Judge Joan Lefkow

U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow looks over a case before she goes into the courtroom in November 2005. (Heather Stone / Chicago Tribune / November 9, 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.

    Her home.

    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.