresses, piano books and their youngest sister, Meg, who on this April day is looking for packing material.
"Mom," says Meg, rattling a New York Times stiff with age, "do you want the newspaper from February 27?"
Lefkow exhales half a laugh. She says, "Back when life was normal."
Back when life was normal, these rooms, closets and drawers could barely contain all the stuff that gave that life its weight and shape.
Look, says Lefkow now, all these earrings that have lost their mate. She polishes one on her jeans. And all these old credit cards. She goes in search of scissors. Here's a dusty flamenco doll Michael bought in Spain. She finds the vacuum cleaner and draws the cleaning brush over each tiny crease in the doll's skirt.
Dawdling in the clutter, she slows the dismantling of her life.
"I always had this desire for order," she says, pawing through her bedroom dresser. She plunges a dress into a plastic bag. She sighs. She slumps.
"But there is no order in life. It's all a fantasy."
Now every object is a memory, a decision. And every now and then, a laugh.
"Darryl!" calls a voice from the hall.
Darryl McPherson is the head marshal on Lefkow's protective detail. He's 31, trim and nimble, a former Alabama college baseball player who surveils the world around the judge with sharp eyes that used to watch for fastballs.
In these strange weeks McPherson has become brother, friend, handyman and coach to the Lefkow women. He scored them tickets to Oprah. The girls gave him one of their father's Brooks Brothers ties.
"Darryl, look!" says Helena Lefkow now, sauntering into the bedroom. Pretty in a fragile way, animated by a flinty mind, she makes it easy to imagine her mother at 25.
She dangles one of her mom's old party dresses, blue and black, short and strapless, in front of McPherson, who sits vigil in her father's rocking chair.
Judge, says the marshal, that dress would still look good.
The judge smiles. Extends a hand. Touches the old dress.
"Michael loved me in that kind of thing," she says.
Michael. Michael who, one of his sisters says, brought out the beauty in Joan, who helped the Kansas country girl believe in herself while she made him, the suburban boy, feel worldly.
Michael, whose own clothes--long-sleeve shirts, suit coats, pants jackknifed over hangers--droop in the bedroom closet, where they'll linger for months before she can let them go.
Sometimes she'll stand alone and press the fabric to her face, searching for his scent, for proof of life.
She never finds it.
PART III: MICHAEL
Michael Lefkow liked hats, which made him look taller, and he liked the snap of a starched white shirt. In his bedroom trunk, he kept a red cummerbund for flamenco dancing. When his daughters were young, his clothes sometimes made them groan. The Brooks Brothers suit he wore on a school field trip when the other parents wore jeans and khakis. The knee-high socks and little purple shorts he sported when he jogged.
He enjoyed clothes so much that before he was killed in February, he'd already bought a tux for his daughter Helena's September wedding.
Joan Humphrey met Michael Lefkow on Good Friday in 1965 in the Wheaton College library. She was a Wheaton senior, and he was a Northwestern Law School student who came to Wheaton to study. It was quiet there, unlike the nearby bungalow where, as the third of seven children, he'd lived with his family and a grandmother since his father died.
Wheaton students were supposed to be in chapel that afternoon. Anyone who stayed in the library was locked in. Joan Humphrey stayed, and introduced herself to one of the other inmates.
"He was intriguing looking," she recalls. "His grandfather was a Slavic Jew, a lawyer who knew seven languages."
That impressed the Baptist girl from the Kansas farm and the one-room schoolhouse.
When she arrived at Wheaton, a Christian college in Chicago's suburbs, Joan Humphrey was a shy, diligent, conservative 17-year-old who'd been so upset by Richard Nixon's 1960 presidential defeat that she helped make badges afterward that said, "We want a recount."
By edict of her church and family, she wasn't allowed to dance, so when she showed up for the occasional high school shindig, she sat on the sidelines. Movies were forbidden too, and though she sneaked off to "Elmer Gantry" at the drive-in and even lied to her mother so she could see "Summer Place" at the local theater, she wrote a paper in her first college semester denouncing movies as un-Christian.
The professor gave her a C.
"I was just spitting out dogma," she says now. "That was my first lesson in thinking for myself."
College was a constant test. Joan Humphrey had graduated second in her high school class of 47 students. At Wheaton, she struggled.
As a girl, she'd visited Denver, gone to the eye doctor in Kansas City and been as far as Arkansas to Bible camp. But college in the outskirts of Chicago was lonely in a way different from the loneliness of the small town and the farm.
She spent her first two years depressed--depression ran in the family--then, slowly, found herself liberated and liberalized.
"By the time I left college," she says, "I was divorced from the evangelicals."
Into her evolution walked Michael Lefkow. He was barely her height--5-foot-6--but he brimmed with personality, curiosity, generosity and ideas, big liberal ideas. He'd been to Spain.
