There are people who cross your path, and whom you are privileged to know. Martha Dicus was one of those people. She worked in the public defender’s office for almost two decades, and next week will mark the one year anniversary of her passing. But it was her life that we celebrated on a recent hot afternoon in mid-July.
On July 18th (what would have been Martha’s 64th birthday) a healthy contingent of lawyers and judges descended on the Charleston County Public Defenders Office. We gathered to eat pink cupcakes, to write notes to friends in hot pink highlighter (Martha’s favorite color), and to remember all that she had given to our community and our profession. The halls were crammed with public defenders, judges, solicitors, law professors and attorneys of all types. All there to honor this remarkable woman whose life was spent standing next to those no one else wanted to stand next to, and holding the hand of those no one else wanted to touch. Everyone, Martha believed–no matter who they were or what they’d done–deserved to have someone stand with them. For three and half decades, Martha was that someone.
I met Martha for the first time in 2004 at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. A friend had invited me to attend a ceremony for the presentation of the Dorsey Award. The Dorsey Award is an award the ABA gives each year to the country’s best public defender. The recipient that year was, of course, Martha. I remember being moved by the generosity of her spirit, by her humility, by her unassuming nature and mostly by the size of her heart. And I remember being surprised that there were so few lawyers from Charleston sitting in the room to watch her receive that award.
I would like to say that after meeting Martha I returned to Charleston, and we became fast friends. That she was a presence in my life who inspired me to be a better me, and to do more for those who couldn’t do for themselves. But such was not the case.
Though I saw her occasionally and though our offices were only a couple of blocks apart, we lived in two different worlds. I represent insurance companies. Martha represented those who, in her words, “had been given the smallest slice of the American pie.” I went to court to argue about money. Martha went to court to hold a client’s hand while he was sentenced to life without parole. It’s hard for me to imagine what her work was like. But I’m glad she was there to do it.
As I reflect now, it occurs to me that it is easy for us to remain isolated in worlds of our own making, thinking that the domain we inhabit and the work that we do constitutes the whole of reality. Martha reminds me that there is so, so much more. And opening to the “more” is what life’s really all about.
How many remarkable men and women are practicing law just down the street from us? Or just a few floors below us? Or just across the hall? What are the ways they can inspire our lives? And what about those down the street, downstairs or across the hall who don’t practice law? The special ed teacher? The nurse? The social worker?
My hunch is that we can all be enlarged if we open ourselves to those people…and that one of Martha’s many lasting gifts may be the way she still invites us to move out of our limited lives and into a world which is infinitely more complex and profoundly richer than we could ever imagine.