'In a Dark Wood'

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Book tells story of lives lost and healing journey

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

“I was entering the dark wood…I had left the house at eight thirty; by noon, I was a widower and a father.”

That startling line is from the prologue to a book by Joseph Luzzi called “In a Dark Wood,” with a subtitle of “What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love.”

The book, released in early June, has a Detroit-area connection, in more ways than one. Besides telling of Luzzi’s four-year struggle to find his way out of the pain of grief and suffering, it also tells of the author’s love story with Katherine Mester, and her tragic car-accident when she was 8-½ months pregnant. While she died following the November 29, 2007 accident in upstate New York, doctors were able to save the child, Isabel, by Caesarean 45 minutes before his Katherine passed away.

And Katherine was the middle child of retired Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Fred M. Mester. Ironically, Mester also is gamely fighting his own way from a dark wood, following the death of his wife, Lynne, 77, in mid-June, who suffered for four years from a form of dementia.

“Everyone’s been in a dark wood somewhere in life,” Mester said. “Joe’s written a wonderful book on how he got out of it.”

During a wide-ranging recent interview, Mester spoke of his precious daughter, his beloved wife and her sufferings, and his own recollections of both, at times humorous and touching, but always honestly. As could be expected, he often broke down into sobs as he spoke of both, but cautioned he did not want a story to be maudlin.

“That would do a disservice to my wife,” Mester said.

With the release of a book reminding him of his daughter’s death, and the recent passing of his wife, it’s no stretch to believe that both events would bring tears. But Mester chose instead to talk freely about the good, and the bad.

Mester, 78, has led a colorful and successful career. Born in Pontiac, Mester said that his interest in law came from his father, who was born in Abraham Lincoln country in Springfield, Ill.
“Lawyers were the people who helped develop the Constitution,” he said. “I wanted to keep that tradition going, of protecting the country, and making sure that we continued to be the light that brought freedom to the rest of the world.”

After graduating from Central Michigan University in the Reserve Officer Training Corps as a 2nd lieutenant, Mester and his new wife went to Germany. After serving his tour of duty, he returned to Michigan and Wayne State University Law School, graduating in 1967.

He worked for two years at Chrysler Corp. in Auburn Hills as an attorney, then spent the next six years in the United States Attorney’s Office in Detroit. In 1975, he was named the Oakland County Court Administrator.

In 1982, he gained an appointment to the Oakland County Circuit Court bench. The offer came via a telephone call from then-Gov. William G. Milliken, but Mester was at a grade school dance for his daughter, Katherine, and relayed a message that he would call back after his daughter’s performance.

“With what later happened to Katherine, I’m glad we didn’t miss it,” he said of her performance.

Thus began a 26-year run on the bench, ending in 2008 when he was unable to run due to age limit restrictions.

“It’s the highest position a lawyer can achieve,” Mester said of wanting to become a judge. “And it’s where you can have some kind of impact.”

And he’s made quite a mark on the legal community. Among his career highlights are ruling in favor of DNA testing as a forensic tool, a first in Michigan. He’s also ruled in a case involving the Detroit Lions moving from the Pontiac Silverdome to Ford Field in downtown Detroit, and in the Novi teachers’ strike.

“I just wanted to be known as a judge who treated everyone fairly,” he said.

In the book, Luzzi writes eloquently of meeting Katherine four years before her death at an art opening in Brooklyn, their travel and times together, and marriage. Mester said his daughter was an actor, but felt she needed to switch gears because “she was not making a mark in her life.”

“We were very happy for her,” Mester said of the marriage.

They, too, got to know Luzzi and his Italian family.

“We have nothing but high praise for him.,” he said. “They have a wonderful family, and they truly cared for our daughter.”

Luzzi began teaching at Bard College near Tivoli, N.Y., and Katherine, although more politically and socially conservative than the new academia crowd she was now a part of, was accepted with open arms as they took a shine to her honesty, humor, kindness and compassion, Mester said, all the same traits Lynne had passed on to her children.

Soon, Katherine was pregnant, and the Mesters were looking forward to the birth of another grandchild with Joe and his loving, caring family. The Mesters had two other grown children - David, who then was married with a child, and Karen, the youngest of the family.

“They were really looking forward to the birth of their child,” Mester said. “And we were just thrilled for Katherine. We knew she was happy with Joe and his entire family.”

Then tragedy struck as Katherine was on her way to classes, colliding with a vehicle as she pulled out of a gas station.

Emergency personnel later told Mester that his daughter was found bent over in the car, as though trying to protect her unborn child.

“It was a very difficult time for us, and Joe, too,” Mester said. “I don’t know if the passage of time makes it any less painful. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten over it. But it’s the circle of life. We know we’ve got to move on, and we just hope she’s in a better place.”

Luzzi writes in the book of how he was lost, and explains how he used Dante’s 14,000-line poem, “Divine Comedy,” about a soul’s journey through the afterlife, to get through his own four-year struggle to find his way out of a “dark wood of grief and mourning.”

He writes of how Dante’s words helped him withstand the pain of loss.

Today, Luzzi is remarried to Helena Baillie, an English professional violinist. The couple has another child and is raising Isabel.

“I was finally able to let go of the searing loneliness and black hole of inwardness that had seized me since Katherine’s death,” he said in the book. “Loving and taking care of Isabel had rescued me from myself – it wasn’t sacrifice; it was relief.”

Mester and a few family members attended Luzzi’s wedding to show support, and to let them know they were still a part of the now-extended family.

The Mesters have kept a book of comments and other private items from Katherine’s funeral for Isabel, and will give it to her at some future date, and still share “an excellent relationship” with Luzzi, Isabel, and Helena.

Mester said Luzzi’s book has been a good read for him in light of the suffering his wife went through for four years. And also credits Luzzi for his work.

“Joe is such a fine scholar, and he’s written a wonderful book from the standpoint of how he got through this, and I think it may help others in recognizing the different phases he went through.”

Mester also credits the help he received from his own Presbyterian church, and the Jewish synagogue congregation at a friend’s place of worship.

“I’ve gone through ups and down in the last four years, and I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t ready for the finality of it,” he said.

Through his two major losses, Mester had words of advice and comfort for others who may be suffering.

“It’s imperative that all of us care for each other,” he said. “And that the person you are mourning is given a celebration of life.”

At both funerals, for Lynne and Katherine, people offered comforting words and thoughts. Lynne was described as a woman strong of spirit and supportive, who made the most of each day. Mester said those traits were passed on to each of her children, too.

Luzzi also sent a letter of condolence, which was read at Lynne’s funeral, and a violin piece, played by Isabel and Helena, was included.

Mester now keeps busy in private practice, working as a mediator, arbitrator, and facilitator.

But he takes comfort in one image he carries in his mind.

“We know there was somebody up in heaven, and as Lynne walked through the gates, we knew that Katherine would be there waiting with open arms.”

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