"Want to go out for a beer?" he said one day when he cruised by her house in the cab he drove to pay for school.
She didn't drink. She said, "Maybe a Coke?"
That summer, on their first serious date, they went to see Federico Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits." Michael laughed at the pretension of the allegedly great work of cinema. His contrariness irked some people, but Joan Humphrey grew to admire it.
"I'm always the one worried about how other people perceive me," she says. "He was always his own person."
Their courtship lasted for 10 years, complicated then and long afterward by the fact that Michael had fathered a child with another woman. Decades later, the fact that the other woman happened to be African-American would complicate their lives in a different way.
Finally, in 1975, Joan Humphrey and Michael Lefkow married, in a green wooden Episcopal church in the Colorado mountains. Michael wore a white Moroccan wedding shirt he'd brought back from Spain. Joan wore a white Moroccan caftan. They embarked on a life anchored by children, church and their shared zeal for the law.
Right after college, while she and Michael were still just dating, Joan had gone to work at an urban planning firm, ignoring the college career test that suggested law would suit her.
"There were no women in law," she says, "and I had no money."
But she was intrigued by Michael's job as a Legal Aid lawyer who helped the poor. One day, she said to him sheepishly, "Maybe I'll go to law school."
She was thinking Northwestern, but knew that if he balked, she wouldn't apply.
He said, "I think you'd make a very fine lawyer."
She said, "Really?"
If in the years that followed he ever minded that her career outshone his, he didn't let it show.
PART IV: GOODBYES
The last time Joan Lefkow saw her husband alive, on the morning of Feb. 28, he told her he wanted to use their 1998 Windstar mini-van that day instead of the 1992 Ford Tempo. He was staying home after surgery on an Achilles' tendon he injured playing tennis, and he wanted to drive to nearby Cafe Boost. She'd already loaded her work things into the mini-van. 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.
"I think she cries at night," one of her daughters said a few weeks later.
But on a day two months after Michael's death, Joan Lefkow goes to his office, looks around--at the swamp of papers, the poster of Spain, the family photos, the diplomas--and she weeps.
Michael Lefkow's little law office in the Monadnock Building in the Loop was nothing like his wife's suite in the federal courthouse catercorner across West Jackson Boulevard.
Hers: vistas of the lake and skyline, walls of polished bookshelves, Arts and Crafts lamps and chairs, a staff to take her calls, send her faxes, make the coffee.
His: a single room with an air conditioner in the window, a room barely big enough for his old walnut desk, bought used. His only staff was his daughter Helena, whom he'd hired as a temp and who affectionately despaired that her dad couldn't even make a computer file.
While his wife, with his proud encouragement, ascended the federal judges' ranks, Michael Lefkow had run for Cook County judge. He lost. But he didn't lose his vigor for his private practice. He was an old-style liberal who specialized in employment rights, and it energized his conscience that his clients were often broke.
In his office when he died:
Two 10-pound weights underneath the desk.
Fifteen years of appointment books squeezed into the cluttered shelves.
A 1960s valentine from his wife in a desk drawer near an e-mail from a daughter's boyfriend asking for her hand in marriage.
And everywhere lay records of the clients he loved, like the one who every two weeks mailed a check for $27.50.
On this May day, in the middle of his mess, in the void of his vanished life, his widow stands and cries.
"All this man's life activities," she says. "Phone message lists, calls to return. Now they're just papers in people's way."
- - -
A few days later, big men with big muscles and tattoos evacuate the house Joan and Michael Lefkow shared. Room by room, chair by chair, sofa, dining table, beds, a baggie that holds a baby's teeth.
She fusses over the movers. "Do you want water?"
She bends to straighten the plastic tarp on the stairway carpet. "I don't want anyone to stumble."
A neighbor stops by, they hug. She's losing the family of her neighborhood as well.
"You two were always the two who stopped and talked to everyone," the neighbor says. "How are the kids doing?"
Lefkow smiles the smile she wears like a uniform these days, tender, apologetic, as if she's sorry to intrude with this wreckage that is her life.
"Terrible," she says, but skimps on the details. She protects her girls like a bodyguard.
When the furniture is gone, she stands at a window in her bedroom, empty except for Michael's clothes, a box of his shoes, a jar of his pennies.
"My therapist told me to take a picture of what's out the window, like the tree," she says. "I haven't yet."
She gazes out at the red maple she'd watched from bed through so many changing seasons. So many things still to be done. Michael's headstone to buy. Two daughters' weddings to plan without the father of the brides. A job, the source of all this trouble, waiting for her return.
Suddenly, she recoils.
"They're filming me!"
Out front, a TV news crew aims a camera at the bedroom. She presses a hand to her heart, steps back. How do they know she's here?
