Note: This is a scene inside my memoir Concentrated Breathing. This is the day I testified for my brother, Chad. Read the other parts before if you aren’t familiar with it. There are links at the end of each post that will lead you to the next. Some names have been changed on purpose.
My cheeks are red hot and I think steam is coming out of my eyes because my vision is blurry. Every which way I look, my eyes feel like they are soaking in a foggy Jacuzzi. My hands are set together in my lap as I subconsciously swivel from left to right in one of the ten leatherback chairs in a conference room inside the fourth floor of the courthouse. Mom, Aunt Norine, Grandpa, and Grandma Barb are all here with Chad, his lawyer Jay McGuire, and me. Everyone is gathered around the table like we’re about to be served a feast, but really we’re just waiting for the judge to get here. Everyone who’s anyone in this case is testifying today, including me.
My stomach lurches up toward my throat – the same feeling I got when I was a kid spinning on a merry-go-round at the park; I told Mom my tummy was tickly – as I make myself snap into reality and stop spinning. I put my elbows on the table and let my head rest in my hands as Jay McGuire goes over the plan one more time.
“Now, Chad and I will be sitting to the right of the bench, you all will come in one-by-one and will swear in using the Bible.” He projects in an outlined fashion, making eye contact at everyone individually. “I’ll question you first, then,” he pauses. “The county attorney will have his turn.” My stomach turns with this transition. We’ve all heard numerous times how this specific county attorney is hard core, a dick to anyone he thinks has wronged him, his client, or the world.
I’m the youngest person testifying and a key witness in our appeal that the nurse didn’t get proper, legal permission to take Chad’s blood alcohol level in the emergency room on the night of the accident. Not to mention, I’m his little sister and he’s my big brother and even though I can remember all of our childhood carnival games and Christmas mornings of wrapping paper tube fights, and that one time he stood up for me to that boyfriend I’d rather not claim, when I get on that stand nobody else knows these things. And frankly, I don’t think they care. I can either save him from prison or throw away the key.
Jay McGuire turns his attention right on me because I need to be treated gently because of my age, I guess. “Now, Jennifer, you remember what we’re going to talk about up there, don’t you?”
“Yes, I remember,” I begin with caution and a clear memory. “I’m going to tell about how the nurse in the emergency room didn’t ask Chad to sign the document and how he was over the legal age to be signing it himself. Then I’m going to tell them about how Chad was not in a conscious state and was drugged up on pain killers and could barely make sense of the words that were shooting out of his mouth let alone understand his rights or what he was consenting to.” I’ll also tell them to go to hell and leave my brother alone. Or I could tell them that he’s still a jerk and hasn’t learned a damn thing.
“That’s right, Jennifer.” He says my name like I’m special and four freaking years old. I’m 19, I get it, Mr. McGuire. “Just get up there and tell the truth. That’s all you need to do.” My mom looks at me, with the continuous nodding head after everything Jay McGuire says. I don’t buy this act; this attorney is pissing me off.
Mom repeats his words in a chipper voice, trying to protect her children from the reality of this day. “Yup, just tell the truth!” I wasn’t planning on lying, people!
Chad gets it. He looks over at me and pats my back. I glance up as he smiles his big brother smile I haven’t seen in awhile and says, “Don’t worry, bud. Just do your best.” It’s everything reassuring, but I know deep down he and everyone else are depending on me. Breathe.
Grandpa, in his own religious right, volunteers a family prayer. We all scoot close enough to hold hands. We close our eyes and bow our heads. I peek an eye open to see how Chad’s reacting. He usually shuns religion because “it just doesn’t make sense.” He’s not bowing his head like us, but it doesn’t look like rebellion as I’d first assumed. His head is tilted upward and his eyes are pinched shut, lips a thin line. It looks more like a plea to God. Amen.
All the witnesses are sequestered in this conference room off to the right of the courtroom so we aren’t swayed or hear the other testimonies. When it’s exactly 2:00 p.m. a random clerk pokes her head in the door that leads to the courtroom, announcing for Chad and Jay McGuire to head in. Aunt Norine, who is not testifying – just there for moral support and to make sure my mom doesn’t die of heart attack, or more appropriate heartbreak – goes in and takes her seat in the row of chairs lining the back wall. “All right, we’ll see you out there,” Jay McGuire says as if he’s leaving the dugout for a baseball game. I feel like I should high five him or that there should be some slapping of the asses with team spirit. How professional.
The room thickens as the attorney exits. We are left to think in silence. Grandpa moves closer to Mom and I hear her going over her story again; practicing with him. I know what I’m going to say and I’ve heard it a million-and-one times from Jay McGuire, my mom, and my dad, who happens to be absent today, enjoying his life in sunny Florida. His reason was a cocky, “Well, I wasn’t there that night so why do I have to be there for this?” Hmm, I could think of a few reasons. Let’s make a list.
– He’s your son.
– I’m your daughter.
– This was a family you once chose to have.
– Courtesy, support, encouragement, love
Need I go on?
I can never understand why my dad does these things. I wonder how he can logically justify his absence. I wonder if he tells himself this because he knows Linda won’t want to come, or because he can’t face his wayward son. I remember when he was driving me back to my mom’s house after I had supper at his house one night following the conviction notice.
Dad turns off Allen Jackson and puts both hands on the stirring wheel like it is his stability. His speed slows to near ten miles per hour. My mom’s house, the house he used to live in with us, our home, isn’t too far away and I think he wants to say something to me.
“Chad got himself into a pretty big mess, huh?” he starts with glossy eyes that don’t blink. Where’s your mind at, Dad?
“Yeah…,” I answer, solemnly, leaving it open-ended. I don’t think he expects an answer.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore, Jennifer.” His lips come together in a sympathetic way and he slightly shakes his head. “I can’t save him. I can’t take this away. I can’t buy his way out. There isn’t an amount in the world…” He trails off into his thoughts. Chad in court. Chad behind bars. Chad in handcuffs. His son a failure.
I’m silent because I’m not sure if my dad is crying. I don’t know how to handle this. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him like this. Is he crying? I come to the conclusion that if I weren’t around, he would be crying. He’d be letting his vulnerability show and his emotions melt out of his authoritative eyes. I see water puddles in the rims of his brown eyes; the same eyes I have, too. It’s okay, Dad. It’s not your fault. I want to say this, but I don’t.
But I’m still mad that he’s not here, but I get it. I get it because I was there that day when he almost let a tear spill from his Dryden eyes. Every Dryden has the same brown, sunk-in, beautiful eyes. My late Grandpa Dryden called them this. It’s special to all of us. Grandpa Dryden is here with us today just as much as much as my other grandpa except he’s our angel. Please Grandpa, bless us today.
“Diane, you’re up first,” Baaaaatter up! Jay McGuire says through the small gap of the open door. As my mom stands, I wonder how her heart is breaking right now, how much pressure she feels even though it’s not her fault at all. This is her one moment to help Chad, her only true moment to save her baby boy of 24. God, please make her strong. I worry more about my mom than I do about Chad. Chad will be all right; Mom, on the other hand, may not.
With a down-to-business tone, my mom states, “Okay,” and enters the courtroom. The door shuts. Small talk presumes and I answer the quirky questions my grandma has to ask about my college classes.
About 15 minutes later, Jay McGuire pokes his gelled head in and summons his next batter. Me. As I stand, my head spins and I close my eyes to try to gather my thoughts that have escaped my crowded brain. Get it together, Jennifer! This is it. Just tell the truth. Wait; wait! What’s the truth again?