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A “New” Brother

The feeling I’m feeling is like when a little girl is expecting a baby brother for the first time and she knows she’ll have much responsibility in raising the kid right, but then as the due date gets closer and closer, the little girl starts to get erratic – shouting her excitement, sleeping in the new baby’s crib because it used to be hers, clinging on to any normalcy – because soon, it will all change.

It will all change soon enough, so her parents tell the little girl to calm down and to enjoy Mommy and Daddy solely for the last time in the next few weeks. The little girl nods her head and smiles while reaching in for a double hug with her two favorite people. All she knows is this consistency. What’s to come in the next few weeks is somewhat like a tornado swirling with questions, sadness, and a bit of happiness.

She should expect the attention to be turned from her to the new baby, and the doubt of her existence to match the importance of his. She should expect to hold him once with a pillow under her elbow for protection because he’s fragile. He’s so fragile. She should expect to be counted on in a more adult way than her years dictate because she knows more than the little baby and because “her brother depends on her” to “be a good role model” and to “love him unconditionally”.

Sometimes parents get the other sibling a gift to shadow the horror of what’s going to soon change her world so drastically. She will need a distraction from it all. The distraction will only last a moment – a couple days, tops – and then be thrown into the toy chest with the other dolls she’s practiced on since she was old enough to grasp. This change is so big that the little girl will probably cry over it more than smile. Little girls don’t know how to accept change. A change like this is life altering. And that’s not being dramatic at all. That’s the truth.

So as I sit here about to be a “big” sister for the first time to my older brother of 31 years, I compare myself to this because it is what it is. At least, it’s the closest metaphor for you to accurately understand how I feel. I go through bouts of panic, excitement, horror, and emotions I haven’t let myself feel in years. What does someone do when they have forgotten how to be a sister? More importantly this question entered my mind on my commute home from work today: What does it mean to have a brother in your life? (And I’m not being dramatic. I want to know.)

In a few weeks, in less than month, in a number of days I can count on my fingers and toes, my brother will be coming home from seven years in prison for vehicular homicide because he drove drunk one night. He will be coming home to our childhood home, back to our mother to be reunited with life after a brother-sister relationship death. Our relationship died.

Because I have committed to wiping the slate clean, to start over anew, I have committed to being excited about his return. But it’s awfully hard to accept all his faults when I don’t know how this brother is or what changes will come to my life I’ve built over the past seven years. I’ve built quite a comfortable one.

I’m wrecked over it on the inside, confused as hell in my heart, but trying to think positive in my mind. I’m trying to talk my body into being ready for this change, this new baby brother shift in my family dynamic.

I will teach my “older” brother many things. I will teach him about Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Gmail and flat screen TVs and iPhones, and Blueray players and e-readers and tablets; the list goes on and on. I will teach my brother the appropriate ways to pay for things now and reinforce good behavior. I will notice when he’s trying, and pep him up when he’s lost steam. I will protect him from bad habits, such as his kicked addiction, alcohol, and from some friends who are still bad influences. I will have to drive him places, and even sometimes hug him to remind him I still love him.

Sometimes I will need him to hug me to make sure I know that he still loves me.

After all this time dreading, wondering, and anticipating, I hope having a new brother was worth the wait. 


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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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Your Family is Yours

You know when we all were teenagers and we wanted to be a part of a different family – one more perfect than ours? We would complain about our distant father or our mother who always wanted to know where we were going and when we’d be home. We’d write sad poetry and share them with our friends who also wrote sad poetry. We swore we hated them and swore we wanted “so and so’s” life. We wanted another family; anyone’s but ours’.

Well then you grow up and you realize that was a bunch of crap. Your family still isn’t perfect, but it’s yours. Even though you fall into weird holiday routines with an absent sibling or parent, you adjust to enjoy it anyway. Eventually your childhood home may be sold and you’ll start to call wherever your mom or dad is, home. You hate missing your brother or sister being so far because of their busy schedule or yours. You hate the new routines and taking on adult responsibilities like paying bills, being broke, and trying to make life matter on your own.

Some people may fall in love and marry their perfect man or woman and some may not. Some may hold on to emotions from long ago and still prefer a different family. Some people haven’t grown up yet. But as I’m approaching my 25th birthday when evidently part of your brain matures enough to start thinking about other people besides yourself first, I’ve pondered what really matters in a family.