Even at her own birthday party, attention makes her squirm. Now she's watched, always watched. By the media. The marshals. Who knows who else. In her solitude, she feels surrounded; in her loneliness, robbed of the right to be alone.
With a dark glance over his shoulder, McPherson sneaks her out the back door to a van idling in the alley.
PART V: MOTHER
Joan Lefkow grew up on 480 acres of farmland in the hills and creeks of northeast Kansas, where people were few and abundance came in the form of corn, oats, wheat, clover, sheep, hogs, cattle and sky. In the words of her brother John, "There wasn't too much to do, except what dad told you. We didn't have a wide circle of friends."
It's a muggy June afternoon and John Humphrey, who is 70, sits in blue overalls in a white wicker chair on the porch of the empty Lefkow house. He's a big man with a broad, rumpled face and fluffs of white hair he's tamed with a green bandanna. He's come to Chicago from Colorado to help his kid sister, Joanie, fix up the house where their mother was shot to death.
His 43-year-old daughter, Anne, has come too, bearing sea salts to chase off evil spirits.
"A feng shui thing," she says, though she never scatters them as planned. Whatever demons had fouled the house, she determines, have already fled.
Now there are simply toilets to scrub. Baseboards to replace. The brute work of making the house appeal to a buyer undeterred by the killings in the basement.
"Hardly ever have I seen her be overwhelmed by circumstances," John says of his sister, "even this one." He then admits he doesn't really know how she is because she doesn't say.
Lefkow worries that her siblings--John, Judy and Tom--blame her for their mother's death.
"She shouldn't," John says. He raises his beer bottle, stares out toward the marshals milling on the sidewalk. "Anything like that just gets you right in the forehead. But it probably saved my mother 10, 15 really bad years."
Donna Humphrey wanted to die. At least that's what she'd told her children since October 2004 when a bout of sepsis, a blood infection, had sent her into the hospital and then into the home of her daughter Judy.
When Judy herself had to go into the hospital, around New Year's, Joan flew to Colorado and brought her mother to Chicago.
"Mother," Joan had warned, "you can stay with us as long as you tone it down with this `I want to die.'"
Humphrey hated having to live with her children. She'd lived alone since 1977, when her husband, Jake, died; losing her independence deepened the depression that had dragged her down for most of her life.
"Here's the thing you have to know about Donna," eulogized a friend at her funeral. "She was almost never positive and upbeat. ... Donna had been born to parents who didn't know how to show their love for her. ... I think her early lack of love and acceptance made her unable to accept love from others later, and this included God. ... But interestingly, it didn't keep her from feeling deep love for her own children."
The eulogist went on: "If you had told her on the morning of February 28 that this would be her last day, I believe she would have said, `It's about time!'"
In rural Kansas of the 1920s, housework was more valued for girls than homework, and Humphrey had to quit school after 8th grade. She became her own teacher. Married, on the farm, she would sit under trees reading and eating apples, an inspiration to her studious daughter Joan, who nevertheless shrank from her mother's impatience and psychic pain.
"Her depression made me fearful she would leave, commit suicide," Lefkow says. "That theme of abandonment is a theme I've lived with."
In her mother's place and time, Lefkow says, the only anti-depressant was religion. Donna Humphrey gave her children a big dose of the Baptist fundamentalism that was her medicine.
Then a new pastor came up the grassy hill to little Woodlawn Baptist Church. He'd earned a master's at Wheaton College near Chicago. He encouraged Joan Humphrey to go.
And so, with a school loan and a little money her mother had inherited from her own father, she left the farm, her family, the burden of her mother's sadness and, eventually, the style of religion that sustained Donna Humphrey until her dying day.
- - -
By Feb. 28, 2005, Donna Humphrey had started to feel at home in her daughter's home. She talked more openly than ever before about her past, her regrets.
Joan Lefkow had come to find comfort in climbing the front porch stairs after work to see her mother illuminated in the winter window, reading novels or the Bible, keeping the home alive while she was gone.
On the evening of 2/28, Lefkow left the courthouse right at 5. All day she'd felt a pinch of anxiety. She'd called home several times. No answer. She'd phoned her daughter Meg, who'd slipped in after school to get her workout clothes and head to the gym.
"Have you seen Dad and Grandma?" Lefkow asked.
No, her daughter said. She figured they were sleeping.
The house was dark when Lefkow pulled up in the mini-van around 5:30. Puzzled, she scanned the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, checked the upstairs beds. Finally she descended the stairs into the basement, where Michael kept an office.
She flipped on a light.
Saw blood pooled on the floor.
She opened Michael's office door.
Saw his body. Then her mother's.
Her mother, she noticed, was wearing the bright blue caftan they'd just ordered from the Smithsonian.
