3 years ago today

Note: This one is longer, but one of my best pieces.

Concentrated Breathing by Jennifer Dryden (c) 2009

Go to your happy place.

I sit holding my mother’s clammy hand in an all-wooden courtroom. It looks just like those legal shows like Law and Order – similar set up with an intimidating robed judge thumbing through papers. It’s October 12, 2006 in the morning sometime – I don’t know what time it is though because my phone’s turned off. I don’t dare ask my mom for the time; she’s probably counting the minutes left with Chad – her son and my older brother by five years. It’s sentencing day – the day we’ve been expecting but happily ignoring for over two years.

I sit in silence not moving a muscle afraid one jerk of my arm may throw my mom over the edge – make her lose her cool. I hate seeing my mom cry so I bare the itch on my nose. I know the tears will inevitably fall once Chad’s handcuffed and taken away. For now, I concentrate on my breathing. In…out…in…out…in…

My dad sits behind us with his long-term, pretty-much-married girlfriend and pats my shoulder. It messes up my breathing and I turn my head risking my mother’s sanity. I secretly blame him and he openly blames my mother for today. Chad and I would both be different if he was around. We take advantage of our mom too much; we get away with a lot. I bet Chad wouldn’t be as irresponsible if he was around putting his foot down. I bet he wouldn’t drink as much or even have a reason to drink if he was around either. That’s beside the point though. It’s over and done with. In the end it’s Chad’s fault for driving drunk. Period.

“We have to leave NOW,” my mom says as she enters through the adjoining hotel room door with wide eyes. I’m sleepily confused.

“Why? What’s going…?” I ask throwing my feet over the edge of the bed and putting my glasses on.

“Chad’s been in an accident. That was Jeremy on the phone… they’re being taken to Marshalltown Hospital. What do I do?” she asks me, her 16-year-old daughter, as if I have the answer. Jeremy is my brother’s friend he brought along to our cousin’s wedding. She looks around for her purse in search of her cell phone. She’s disoriented.

“Mom, calm down. Call Uncle Rick,” I ordered handing her the hotel phone. She dials his room just one floor down. I gather her purse and mine, slip flip-flops on and we’re gone. It’s not until we are speeding 70 miles per hour in a 35 zone that I realize this is bad. Uncle Rick misses small hills completely leaving us airborne until we reach the hospital. I pray out loud for my irritating but only brother to be all right and the whole van fills the silent holes with their own pleas to God. The only one who feels half my worry is my sobbing mom, sitting shotgun.

Her sobs from that night echo in my ears as Chad enters the courtroom in the hands of a uniformed cop. This reality slaps something inside me making me tense up. My mom feels my body jerk and she turns to nod at me as if to say, “It’s OK.” The judge gives Chad an incriminating look. I immediately hate him. I want to yell something just so he’d look away from Chad’s already guilty eyes. Chad is seated in front of us separated by a waist-high fence. No jury was called but in two of its seats sits one of the victims, now recovered from his injuries, with his interpreter.

I eye him as he sits, meeting eyes with his enemy – my brother – for the first time. My dad leans up to inform me of the guy – he’s surprised one of the two living victims came. “We were hoping no one would be here,” Mom said in a hushed tone. Chad turned around and my mom leaped up as if something had launched her from her chair.

“He came,” Chad whispers to us. “I didn’t think he’d come.” His eyes never meet ours – too much on his mind.

His look changed right then and I thought to myself maybe this is the turning point. He finally feels bad about what he did. It’s about time.

The ER drop-off spot was empty. The nurse said the medics were “working on site” so we took a seat in the waiting area but mom doesn’t sit. She’s pacing by the automatic door making it stay open. I lean forward so my head can rest on my hands. Aunt Carol, who just walked in, rubs my back but I don’t want to be touched. I stand and join my mom. No one understands our pain right now not even us – we’re numb. We need to stick together.

I hum an Avril Lavigne song while the chorus repeats in my head pacifying my nerves. Who knows what could happen. Do what you do just keep on laughing. One thing’s true there’s always a brand new daaaay. I know I’m ruining one of my favorite songs. I’ll feel this nausea and pain whenever it plays remembering one of my worst days. I’ll gamble that though – right now I need to breathe.

The red and blue lights we have been anticipating reflect off my glasses and my eyes shoot up to see the ambulance drive in. My mom’s crying in my uncle’s arms and my aunt and I walk outside as they pull my brother out on a stretcher. He’s not moving. Oh my God, he’s dead. We shout a hopeful “We’re here Chad!” twice, hoping he moves in response. He doesn’t. I rush inside knowing the next procedure would be for the “immediate family” to be taken back to see him.

My mom and I enter the room filled with doctors and nurses making my blood phobia reach its peak. I shrug off the nausea; I’ve felt like throwing up for the last hour now anyway. I walk past the curtain too soon – I didn’t prepare myself – and see my brother strapped down on the stretcher screaming for morphine. He’s alive. Thank you God! My first tear of the night falls as I skim his body noticing every gash, bruise, and crooked limb.

“GIVE ME SOME FUCKING MORPHINE!” he yells in a pain I pray I’ll never know. “AAHHHH! MA! IT HURTS!” I notice his right leg is completely laying on its side… wait, his knee is straight but his ankle and foot are resting horizontally. It has to be broken.

Morphine is injected; Chad calms down. He drifts in and out of coherent consciousness. His eyes are open but jumbled-gibberish spits out of his mouth as well as random ticks as the doctors attempt to reset his foot. I walk out just as he yelps. My stomach turns.

