41: Stay of Execution

41: Stay of Execution

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Stay of Execution

Out of difficulties grow miracles.

~Jean de la Bruyère

Less than ten days before Christmas, Greta, our party planning lady dropped by my office to remind me I needed to bring a “dish to pass” for the university’s computer department Christmas party on December 18th.

“You know, I’m not coming, Greta,” I reminded her.

Greta’s eyes grew wet. She was such a wonderful person, and I hated to upset her. She nodded and smiled. Patting my arm, she turned and left. I was the talk of my department — probably of half the university — because of my legal entanglements in divorce court over the last few years. Most people get their lives back on track in a few years, but not me!

In fact, I had been in divorce court for almost six years and would remain there for over a decade more. There were no assets. My children and I had lived in poverty as my husband never wanted to work.

At the time, my children would, by court order, spend the Christmas holidays with him. I had taken food, clothing, toys, supplies, and even buckets of water up to his isolated cabin (without plumbing) in the mountains, which they all enjoyed. He felt he should personally receive regular cash payments from me instead of getting a job because he was so wounded from the divorce. He had explained that repeatedly to the courts over the past years. If they were taking away his property (me), he needed to be compensated. How else could he live? The children were not his concern as they had always lived in poverty.

Of course, everyone who knew me, including my co-workers, knew all the intimate details of my divorce: The sheriff came, the process server came, my ex-husband came, all bringing news of hastily arranged court dates set without my knowledge. I used up all my vacation and sick days going to various courts in various counties on bogus motions.

Now, I was to start a six-month sentence at the local jail on December 18th for littering and trespassing, a direct result of the ugly battle with my ex-husband. I had “trespassed” on his property when I dropped off the children’s Christmas gifts — the “littering.” I had resigned my position effective the afternoon of December 18th, with no clue of a future.

The shame and humiliation were awful, but not as hard as the fact that I had been trying to finish my college degree for decades. It was very important now so I could be a good example for my children and provide for them.

My stuff was packed in storage. I had found a place to stash my car. The night of the seventeenth, I laid out my clothes for work, trying hard not to think about the next day and what I was about to experience.

About 3:00 a.m., I woke, but I thought I was dreaming. Three words were lodged in my brain: “Stay of Execution.” The only time I had heard those words was on the news when someone was waiting for the electric chair or the gas chamber. But I was to learn that “stay of execution” refers to any decision that stops or undoes a court order or judgment. I didn’t have an attorney, though, so those words didn’t mean anything to me.

I got out of bed, dressed, and ate breakfast. I tried to write an argument as to why the court shouldn’t send me to jail for six months for trespassing and littering, stressing that even if I were guilty of these charges, they were not usually offenses that resulted in jail time, plus that I needed to take care of my children and keep my job.

I stayed very level headed as I got ready for work. When I would start to slip into panic mode, the words would come back into my head: “Stay of Execution!” I didn’t even know how that would work but I couldn’t stop thinking about those words that had come to me in the night.

I was there when the university library opened at 7:00 a.m. I quickly found a legal book with a court form for a “Stay of Execution,” typing it out at one of the computers. The words in my head — “Stay of Execution” — were coming as often as my heartbeat. I worked hard and fast, writing down my reasons why I should not go to jail on a bogus claim for something that would normally just generate a fine. Pushing the print button, I grabbed the multiple copies of the court motion and tore across campus to my office, arriving just on time.

One of my supervisors called about a computer issue. After that was resolved, I asked to leave for an early lunch to take some papers to court. “Sure,” came the sad reply.

At 11:00 a.m., I walked the half mile to the courthouse. The clerk’s office directed me to a judge’s clerk.

“Oh, he went to lunch early,” the clerk said. “But you can sit down and wait for him. I will give him your papers.” The papers were rather rumpled by now.

I sat on a hard, wooden bench in a long hallway. As I looked up, a man in business clothes approached me. He was a district court judge with my wrinkled papers in his hand. I watched his mouth for words.

“I signed your Stay of Execution,” he said. I wasn’t dreaming those words! I had heard him say them. Apparently, he thought I misunderstood.

“I have signed your Stay of Execution papers,” he said very loudly. “Good luck!”

I yelled, “Thank you!” and ran down the long hall and stairs. I ran all the way to the computer department office. Greta was greeting the party guests at the door. “What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t coming.” There were tears in her eyes again. She led me to a chair, took my paperwork, and went to find the boss. Someone brought me a glass of water. I was too winded to even talk.

My boss was all smiles. “Grab yourself some party food, and when you are done, come see me in my office. I have a surprise.” The Christmas party turned into a wild victory celebration for me. The boss was waiting when I arrived at his office. “You know you are a good employee, so I am going to throw out your resignation letter. We are glad you are back.”

While I was taken aback with his kindness, I knew I couldn’t accept his offer. “No,” I told him, “I can’t come back.”

I went home and signed up for my final semester of college to start in January. Christmas didn’t exist in the traditional sense that year for me as I spent everything I had on tuition and books.

But less than six months later, I graduated debt-free with an English degree that had taken decades to finish. Yes, I heard those words, “Stay of Execution,” again in my head as I walked across the platform to receive my diploma.

Nothing, I believe, is an accident. God always has my back, even when he’s filling in as my lawyer.

~Ela Oakland

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