She pulled the door shut. And listened to the silence.
PART VI: MYSTERIES
What do you do with the memory of a murder? Of two? How can you witness annihilation without it annihilating part of you? Write it down, Lefkow's therapist tells her. So on a laptop in her corporate apartment, with the marshals on guard outside, she starts writing one day in late April. Stops. Resumes the day before the movers come to the house in May. She writes in the naked style of a legal brief.
The bodies. 911. The phone call to a daughter's fiance.
She writes of how she called one of her girls that night and shouted, "Come home! Run!" How she reached another in California, told her to get on a plane, now, heard her daughter say, "No. No. No. Mom, you're joking."
She keeps typing.
The ride to the police station. The friends who gathered there to cry. The interrogation, then the ride to the hotel where her family hid for the next two days.
More than once she types, "I don't remember."
Other people who were there that night and the days right afterward would remember things she didn't remember, or didn't feel inclined to write:
The rumpled hotel beds and curtains drawn against the daylight. The girls drifting in and out of rooms, holding each other, weeping.
One daughter sobbing, "I want my daddy, I want my daddy, I want my daddy."
Joan rocking her daughters in her arms.
Joan shrunken to the bone.
Joan, composed, signing funeral papers.
The sleeping pills.
The marshals hoped the family didn't know about the weapons propped against a wall in a room down the hotel hall, on alert for the next attack by an unknown killer who had left no explanation beyond a cigarette butt in the kitchen sink.
In her typed account, which she titled "Our Tragedy," Lefkow also mentions Matt Hale.
"You know who I am," she'd said to the officers who swarmed into the house that night. "I'm the federal judge that was threatened by Matt Hale's group."
By February 2005, Lefkow and her family had grown accustomed to the notion that someone wanted her dead.
That someone was Matthew Hale, the so-called Pontifex Maximus of a racist so-called church he ran from a bedroom in his father's house in East Peoria. He was engaged in a trademark dispute with a New Age group in Oregon. Lefkow initially ruled in Hale's favor but when an appeals court overturned her, she ordered his church to give up its name.
Out on the Internet, Hale and his followers took to vilifying her as a Jew judge, though she's Episcopalian, and as the grandmother of biracial children, children she loved but was related to only through marriage to Michael. The haters posted her address.
"During the Spring," reported the 2004 Lefkow Christmas letter, in Michael's cheerful voice, on stationery rimmed with holly, "Joan was called as a witness at the trial of Matthew Hale, the white supremacist charged with soliciting her murder. A supporting family cast on the benches saw her acquit herself well in the witness chair, a seat she is unused to filling. The jury, by the way, convicted Mr. Hale of the crime and he awaits sentencing."
Had Hale manipulated the February killings from his jail cell, where he reportedly sat singing opera, taking Prozac and complaining of his persecution? If not him, who?
For nine days, Lefkow lived not knowing where the next shot might hit, or why, sure of one thing only: This happened because of her. Her work.
She was sitting in her sister's house in Denver on March 9, preparing for her mother's funeral, when a marshal walked in.
Some guy, an out-of-work electrician, Polish, had just shot himself to death in a van near Milwaukee. He left a confession. Had she heard of him?
"I did remember him," she says now. "And it made sense to me that he had done it. I felt empty. The absurdity of it all."
Him. She won't say the name. Won't write it.
To her, Bart Ross is simply "the perpetrator," the man who broke into her basement through a window, then shot her husband and mother for no reason other than that they stumbled on him as he lay in wait for her.
"They were innocent," she says, "and I was the sinner."
Lefkow can still see the perpetrator's cancerous jaw, how the day he brought his malpractice suit into her courtroom his mouth opened so slightly that each word seemed to leave a new wound.
She felt sorry that no one was there to calm his rant about the doctors, lawyers and judges who had ruined his life, sorry that she had to command him to sit down.
"He was pathetic," she says. "My heart went out to him."
She dismissed his case, but for a while afterward kept a clipping from a friend about jaw reconstruction, wondering if she could help.
- - -
"Last night I was thinking, if only we'd had security cameras," she says one spring day in a bookstore cafe, her fingernails painted bright red by one of her daughters. "If only we'd had a dog."
If only, if only. Regret's incantation.
Maybe, she says, she should have spied the warnings in the perpetrator's lawsuit, detected that denying him would detonate his rage. Maybe she should have been more imperious, less inclined to look him, like everyone who comes before her, respectfully in the eye.
"I am such a sap," she says and sighs.
But what was done is over. Lives extinguished, killer found, mystery solved.
Now the new mystery: How would Joan Lefkow reconstruct her mutilated life?
PART VII: WHO AM I?
