by Jennifer M. Dryden (c) 2009
Innocent or guilty; that’s all the “outsiders” who read the newspaper’s want to know. The most current accident has caught their curious eyes. They don’t care about the innocent past of the perpetrator, or that it was his first offense and merely a bad choice. They don’t take the time to see the computer technology degree he holds from a college in Omaha. The focus is always on the victim, his or her family, and the amount of money in which their high-paid lawyers convince a judge to get for their “pain and loss.”
What about the perpetrator’s family? How are they affected by the jury’s decision? Both parties lose, not just the victim. What happened to hearing both sides, being objective? The perpetrator has a family too, but no one ever hears about their loss. Although the victim driving a car may have paid a bigger price—death—then the guy driving the car that hazily crossed the center line. The family still pays a high price. Sure, the perpetrator was stamped guilty and is behind bars now, paying for his drunken act behind the wheel, but who remains at the house where he grew up are his broken mother and I, his little sister by five years.
Nobody feels the emptiness I feel while walking out of those double-doors of the Tama courthouse after saying good-bye to my newly incarcerated brother, except my mother. Not even my father can cry as many tears as I have in the past twenty-four hours. He hasn’t been around since I was nine. Chad has been my shield, my bodyguard, and my suit of armor throughout my childhood and my devious teenage years. Now I walk out of the courthouse, naked, numb, and vulnerable to the world. He’s not there to grab my hand and pull me back from the cars racing by or tell me everything will be okay. As my mother and I gently sit ourselves down in the car, it feels like we are turning our backs on him—completely helpless.
What they don’t tell you about the perpetrators family is their adrenaline rush whenever the news comes on and reports a vehicular homicide case, ears glued to the speaker, listening intently for a hole in the story that may help our lawyers break Chad from prison. They don’t tell you how high we jump up and answer every “unknown” caller ID call, not in hope of talking to another solicitor, but in hope of hearing my brother’s voice on the other end. Three years later, credit card companies still call daily, insisting they speak to “Chad Dryden” when a million times before we’ve told them, “He’s not here, he’s incarcerated.” They follow up with, “For how long?” and we solemnly answer, “His sentence is twenty-five years.” Twenty-five years, but parole in maybe five to seven, and that’s not even a guarantee. That’s five to twenty-five years without my brother. Chad hasn’t got a minimum, which sometimes gives us high hopes. Praying is all I can do.
What they don’t tell you about us is the open-mouthed and wide-eyed looks we get when going back to a town of less than 10,000 and everybody either judging my mother and father for raising a felon, or getting those pathetic pats on the back and the “I’m so sorry” phrase. The repeated doorbell chimes lead me to answer it and fake a smile for ministers, neighbors, past and present teachers, and family friends. I guess it’s better than police officers with blinding flashlights in hunt for my brother. The complementary pasta and green bean casseroles pack the fridge and the Kleenex™ boxes run out within the first day. The drapes remain closed making the darkness seep in on all sides. My, once, strong and optimistic mother, lies in bed to cry, wipes away her tears lazily, and talks only to me. I’m the only one who understands how she feels.
Three years roll by, and my now two-person family gets back into the same old routine — breakfast, school, work, dinner, family time, bed — that we’ve had for many years. What the routine leaves out are my brother’s smartass comments, his hugs goodnight, our drives through town blaring “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” and our arguments that mom just calls “brotherly-sisterly love.”