The Guardianship Mission
“Sunny skies and fair weather today,” reported the Weather Channel app on my iPhone. Indeed, it was a beautiful day with the soft breeze wafting in salt air from the ocean less than a mile away. But today, my brother, three younger sisters and I barely noticed the lovely weather. We were on a mission. I squeezed our white sedan into the last downtown parking space available and chattering in nervous anticipation, we strode down the bustling city streets to arrive at the San Diego Family Claims courthouse. We had received a summons to appear in court per my petition to become the legal guardian of my four siblings who ranged in age from 15 to 19. At 21 I was just barely old enough to do so, and, despite having prepared this with my lawyer for several weeks, I was struggling to keep up an outwardly cool composure.
Standing in a huddle before the imposing, red brick building, I realized that for the past month, the five of us had wandered like sheep without shepherds, confused and bewildered. After years of living in a safe, secure, homeschooled environment, we suddenly found ourselves quite alone in the world. Our father had died in 2007 after a devastating battle with melanoma that had penetrated his brain, changing his personality and slowly robbing him of his memory. One year after our father died, our mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Month by month we watched her painfully slip away. We had buried her besides Dad only a few weeks before. As the oldest, it was now time for me to step up to the plate and fill the role of head of our little household.
Taking a deep breath, I pulled open the heavy glass door and we walked in. Two security officers, each fully equipped with guns, a radio and a club were on hand to greet us, cheerfully confiscating our bags and dumping them into plastic bins, which were rolled down the conveyor belt into a security checking system.
In the lobby it was hot and crowded with people. An almost tangible presence of problems permeated the room. On a bench against the wall slumped a dejected lady with tangled gray hair, wearing a dirty pink dress. She sat motionless, holding her head in her hands. In one corner, a black man argued loudly with a city employee while in another corner, a haggard mother filled out paperwork with two small boys clinging to her skirt. It seemed that there were sad stories to be read in the eyes of the many troubled individuals we saw there.
We waited anxiously in a noisy hall until a sheriff opened the courtroom door with a flourish. The actual courtroom was quite small and every chair was soon filled as all awaited the appearance of the judge. A hush settled over the room; wisps of muted conversation rose and fell. A baby began to wail; the sheriff scowled. I sat rigidly in my seat, gripping the armrests with sweaty palms as waves of apprehension swept over me. Butterflies fluttered uncomfortably in my stomach. The courtroom officials were busy in their own familiar little world: the stenographer, with her tidy hair and efficient fingers set up her miniature typing machine; the bailiff in her police uniform, her hair coiled into a smooth bun, was quite pretty; the interpreter, an older, professional-looking Spanish woman, sifted through stacks of papers and gazed around the room with a sigh.
At last, the judge strode in, his long black robe flowing behind him. I watched him with uneasy curiosity as he organized his desk then called up the first case. He looked to be in his fifties and had a definitive air of authority about him. As each group stood to plead their case before him my apprehension deepened. He was neither kind, nor sympathetic. His responses were blunt and impartial, and most of the people went away rejected, rescheduled and frustrated. I quickly discovered that I was right about the sad stories; there was not a happy one among them. Bitterness, anger, even hatred was rife in their voices and gestures.
Standing before the judge was even more intimidating than I had expected. He carefully scrutinized my face as he listened to our lawyer justify my appeal. How grateful I was not to say anything! I would probably have choked up or scrambled my words as I usually do when I’m nervous. When the lawyer finished explaining our situation and pleading our case, the judge sat silent for a long moment. His response shocked everyone in the audience. My breath caught in my throat and stayed there as the judge praised our strength and courage in the face of our circumstances and complimented my siblings for their support and submission. I blushed beet red and my heart flip-flopped wildly. There was a profound hush in the room; even the baby had ceased to wail. “I grant your petition and I whole-heartedly wish you good fortune in your lives,” the judge finished. I breathed out a tremendous sigh of relief. With the eyes of everyone upon us, we walked out wreathed in smiles. Notwithstanding our calm and happy exterior, we were really skipping and dancing, singing and shouting in pure delight.
Walking back through the lobby I found that the aura of troubles and heartaches no longer seemed so oppressive. There were brighter and happier days ahead for the careworn people gathered here, just as I knew there would be for us. Leaving the courthouse, we were entering a new phase of our lives in which five, very young adults would be the supreme law-inventors and decision-makers in our childhood home. As we merrily crammed back into our little car, bubbling over with laughter and pride, we did not yet know of the lessons, hardships, sorrows and joys that were in the road ahead.
About Keren-Niccole Bunnell and her family:
My dad was a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. She home schooled my four younger siblings and me all the way through high school. Unfortunately, my parents died within three years of each other after devastating battles with cancer. I became the legal guardian of my minor siblings at the age of 21 and now, two years later, the five of us are attending the same university together on full music scholarships.
Besides performing in Southern California as a string quintet, my three sisters, our little brother and I love to backpack and we have section hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to the Anza Borrego desert. For the next four months we are training as a team to run in the Rock & Roll marathon which is held in San Diego (it will be our second marathon). In late spring, we will board an airplane for the very first time and tour the east coast, performing in concerts with our college choir and orchestra. The past two years have been a time of healing and growing together as a family and the future ahead is so exciting!
Sonia Marsh Says:
Like all who have read your story, I am in admiration of you and your family. Keren, you seem so mature, and after e-mailing back and forth, I am grateful that your parents raised an amazing daughter who took charge of her family after such tragedy. You are truly a hero. What a talented family you are, and thank you for taking care of your siblings at such a young age.
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