`It sounds silly for a 61-year-old woman to be saying this," Lefkow says one morning in June, "but who am I?" She sits barefoot on her old sofa in her new rented apartment. Out the big corner windows gray clouds press on the brick-and-steel city. This is a modern high-rise, guarded by a doorman and her federal marshals, nothing like the big old house she has abandoned. She is so determined to keep the address secret that she has rerouted her mail to her office.
"Should I retreat to a mountain to read and write?" she says. "Live on the ocean? Or live in Europe? These things are all possible now."
Possible, but not likely. Money's tight. Her husband died with little life insurance. She needs to go back to work, wants to. But not yet.
There's still Michael's headstone to choose. The house not ready for sale. Michael's clothes still in their bedroom closet. So many burdens that double as distractions, goals.
And she's still not ready for a routine life without the twin anchors of the old one--conversation with her husband when she wakes up and goes to sleep.
Once, she called his voice mail just to hear him talk.
These days she devotes herself to the business, the busyness, of grief. She packs. Unpacks. Untangles the family finances.
One day the marshals drive her an hour north to buy a baby grand piano. It's a squeeze in this apartment, but her mother bequeathed her a little money with instructions to replace her battered childhood spinet.
Some days she lunches with friends, by unspoken agreement avoiding discussion of "that night," "the tragedy," "2/28." The marshals chide her if she sits exposed on a restaurant patio. The pleasures of natural light and fresh air have been reclassified as dangers.
On Sundays there's church and once a week there's 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. It shows in the sag of her voice, in the weariness that sometimes descends like a swift fog from out of nowhere. She can admit, quietly, that she feels betrayed by life.
But anger? The full scream? Not yet anyway.
"This whole anger thing is pretty deeply buried in my soul," she says. "I learned early on that anger is not an emotion you could appropriately express."
Every now and then, as the anesthesia of disbelief wears off, she feels the anger scorch. Not for herself, not that she can recognize, so much as for her daughters.
There's Maria, dark-haired and outgoing, reminiscent of her dad. Helena, more demure and watchful, more like her mom. Laura, taller than them all, a college junior with a lawyer's love of argument. Meg, a high school junior, who wears a lip ring and dyes her hair and who lately has grown up fast.
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 a daughter climbs in her bed, weeping that she can no longer envision her father's face? When another cries to think of a wedding day without her dad?
What can she say when one of them tells her she's become too needy?
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?
She can't tell them Dad and Grandma have gone to a better place. Or that they died because God decided it was time. Despite her deep faith, she's not convinced of either.
"Mostly," she says, "I just hug them and let them cry."
Into this interminable darkness shines the light of one clear thing: She must take care of her girls. Duty is comfort.
The girls take care of her too.
On Easter, they made her laugh by teaching her dirty words, a few of which she painted on an Easter egg.
On her 30th wedding anniversary--"Take me to Hawaii, I've never been to Hawaii," she'd said to Michael--they took her to dinner.
Mother's Day. Father's Day. Each official festive occasion passes like another hurdle jumped in the psychological escape from 2/28.
The unnamed, uncelebrated moments are hard in a different way. It's on solitary mornings like this one, when the two girls who are home for the summer have gone off to work, that Joan Lefkow sits alone in the stillness, baffled.
"I have to keep reminding myself that this really did happen," she says. "There's something about death that's so stark and shocking. A person who was with you for 40 years is gone! Just gone!"
She tosses her arms into the air. Lets them drop. Tears fill her eyes, but don't fall.
Memory is gravity. It tugs her down and back. She fights to look up, move on.
She changes the picture on her cell phone from one of her husband's grave to one of her daughter Maria trying on a bridal gown.
Now, the phone rings.
"Just the marshals," she says. "Checking on my schedule."
They're a rotating squad, mostly strong men half her age, from places like Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky. Mostly they disagree with her on politics, but they admire her grace and strength while they hover around the bridal shop, the theater or the grocery store with their sunglasses and their cell phones.
She has learned to stop mothering them as much as she did at first. They'll figure out when they're hungry or need a bathroom break.
Still, she and they trade kindnesses. They carry her groceries, fix a light. After one of her mother's memorial services, a marshal taught her a few pool moves in a small-town Kansas bar. She once made the guys pancakes.
The polite tenderness they exchange sometimes looks a lot like love.
The marshals are there to make her less afraid, but their presence tells her to be wary. Wary of her reflex even now to trust.
Out on the Internet, the ignorant and hateful still spit on her name. In May, she was dining in a Thai restaurant when someone posted a nasty note, seemingly aimed at her, on the window.
Every time she phones the CP, the marshals' command post, to say she's ready to go outside, she's reminded that she's not just a victim of violence, not just a widow navigating the ordinary obstacle course of grief.
She remains a judge, made vulnerable by her power.