1. Love – you gotta love them… you kinda have to.

2. Support – you gotta know which way to lean for a steady shoulder, even if you have been your own for so long.

3. Each other – My family is spread apart and on different sides of the country, and another one between my freedom and his restraint, but we’re all alive and sometimes that’s what should matter.

It’s taken me a long time to see my family as they are, accept who they are as they are, and want them to be who they are. It’s taken me a long time to want a brother again. But even though nothing’s perfect, they’re still my family who loves and supports me. My teenage Jennifer wanted a different Jennifer as well as a different family. But looking at things today: I wouldn’t change a damn thing about who I am. So why should I want to change my family?

The basic point is this: When you’re a teenager, your life sucks. And growing up and taking on responsibility sucks. But calling your mom after a hard day at school or work and her still saying, “It’ll be okay” is why you wouldn’t change her. Hanging out with your dad as he tells you he’s proud of you and he admires your drive for going for what you want is more than enough to keep him the way he is. And punching your brother in the shoulder as a joke at the vending machines in secured visiting room feels just the same as punching him on any regular day at home, except that it’s not. But there’s the hope that some day, my brother and I will be good friends with families of our own. And our kids will probably want different families while they’re hormonal and discovering deodorant. It’s only a part of life.

And we all know, life’s not perfect.

(Love your family – they’re the only ones you’ve got!) ❤

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Seven years ago tonight

By Jennifer Dryden

© All Rights Reserved 2011

If you can’t wrap your head around the concept of not drinking and driving, you’re more apt to wrap your car around a pole, slam it into someone else’s car, kill another person, or wind up dead. Do you get it? Not clear enough for you? Let me paint you a picture.

It was seven years ago tonight. Actually to be more specific, it was June 13, 2004 at about 2:30 a.m. central time in the small town of Marshalltown, Iowa. My cousin was getting married, all of our family was there, love and happiness flooded that small town of 27,000. Two people came together as one in the house of God. We prayed and toasted and even danced twirl after twirl. We ate a nice dinner, topped it off with dessert, and the kids left early for bed. Typical wedding stuff.

At the reception drama arose and my big brother Chad, then 21 years old, left in a huff, leaving smoke rising in the gravel parking lot at a countryside country club. If it were a plain cement road, he would have left tire marks. The smoke disappeared and after failed attempts to stop him from driving after he’d been drinking, my mom and I became silent. We wrapped up the night with hugs to my grandfather, the bride, and the groom. Typical goodbyes.

Hotel bound we stopped at McDonalds to fill our hungry tummies and fell into our pillows that the maid fluffed hours before. I managed to pull on my Hello Kitty pajamas and I told myself I’d take out my fancy hair tomorrow. Dreams filled my head. Typical dreams.

The phone rang. A late night phone rang in my mom’s room. It wasn’t Chad, it was his friend who rode shotgun in the car. With one ring of my mom’s cell phone, our whole world changed. A train derailed and hit our straight and narrow path we were on; it pinned us with a future that we never wanted, never imagined, and always prayed to God would never happen. We were average Joes. We lived in small town Iowa and were all educated. My mom was a teacher and my dad was full of success too. We weren’t bad people. We were typical.

Chad had crossed the centerline and rammed head-on with another car going 60 miles per hour on a two-lane highway. He was in an ambulance to the hospital where later it was discovered and noted that he not only had a concussion, two broken feet, a shattered heel, collapsed lung, and cuts and bruises, but there was a fatality in the other car.

Two hours earlier, he spun me around on the dance floor like a brother would. He cracked jokes. He acted like my big brother. His steps weren’t unsteady, his words weren’t slurred, and by my memory, he wasn’t showing any signs of being impaired. He did drink though. I don’t know how many, but enough to test over the limit; enough not to be able to drive a car; enough to ruin his life; and enough to throw our entire family into one of the worst nights and years of our lives.

He’s been in prison for vehicular homicide for five years now, going on six. It took two years to gather evidence, convict, court, and sentence him. Saying it sucked is an understatement. Our relationship withered to nothing but my anger and resentment and embarrassment towards him.

