The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

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."

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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.