by Justice William W. Bedsworth
My head exploded in October of 1988.
That’s not a figure of speech. That’s what happened.
October 5, 1988. Two a.m. Cerebral aneurysm burst in my brain.
The baby was crying and my wife went to attend to her. When she came back, I was lying in bed twitching and moaning. She thought I was having a nightmare and tried to wake me up. When she succeeded, I was in horrific pain and unable to communicate. Angels in an ambulance sped me to the hospital.
When my brother asked the emergency room doc what my chances were, all he could say was, “Well . . . he made it this far.”
Left temporal craniotomy. That’s what they called the operation they did a week later.1 I don’t think I appreciated how desperate my straits were until they began loading me into the helicopter—“a helicopter? We need a helicopter!!??”—to fly me to the surgery in Los Angeles.
My new best friend, Dr. Steven Giannotta, spent nine hours putting my brain back together. I play golf with him occasionally and tell him the jury is still out on the quality of his work. “It’s been suggested you should have put a little window in, like a clothes dryer has, so people could tell whether it’s operating or not.”2
When they released me from the hospital, I went back to juvenile court to pick up my mail and say hello to everyone. They had told me before the operation that I might lose the ability to communicate, so saying hello to people was a very big deal.
I had missed a haircut just before the aneurysm burst. My calendar had run long and I’d had to cancel. And I’d been a little dilatory in re-scheduling. So I was pretty shaggy even before I spent three weeks in hospitals.
They shaved my head for the surgery. But since they were only operating on one side of my head, they only shaved that side. Honest.
Then they closed up the shaved side of my scalp with a rainbow row of staples that curled over my left ear and pretty much covered that entire side of my head. The orange povidone-iodine used to clean the staple sites still shone brightly.
So picture Larry from the Three Stooges, only this Larry has had half his scalp shaved to the skin and accented with orange metal thingies sticking out of the skull. The other half was vintage Oscar Gamble.3
Bob Jamison was the PJ at juvie at the time. He took one look at me and said, “How soon can you get back to work? We’ve got some kids here who might really relate to you.”
I was Frankenstein’s ugly brother for several weeks. And there wasn’t anything to be done for it. The staples had to stay in for a while, and we needed the hair to grow in around them before we could come up with a new “do.”
So I walked around for weeks causing whiplash. And the minors who appeared in my court were riveted by me. I may or may not have had their respect, but I definitely had their attention. Imagine being fourteen, walking in, and seeing my badly-decorated melon floating above a black robe.4
One of them I’ll never forget. He was seated with his lawyer when I took the bench. His jaw dropped so far I was afraid it was going to hit the counsel table. He stared at me, mouth agape, for about ten seconds while I called the case and then, his eyes fixed on the staples and his voice trembling but loud with fear and astonishment, asked, “Who are YOU?”
I can still see him sitting there, hands braced against the chair in case he had in fact been brought into the executioner’s courtroom and might have to make a break for it. He was a rookie gang-banger, sitting there eyes wide as frisbees, tonsils visible as breadsticks, only half of his fight-or-flight instinct activated.
Unfortunately, his lawyer and I both laughed, thereby missing a golden opportunity to scare him straight. If I could have just managed thirty seconds of a straight face, just long enough to say something like, “I’m the new gang judge. They brought me in to run a new physical punishment program,” that kid might be a lawyer today.5
I mention this because I’m writing in late March. I was due for a haircut last week, but they’ve closed down my barber—and just about everything else. We’re all hunkering down for a long spell spent living in a science-fiction movie.
There’s no telling what lies in store. “Unprecedented” has taken on a new meaning. And even when we emerge from this pandemic, “normal” will describe something much different than it described in February.
Like many of you, I’ve spent a couple of weeks with my mind spinning like a hamster wheel. New skills have had to be developed; old ones have had to be adjusted.
We’re doing telephonic oral arguments now. I’ve learned to limit my questions; there’s a short time delay in the telephonic connection and a question often interrupts an attorney who’s already started another thought. It can throw off their timing and make it hard for them to stay on topic.
And no unnecessary comments. It’s been my practice to make occasional efforts to say things that will relax the attorneys before me. Relaxed people perform better than nervous ones. But that doesn’t work with telephonic oral arguments. Turns out statements from someone whose smile cannot be seen are ineffective as tension dampers.
I’m trying to inculcate new habits. I’ve washed my hands so many times I’m reasonably sure I can break into a jewelry store without leaving fingerprints.6
I’ve learned to cough into my elbow—and then immediately reassure everyone in the area that I’m asthmatic and coughing is less likely to be apocalyptic when I do it.
I’ve adjusted to the fact that my age, compromised lungs, and sieve-like immune system make it likely that I will catch this thing,7 so I’m exercising like crazy, losing weight, eating fruits and veggies, hydrating, and trying to get into “game shape” to take it on.
I’m also hoping to prove that the appellate bar is wrong about me: I am educable. I’m trying to learn everything I’m supposed to do to keep me and those around me safe.
Lord only knows what things are going to be like by the time this column sees the light of day in May. They may be paying me in Necco wafers which I use to buy newly-valuable chinchillas and black market paint thinner.
But one thing gives me courage to face the future: I know this is only going to be my second-worst haircut.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.