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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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