Remorse is something Chad should have felt right after he found out he was charged with vehicular homicide – one death and two serious injury counts. From the time the accident happened to the two-year gap of surgeries, random police arrests, trials, and false court dates Chad hadn’t changed his ways – still drinking, still disrespectful, still expecting to be served on a silver platter – overall selfish.

He walked in to the courtroom a scared but still cocky boy, but as he rose to make his remarks to the judge, he matured while turning his attention to the victim. As he clears his throat – now caught with tears – to begin his apology his voice cracks to resemble a young teenage boy’s going through puberty. The moment he cries, there’s nothing holding my mom, dad, and me back from doing the same. I finally get my hand back from mom as she reaches for one of the zillion travel-tissues we packed. I hate crying. Crying shows weakness and I am anything but weak.

The family in the waiting room has grown by five and a policeman is standing by the door. He looks just like every other officer in small-town Iowa working the late night shift – it’s 3:30 a.m. – tired… but this one’s nervous. Why? Uncle Rick is talking to him; I join, introduce myself as “the sister,” and ask what’s going on. Hopefully it’s just regular procedure. Wrong.

“There’s been a fatality in the other vehicle.” My family gasps behind me and I turn to catch the women collapse in each other. Wait a second slow down. I’m still processing what my immature teenage mind can. OK that means someone died. “There were three people in the vehicle, two were taken by ambulance.” OK that means two people survived. One death plus two others equals three people involved. What does that mean for Chad? Is it his fault? What happened? “….head-on collision…crossed the centerline…” Head-on. Someone crossed the centerline? Who? The big question is who did it. Who screwed up? I catch bits of the officer’s sentences but some of it flies over my head.

Marshalltown, Iowa is not big enough to continue Chad’s care so in the morning he’s ambulanced to Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. Mom follows in her car, Grandpa behind the wheel. After blood tests, chest x-rays, brain scans, and interrogations from the police, he lays in a bed asleep with one concussion, multiple fractures in both feet, one shattered heel, one collapsed lung, and various cuts and bruises. I feel like I’m in a drive through window having a high school dropout repeat my order. Would you like anything else ma’am? Nope, that’s it. His injuries keep adding up; we added the collapsed lung overnight.

I’m sent back to the hotel to “get some rest.” I’m mentally exhausted but physically sick ready to purge my empty stomach. I choke down a handful of cheerios and sit on my cousin’s hotel bed hunched over. My eyes are red from crying; my hair is aggressively pulled back with bobby pins from the wedding last night; my Hello Kitty pajama pants are still on… so are my glasses. My tie-dye shirtsleeves are stained with wiped eyeliner and mascara marks from my tears. I reek of hospital hand soap. My eyes close and my head automatically spins so I force them back open. I hope no one saw that.

“You should get some sleep, Jennifer,” My family members say in five-minute intervals.

“I’ll be fine.” I sound like a broken record. I couldn’t sleep right now anyway. Closing my eyes makes me nauseous.

The gavel rams down throwing me back to the courtroom. My eyes widen as everyone – even the county attorney – listens for the verdict. “We find the defendant Chad Stephen Dryden guilty of vehicular homicide by driving while intoxicated and two counts of serious injury. He is hereby sentenced to 25 years in state prison with no minimum time served and no bail. Please take him into custody.” No, not yet. Please don’t take him away yet. I want to scream or hand over my savings or tell them I’m at fault or ask for an appeal or give our lawyer secret key evidence to free my brother or… do something, anything. I turn to my dad in desperation. He can fix things, right? But when I turn around his face is blank, completely drained of emotion, his hands drooped gently at his sides in defeat. He has money; the one thing that always saved my brother before but it’s different now. Everything is different.

We’re given five minutes to say goodbye in a meeting room just outside the courtroom. There are chairs but no one sits. Who knows what could happen. Do what you do just keep on laughing. One things true there’s always a brand new daaaay. Breathe. This is it. My eyes are dry and my strong 19-year-old big girl face is on. I’m in college now I can handle it. I’ll be fine. I’m standing next to my grandpa, who’s keeping my mother from collapsing in grief, by the door where the guards are standing… I want the last hug. It’s selfish maybe but he’s my brother, my only sibling, my suit of armor, my bodyguard from jerks, monsters, and Santa Claus, my number two fan – following my mom – and I want his last hug.

Four minutes and 30 seconds later he stands in front of me. I try to breathe, I try to smile in sympathy, I try to crack a lame joke. I try to wrap my arms around his slim 24-year-old body while holding my shorter version together. My head reaches his chest and I break. Sobs yelp from my mouth, tears darken his green button-up, and for thirty seconds I don’t let go. I don’t let go because I know the moment I do he’ll be gone. The second hand reaches the twelve and a guard reaches for Chad’s hand still wrapped around me.

Before he lets go he whispers strict instructions in my ear, which echo last night’s conversation. “You have to be my ears and eyes, Bud. Always tell me what’s really going on. I can’t be there so you have to be. Take care of Mom and Dad.” My head is still against his chest. “Hey,” he says lifting my chin for eye contact. “I love you Bud.”

“Love you too Bro. I got them, don’t worry.” One last squeeze and we release.

I concentrate on my breathing. In…out…in…out…in…

****Read the extended version of this piece called Concentrated Breathing.

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1 Comment

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One response to “3 years ago today

  1. Jessie

    Wow, Jenn, that was intense. Really well written. I felt like I was there, watching you go through all of it. I was reading it in a busy room with lots of people walking by, but it drew me in so much that it was the only thing I was focused on. I appreciate the courage it took for you to share that. And you shared it in a good way.

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