Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ode to Shirley

She adopted him after she passed her child bearing years. Shirley never married, but loved her son, named Bryson, as her own until he died suddenly, tragically in a horrific multiple vehicle wreck traveling home to Bryan from Prairie View A&M University. The wreck claimed 3 other lives and seriously hurt another. Bryson was 18 years old.

I have written about the non-traditional way I came to the criminal defense. I worked during law school as a runner and deposition summarizer for a personal injury firm in Houston. I tried a few personal injury cases and sat second chair for others while working for the criminal defense lawyer who taught me just about everything I know about practicing criminal defense. I did enough personal injury work eventually to be board certified in personal injury trial law for 15 years, 12 of them overlapping my criminal law certification.

Shirley stands out among my personal injury clients. The journey Shirley and I embarked on could fill a dozen blog posts. The case concluded in 21 trial days in a rural courtroom with a bevy of lawyers. The trial so overwhelmed the small courthouse that jury selection was held in the activity center of a nearby church because the courtroom was too small for all the potential jurors, lawyers and support staff.

It was a case I inherited because the out of town law firm Shirley originally hired later fired her as a client. You see, Bryson was not legally adopted. Like so many of the working poor, Shirley, who scrimped and saved all of her life, did not have the money for formal adoption. She and Bryson's biological mother, then in financial straits, knew each other growing up. They agreed on adoption before Bryson was born, and in an act of formality and solemnity for them, if not the law, trekked to a notary public three days after Bryson's birth with a hand written agreement of adoption, both considering it then complete.

That steadily yellowing piece of paper was enough to enroll Bryson into public schools. It was enough for Shirley to authorize vaccinations and secure medical treatment for Bryson. It was enough to allow public display of Bryson's remarkable sketching and drawings. It was enough for every ordinary purpose except to establish Shirley's legal status as Bryson's mother and statutory beneficiary under the Texas Wrongful Death Act. According to it, she was a legal stranger to him.

When the out of town law firm Shirley had originally signed with found out that no formal adoption occurred, they dropped Shirley as a client. I should really thank them. If not for their withdrawal, I would never have met this remarkable woman.

The unfairness of the judicial interpretation of the Texas Wrongful Death Act's language was manifest in Shirley's role in Bryson's life. Although he knew his biological mother - in our town it was inevitable he would know - Bryson well understood who his real mother was. Shirley carried Bryson to church at Lee Chapel off Washington Street in Bryan every Sunday. Shirley kept and encouraged Bryson's increasingly sophisticated drawings from a young age. Shirley instilled in Bryson the values that caused his teachers at Bryan High School to beat a path to testify about him in the small courtroom in that rural courthouse.

We conceived of a strategy that involved both Shirley and Bryson's biological mother to make an end run around the rule that equitable adoption would not support a wrongful death claim. To their credit, most of the insurance companies involved in the litigation settled with Shirley and Bryson's biological mother. We proceeded to trial against a lone defendant. We thus became a minor litigant at trial amongst the remaining families who had lost so much. With the money she received, Shirley purchased a home and moved out of the apartment housing she lived in all those years. It made her happy to be a homeowner, although she did gripe about the property taxes. I expected no less.

Shirley loved bingo and played every week, even after her cancer diagnosis. She fought that cancer with quiet dignity until the day it claimed her life. When Bryson died she had gone deep into her frugal pocket to buy a black marble headstone to mark his gravesite.  Bryson was interred at Oakwood cemetery off San Jacinto Street near the apartment Shirley lived in all those years. She visited often before her own death.

Shirley was laid to rest for eternity next to her only child.

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