PART VIII: JUDGE AND WITNESS
After the murders, she turned down plea after plea to speak in public. No to Larry King. No to Diane Sawyer. Yes, she says, when U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter asks her to fly to Washington to testify about judicial security in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Temporary pain relief: Be useful.
What had happened to Lefkow hadn't happened just to her. The assault on her family felt like an attack on all judges, on the family she joined the day she first put on her black judicial robe. She gives the date as reflexively as if it were her birthday: Nov. 9, 1982.
Lefkow figured early in her career that she was too shy to be a strutting courtroom attorney. But a judge? She liked to read and write. She liked to listen. She even liked lawyers.
More than that, she believed in justice and the justice system as deeply as she believed in God, the right to vote and the separation of church and state.
She also believed that every criminal was somehow crippled.
Female judges were scarce when Lefkow was appointed a magistrate, but the field was good for women. Pay equal to a man's. Negotiable hours that made it possible to bring up children. Respect.
When she had her fourth child, at 44, she helped start a child-care center in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. It's still there.
By 1994, President Bill Clinton was scouting for women to name as federal judges. Lefkow applied. She wasn't chosen.
For the next six years, even as she became a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, she applied over and over. Over and over, other women, her friends, got the job.
Finally, on Sept. 7, 2000, in proof of what one speaker that day called her "absolute, enduring persistence," Lefkow stood in a crowded courtroom to take the oath of office. She felt like Dorothy in Oz.
She talked about the family farm, the Kansas plains, her small town and the unknown world into which her mother had dispatched her for an education.
She placed a hand on a Bible held by her daughter Laura and, with her children, husband, siblings and mother as witnesses, solemnly swore to administer justice equally to rich and poor.
So help her God.
On a bright May day almost five years later, she walks into a dim, paneled Senate hearing room. She has become what she ruefully calls "the poster child" for the hazards of the judge's job.
She flinches at the pack of photographers crouched on the floor, clicking, clicking, clicking at the widowed judge in her cream-colored skirt suit and fresh haircut.
Her voice is strong, though, as she speaks, sitting at a massive table, sometimes looking down at the text she'd labored on for days, sometimes glancing up at the three senators who'd shown up to listen.
Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois are there and from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the lone Republican.
Occasionally she adjusts her reading glasses as she talks of the need to make judicial safety a priority. To better fund the U.S. Marshals Service, which protects judges and their courtrooms. To finance home security systems for judges. To limit the Internet posting of judges' addresses and personal information.
She quotes from Bill Clinton's condolence letter: "the madness in the shadows of modern life."
Her daughters sit behind her, but she has deleted their names from her speech, an attempt to protect their privacy and safety.
The next day, Lefkow's picture is on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. AOL features her on its main screen, with a poll: Do you agree with this judge? Should Congress condemn anti-judge rhetoric? Could recent harsh comments about judges encourage violence?
Her own answer is such a stern yes that a few weeks earlier, after Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas linked violence against judges to their "political" decisions, she shot him a letter.
"Sir," she wrote, "I challenge you to explain to my fatherless children how any judicial decision that I ever made justified the violence that claimed the lives of my husband and mother. As I will not reveal my daughters' names or addresses, I will be glad to convey to them any statement you wish to make that might ameliorate the further pain that you have caused my family."
She never heard back.
Then the trip to Washington is over. So is the brief, sharp purpose it brought to her shapeless new life. She flies home to Chicago, to gray skies and a cold. She knows she should go back to work. But more than ever now, she feels tired, exhausted by the realization that there is no quick way out of grief, just a slow trek through the days.
PART IX: WORK
By 9:15 a.m. on July 12, Lefkow has had four cups of coffee, received calls from three of her daughters and shown a couple of relations from Topeka around her courtroom. "This," she tells her relatives, sweeping a hand around the room with a homeowner's pride, a mother's tenderness and a pilgrim's awe, "is Mies van der Rohe at his best." This, courtroom No. 1925 in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, is also where Lefkow met at least two men who hoped to kill her, Bart Ross and Matt Hale.
Day after day, the angry and afflicted ride the elevators up the glass-and-steel skyscraper into these windowless, towering, walnut-walled rooms where law is intended to civilize emotion. Emotion, it turns out, sometimes rules.
On this Tuesday, her first day back on the bench, Lefkow's staff is afraid of emotion in the court. They persuade their boss to post a sign on the courtroom door. It thanks everyone who has expressed condolences and ends in bold type:
"In court proceedings, Judge Lefkow respectfully requests that no reference be made to the matter."
In her chambers, Lefkow is elated, nervous. Can she even remember how to navigate through a database to find a court case?
"Hey, it came up!" she says, sitting at her computer. "Isn't that so cool?"
She squeezes her lips, leans into the screen and studies a case about alleged police misconduct in suburban Markham.