Driving drunk is selfish. It’s unbelievably stupid and even if you weren’t raised to know better, I’m telling you now. You won’t just ruin your life, you’ll crush your mother and father’s dreams they had for you, and you’ll tarnish relationships with your siblings, friends, and relatives. You’ll lose their trust. You’ll never be the same and you’ll hold regrets that seep into your dreams every night. Dreams that make you wake up crying and sometimes screaming. I’ve heard Chad cry and scream. I’ve heard him apologize and read the Bible for guidance. I’ve seen him rant and rave to our mother and to me about how his life sucks and how he shares a cell with pedophiles and murderous criminals.

No, I wasn’t in that car and I don’t have purple and blue blotches of bruise on my body. I don’t have a metal plate holding my heel together with screws. I’m not behind bars. I wasn’t in the other car. I didn’t lose a father, brother, or son to death. I didn’t die.

But I lost a part of my family. My brother and I will never be the same. Our conversations after seven years are finally coming back to laughter and meaning. But I still cry, mostly with anger. I’m still mad as hell. I’m still embarrassed to write these words. I’m still so damn tired of his complaining about how his life sucks. I can’t stand to talk to him sometimes. I can’t stand to joke with him sometimes. I can’t stand him being happy sometimes.  God says forgiveness heals all. I’m still trying to believe Him.

So my rambling may strike you as nosey, annoying, or stupid. And if you think that, I’m not sorry for wasting five minutes of your life. Because if you don’t get it through someone else’s story, you’ll eventually write your own. I’ll pray for you.

***Want the whole story of that night? Check out the start of my memoir titled, “Concentrated Breathing“.


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Testify the Truth

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?

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Who Knows

Play this song as you read a page, that hasn’t found its spot, in my growing memoir.

Sometimes, I forget I have a brother. The same brother I’ve had for my entire 23 years, 8 months, and 2 days of life. How does this happen?

It’s been so easy.

Then, my phone will ring in his tone and an invisible fist takes a cheap shot to my stomach that slowly turns into heartburn acid and ends up as bubbles in my throat. Then inside my brain a circuit triggers a complete guilty feeling that I… again… have forgotten Chad.

I force myself to listen to this one song, “Who Knows” by Avril Lavigne, from the night of the accident. It was stuck in my head like The Andy Griffith Show whistle and was the one thing I clung on to for my sanity that night.

I try to make myself immune to it, to him, to the feelings, to the tears. First, I feel nauseas and then my cheeks turn pink. And finally, goose bumps rise off the top of my head, almost like I placed my hand on one of those static electricity balls at a science museum. I don’t get to the point of tears and heaving in the bathroom like the years right after Chad’s accident. I call this progress.

It’s kind of like getting over a dead relative or friend; you never really do, you just learn to adjust to a life without them. And then eventually, you forget.


– Start reading Concentrated Breathing now!

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One Step From Rock Bottom

Note: This is part four of my growing memoir entitled, “Concentrated Breathing”. If you’re a newbie to this, read Concentrated Breathing, Subconscious Resistance, and A Prison Hug first. If you’re a regular reader, here’s the next chapter.

One Step From Rock Bottom

(c) All Rights Reserved 2011

Halfway home I speak for the first time. “Chad’s beard looks dumb.” It’s nonsense talk and I know it. We silently want to talk about our impressions of prison and how we really think Chad is doing, but we don’t; neither one of us wants to darken the day anymore than the clouded sky has. Our hearts are heavy and so are my eyes, so as Mom tilts her head in halfway agreement, I lean back for a nap. A nap is the only thing that cures a ride home like this one.

I attempt to fall asleep to the country music channel Mom always plays once I’ve given up custody of the radio. She sings along half-volume. I try to think of a normal life. That normal life I used to have where the only thing Chad and I fought about was who got the TV remote Saturday morning or who’s friends got the downstairs basement on another night of nothing-to-do syndrome. Sometimes we mixed our friends up and we’d all hang out once we got to that appropriate age where we were both rebels without a cause. We shared some friends even though we were all five years apart in age. This was before the younger sibling passed him up in maturity and ditched the bad attitude.

My mind circles back to the most recent fight, well the most recent fight that wasn’t going on in my head, silently. It was seven months ago when he had the court date in three weeks. Another screaming, drunk panic attack that left him apologizing at 3 a.m. at the foot of my bed.  Something about “You don’t know what I’m going through!” and “I’m the one suffering and going to prison here!” and a bunch of curse words I frankly am too used to and tired of.

