Decluttering Chad – Chapter in Concentrated Breathing

Note: This is a chapter that falls in my memoir, Concentrated Breathing. Read from the beginning here, which links you to the next chapters at the bottom of each post. It’s been awhile since I’ve written about this. 

By Jennifer Dryden © 2013


I find a card taped to my mirror in my bedroom upon arriving home from Chad’s sentencing. I picture myself approaching it slowly. If it were a movie, it would have been one of those dramatic darker scenes where the background of me standing in the doorway is fuzzed, out of focus, while the card is in the foreground clear as day, waiting for me to notice it. The audience wonders what the message reads inside. There’s probably some instrumental music, setting the mood just right and the girl (me) walking toward the card, carefully retrieving it, flipping the tape backward so there’s no stick, and stalling while she slips in to a flashback before she pulls the card from its envelope.

But it isn’t like that at all.

I don’t even notice it right away. I discover it as I’m getting dressed the following morning. It’s not even a card in the envelope; it’s a picture of Chad and me. It has a note written in his horrible handwriting on the back – a typical male script: tiny letters upon crooked lines. I read it, look around me, and let myself cry. I cry out of frustration and exhaustion, and out of the loss of my brother. The fact that it’s his fault our lives are like this. It’s his drunken fault. And at the same time… I miss him.

“Brother and Sister for Life,” it read. I’ve noticed a trend in his writing; he capitalizes words of importance to him. It followed with, “Love ya! Your brother, Chad S. Dryden”. He always signs his full name. It drives me crazy. I know who you are. You didn’t even have to sign your name. Some things never change, while others do nothing but.

It’s like he died. It’s like my brother died on me. One minute he is here, the next minute he is gone. His cologne is still in the downstairs bathroom and a new bottle is waiting for him after that one runs out. His shampoo is in the shower. His favorite pasta is in the cupboard ready to fix for dinner; no one else eats it. His bed stays downstairs, made; sheets tucked in and a wrinkle in the comforter probably where Chad sat and thought about the next time he might be home. His yellow and orange cat, Kitty, sleeps curled up waiting for him to return for her nightly pet. I walk around, trying to rid the place of my brother because our mother can’t stand the sight without tears or a lowly sigh. I rearrange the downstairs a bit, store whatever I can in his empty dresser out of sight. I close the curtains, blocking out the deceivingly sunny, October day. Although Chad prepared the house for his departure pretty well by stocking the back bedroom with his possessions – game consoles, TV, clothes, DVD and game collections, everything – there are still signs of my brother’s existence everywhere.

I often catch myself wondering if it would have been better or any more devastating to our family if he had physically died in the car accident. I quickly avert my thoughts to confirm my preference of the current reality, but I often falsely compare the drastic cut off from sibling rivalry and brotherly-sisterly love to saying goodbye to a soldier going off to fight a war. I never talk to Chad. I never talk about Chad. I never see Chad. I catch myself forgetting I have a Chad. It becomes routine after a couple of weeks, months, eight years. But at this point and time, I just try to fix everything that’s broken around me, which mainly refers to my mother.

She can put on a happy act like a professional. Her smile, if no one knew her, could fool every time. I, on the other hand, know better. It’s interesting playing the role of mother to your mother at 19. It’s a bit more tolerable and digestible than at 11 when she lost her husband to a divorce and me, my dad to another house and eventually a different state most of the year. It is just Mom and me. So mainly it is just me. So now I’m decluttering the lack of brother in the house because it’s logical and heals, I think. I don’t actually know.

The next days blur together as I return to work at a childcare center part-time and college classes full-time. I am taking a class called Art Appreciation with a bunch of my new friends. We call ourselves the “Smoothie Tuesdays” because we go to Mac’s Café in Carroll every Tuesday for… you guessed it, smoothies! I always get a strawberry one because I can’t branch out. Anyway, every Tuesday and Thursday at the beginning of Art Appreciation, our ancient professor has us draw something in our collage journal about what’s going on in our lives right now; I am allowed to draw anything. Lately, it’s been about Big Brother All-Stars because I’m obsessed with that show and this little baby boy Oliver who will only sleep if I’m holding him at daycare. I drew his star blanket yesterday.

Today is different though. I start drawing a folded up piece of white paper, an envelope, and squiggle words on the paper to signify a letter. On its envelope I write “To: Mom and Jennifer” and in the return address part I write, “From: Chad”. We received Chad’s first letter last night, which made Mom cry, but she claimed “happy tears” because we were waiting to see where the state placed him. IMCC stands for Iowa Medical and Classification Center. It’s over in Coralville, Iowa – three-and-a-half hours away by car. Far enough away so the expectation for me to visit him regularly is low. Good, I thought last night. I draw it, date it up the letter’s side, and set it aside. No one notices the small words on the envelope and I don’t point it out. It’s embarrassing, but it’s what’s happening right now in my life.

I immerse myself in my work at the childcare center. Who knew two-year-olds could keep a person collected? These kids keep me sane. My bosses know what’s going on because after the accident happened two years ago, I had to “inform my employers” because there was a drastic change at home and with me being a teenager “I may have to leave suddenly” to “support my family”. I told them the day after it happened, “My brother was in an accident. It’s pretty bad, but I don’t want to cut back my hours because I’d rather be here than anywhere else.” That job was my escape. It still is. I am coping and work is my method.

I came home from work to dinner being made and the phone attached to my mother’s hip. “He said in the letter he might call soon,” she said with a smile, something that held an unrealistic amount of hope. I can’t remember, but I think he didn’t call for another week. I begin to pray for him to call just so the routine could return to normal for a little while. The calls were never good though.

“You gotta get me out of here, Jennifer!” Chad says.

“I can’t, Chad. You know that,” I reply with little sympathy, still enraged at his behavior and torn between sugarcoating responses to calm him like my mother does or not caring as usual.

“You don’t know what it’s like. Put Mom back on,” he signs off with 5 minutes remaining in his 20-minute allotted call. Mom paces frantically, stressing over her son’s current reality, helpless too, while trying to sooth him with her motherly voice.


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