"Judge," says her courtroom deputy, Mike Dooley, poking his head in the doorway, "your guests are here."
For the first time since Feb. 28, she shrugs on her black robe, a cheap old polyester and cotton gown she's too thrifty to replace though she hates the way it hangs.
In the hallway, she stands flanked by marshals, like an actor poised for curtain call. She curls her knuckles under her chin, the way she often does when she's thinking or self-conscious or fighting tears.
Then she's back, back up there in her old seat on the bench, smiling at the attorneys, listening to the facts, asking questions, riffling through papers, making decisions.
No mention is made of "the matter."
The procedure is as familiar as breath, the place as familiar as home. The only visible change is the big old walnut desk on her left. Michael's. He's no longer around to pop by and wave from the courtroom's back row, but she has brought over his office desk to keep her company.
"So," she says, back in her chambers, her grin mixed with a wince, "how'd I do?"
"We got one under our belts, Judge," says her assistant, Krys Juleen, and hugs her boss, hard.
"You want some coffee?" asks a clerk.
"Do you have coffee?" Lefkow says.
"It's all made."
Over her fifth cup of the day, Lefkow leans back in her desk chair. Chicago flexes outside the plate glass windows, a sweep of mighty towers and a great turquoise lake, her city, always changing and enduring.
She tilts her head. "I'm very much intrigued," she says, "by how much we live in the present."
- - -
That night, she brings flowers to a friend's home for dinner with three judges, women who often lunch together in the courthouse.
"I went back to work today," she says softly.
How'd it go? her friends cry.
"It felt good."
Over pasta and wine, they chat like any gang of friends, about jobs, politics, the Supreme Court, kids, nutritionists.
"You're eating much more now, Joan," says one.
"I put back all the weight I took off," Lefkow says. She laughs and shrugs.
"I didn't mean that."
Soon the coffeemaker is popping and Lefkow empties two big grocery sacks on the table.
"So there's the mail."
Condolence letters. She has received more than a thousand. Her friends hold note-writing parties to address envelopes while she signs cards.
"My heart goes out ... " "The world has been cruelly robbed ... " "We feel so helpless ..."
A thousand different ways to say what can't be said.
The cards are from strangers mostly, including more than 200 judges and a story development team at ABC-TV.
The sympathy keeps her grief more vivid than she wants, but with the same gratitude that moved her to go to the police station and shake hands with the officers who helped her on the night of the murders, she has vowed to answer every one.
"Very Lefkow of you," one of the women says.
For the next couple of hours, they work, sometimes without a word. They're not judges right now, just friends finding comfort in the ability to help and be helped, in the scratch of pen on paper.
PART X: ALONE
Sunlight and dust motes. That's all that's left in Joan Lefkow's old bedroom on a morning in late July when the men from St. Leonard's House walk into the closet, sweep her husband's hangers off the rods, then cart them down the stairs and out to a truck on the shady street.
"You help men getting out of prison?" Lefkow says to the manager of St. Leonard's, a West Side shelter.
She stands near the front door, arms crossed, as her husband's life whisks past. For weeks after clearing out the house, she has hung on to his clothes as if holding on to hope.
The man from the shelter nods. "Yes, it's all about saving lives."
She nods. Good. Let some ex-con wear Michael's camel jacket, the suit still in its dry cleaning bag, the cowboy boots he bought in Colorado when they were married 30 years ago. Let his death help to restore a life.
Then the truck pulls off, and just like that, the clothes are gone.
Her teenage daughter starts to cry. Lefkow hugs her and they lean murmuring against a door jamb, the mother stroking the daughter's face and hair, the girl stroking the mother's, until they both stand up tall and move apart.
Another little death, this end of Michael's clothes. A death that makes more room to breathe.
"I've had enough for today," Lefkow says abruptly.
She walks outside to the marshals' van. The sky is blue, a lawnmower whirrs, a bus belches past. The world hums on, regardless.
- - -
"The thing that's beginning to hit me now," she says a few days later, "is that this isn't a phase of life that you get through and it's over."
She sits in the red recliner her mother liked, next to her newest book. Lately she reads more than she's read in years, often at 3 a.m., reading to staunch the memories. This book is "The Way We Never Were," a feminist history of the American family.
"Your view of the future is different," she says. "All these assumptions, good or bad, about the future have changed. There are so many older women alone. It's a new version of myself."
Her daughter Laura glances up from the family photos she's sorting on the couch. Her dad in an Afro. Her mom in a miniskirt.
"You're not alone," Laura says in a tender voice. "You have us."
"There's this whole social conditioning," Lefkow goes on. "You have a husband. People treat you in a certain way because you have a husband, no matter how unhappy the marriage is. To say the least it's uncharted territory."