My mind goes back even farther to the middle of my junior year in high school, before this entire situation began, the last step before he hit rock bottom that June night. It was the first sign that Chad had a problem with alcohol. I sigh as my eyes shift focus into nothing but black air.

In the midst of a winter weather advisory, the house phone rings. It only rings twice before I awake to my mom’s frogged and panicked voice. My clock’s red numbers read 2:48. I roll over to check if my phone was turned off, it wasn’t. Why is Chad calling the house phone? I roll over assuming it’s just another one of his drunken calls… I’ll let Mom handle this one. I tune the one-sided argument out.

The light flips on outside my room. I sigh, infuriated with this tradition. “What is it this time?” I groan, pissed off but curious, squinting through the heavenly-lighted hallway. I stretch my eyes open to stare diagonally into my mom’s bedroom where I notice she’s still on the phone. Her nightgown is wrinkled, her shoulder-length brown hair is matted from her pillow, and a blue tissue is clenched in her fist. “He’s lost,” she says to me covering the phone with her hand. There it is. The reason he didn’t call me. I wouldn’t put up with this. I’d leave him high and dry. She’s babying him. Just what he wants.

His belligerent remarks reach my ears and I lose it. “Mom, just hang up.” My voice is stern, making my lips a straight line as my teeth grind into each other. This is why I handle it, all of it. I hate it when my mom cries. Her tears fall and I approach to take charge. My mom is an over-the-top mom, always going the extra mile for her kids. She just can’t put her foot down and is overly obsessed with sugarcoating reality. Surprisingly, this time she speaks clearly… and rationally. She mirrors exactly what I would say. Maybe I’m rubbing off on her, or maybe I never give her enough credit.

“Chad, I can’t come look for you in the middle of the night. It’s dark out. You don’t even know where you are. It’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she says, bucking up but silently breaking inside. I hear Chad rebut with “I’m on a gravel road, just come find me!” Ha, wow. Really, Chad? There are a million gravel roads in rural Iowa. Mom hangs up the phone then pushes “Talk” again so the monotone duuuhhhhh… fills the thick, silent air. Good move. He would have just called back.

I stare at her narrow, bloodshot eyes for some answers. “He ran out of gas on a gravel road west of Carroll somewhere. He says he’s cold and there’s nothing around him – no farmhouses or barns – and he’s by himself. I’m not going to look for him at three in the morning. He’s drunk… he’ll just have to wait it out until the sun comes up.” Her voice is forced, it doesn’t rise and set like usual. She’s worn out. I want to hug her or take away the guilt she feels for not being able to save Chad. But I don’t really think my hugs help anymore. I go back to bed.

Mom hangs up the phone again because the robotic woman keeps repeating “Please hang up and try your call again.” This makes it ring every thirty minutes with the same drunken brother on the other end. “I’m so cold… I’m shivering… I’m gonna die out here… This is your fault.” None of this is anyone’s fault but his. And, I know, as I lay there pretending to sleep, those sniffs coming from my mom’s room aren’t because she has a cold.

The sun peeks through the opening in my flowered curtains in my bedroom. As promised, Mom and I take off in search of Chad. Overnight, he miraculously noticed a farmhouse just a few yards away and asked the elderly farmer’s wife for her address. Red-cheeked with embarrassment, my mom and I drive thirty minutes east – the opposite direction of where Chad thinks he is – to a white farmhouse in Jefferson. My mother apologizes and thanks the woman for letting her drunkard son warm up in her house. I wouldn’t have answered the door if I were her. He’s lucky, but ungrateful.

I drive Mom’s car back after filling Chad’s up with the three gallons of gas we brought with us in a red funneled jug. He sits shotgun and embalms the car with a stench of hard liquor… again. He should invent new cologne; obviously, he likes to wear it a lot. I want to hit him… and hit him hard. He’s going to kill himself or someone else eventually. All because of a habit he can’t kick, a stench he can’t wash out, and a boy who won’t grow up. This is my brother.

I awake as the car slows and the clicking of the rhythmic turning signal repeats in the dead silence. Mom’s country music is off now. We’re home and I reach for the lever on the side of the seat to erect myself to face the partly sunny sky and the opened garage door we’re pulling into. I breathe a little easier when Mom offers, “Want to order out tonight?” with a smile on her face.

KEEP READING: Testify the Truth chapter

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