She circles her teacup in the saucer. The china clinks in the quiet room.
She stands up, brightens. "Did I show you my dress for the wedding?"
PART XI: A WEDDING
On a Saturday in September, Helena Lefkow, daughter of Joan and Michael Lefkow, marries Jake Edie. The groom wears the tux Michael Lefkow had planned to wear to his daughter's wedding.
The fatherless bride wears an ivory gown and, on her right forefinger, her father's wedding ring.
The flower girls--twin daughters of the daughter Michael fathered with another woman--wear mango-colored sashes made by Joan.
The marshals wear their Sunday suits.
Relatives, judges and lawyers have come, friends from the old church and the old neighborhood, a full assembly of the Lefkow family's shattered community.
At a pre-wedding party with an Elvis Presley theme, Joan Lefkow had dressed like a backup singer, in a cat suit and a big teased wig.
On the wedding day, she wears a strapless periwinkle Nicole Miller gown as she stands to address the gathering:
"The poet Diana Der-Hovanessian wrote, `When your father dies, the sun shifts forever, and you walk in his light.' I shall not attempt to put a good light on what happened to deprive Helena's father of his great joy of being here tonight to celebrate and amuse you all with a cleverly eccentric blessing of his daughter Helena's marriage.
"But I do know that the light cast by his life on his daughters and the family and community in which he lived and worked will sustain you, Helena, and all of us as we go forward without him.
"And let us also acknowledge another person we miss, Helena's grandmother Donna, who always said goodbye with `this is my last trip to Chicago' but always pulled herself together to be there for every christening and graduation, and many birthdays and Christmases. We miss her warm presence with us."
PART XII: FAITH
Often in the seven months I spent talking with Joan Lefkow, I would look at her, this strong and tender woman, and repeat to myself the soul-rattling thing that when you're with her you can never quite forget and never quite believe: Her mother and her husband were murdered. In her home. Because of her job. By someone who wanted to kill her. She found the bodies.
How had it happened that the ordinary things this humble woman loved and wished for most--family, home, meaningful work--converged and exploded on one awful winter day in the middle of her life?
You could chalk it up to fate, to the inexorable drive of the actions of her life toward a single point. You could subscribe to the dark theory, "Your luck is your doom."
If you're Joan Lefkow, when you think about fate, you also think about faith. You think about the universality of suffering and the promise of rebirth. And you still oppose the death penalty.
"The wedding was a resurrection of sorts," she says in a dark wine bar on a rainy night with autumn rolling in. "A new family being created."
She's shucked off her shoes, tucked her feet underneath her on a couch, ordered a glass of Chianti. In her pink shirt and black suit, she no longer looks like the ghost who when I first met her in April had said, "I feel dead inside."
Resurrection. It's one of her favorite words. Little resurrections are the signposts she seeks out in the foreign land of this new life.
The plant that didn't die in the old home and lives on in the new one. Her piano lessons resumed. Work.
She's still waiting for the resurrection in her refurbished house, the young couple she hopes will buy it and make a new family.
Tonight, a buxom blond singer in a black dress is perched on the ebony piano, waggling a stiletto heel in time with "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To."
"I like this song," says Lefkow. Maybe, she says with a laugh, she'll become a lounge singer. She hums a couple of bars.
Her loneliness grows starker as the shock wears off. From day to day, she ricochets from disbelief to acceptance and back again, from energetic determination to fatigue no sleep could cure.
And yet, she says, cupping her chin in her hand, leaning an elbow into the couch, she feels her voice growing stronger.
She gets invitations to speak now. She grows more inclined to accept. She feels an obligation to the issues of justice that roused Michael.
"I've found my voice in a way I didn't have yet," she says. "I don't have forever to be an influence on other people. Michael's not there to speak, so I must speak louder. I'm less afraid."
She's musing on courage when the singer croons into the microphone, "Good to see you, Judge."
The woman, a stranger, hops off the piano, walks over to Joan Lefkow and hugs her. For a flicker, Lefkow shrinks away, then she hugs back, because this is who she is now, a shy woman from the Plains connected to the world by everything she has lost.
- - -
Michael Lefkow once asked his wife, "Even if there is no God and even if evil prevails, would you live your life differently?"
She told him no. She still thinks no.
"I have some core value that searching for the good and the honorable is the way to live," she says. "God is the spirit of good in the world. God is the spirit of love in the world. That belief is so engrained in me that even if someone proved point by point that it wasn't true, I'd still believe it."
Mary Schmich has written a column for the Chicago Tribune since 1992. Before that, she spent five years as a Tribune national correspondent based in Atlanta. She was born in Savannah, Ga. Heather Stone has been a staff photographer at the Tribune since 1998. She has covered stories around the world, from the Sydney Olympics to the funeral of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, West Bank.
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