Tag Archives: Emotion



Inked as a commitment to write always

Inked as a commitment to write always (2013)

by Jennifer Dryden

It has nothing to do with rebellion
Or the sting of the needle.
It creates a high at first
But then a numbing feeling,
Sort of like the first moment of the morning.

My pain goes away…
And my breathing becomes less controlled.
I close my eyes as the beats continue in my chest
And only break the stare at the scenes in my mind
When someone speaks.

I lose myself.
The colors are perfect and
The writing echos my heart’s desire;
The entire process like I’d imagined, like I’d hoped,
All those times alone.

I grow wings.
Reach my hands out into the air,
Look into the mirror in the end, and
Believe in myself, in my ability.
My ability to finally let go and be…


First tattoo to free my heart and start anew

Right-side rib tattoo to free my heart and start anew (2009)



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A prison hug

Note: This is a continuation of my memoir. I’m not sure when I’ll cut off postings and keep it personal until the someday publication. Maybe I’ll self-publish if all else fails? Who knows! If you’re just jumping in on my memoir titled, “Concentrated Breathing” read these first: “Concentrated Breathing” and then “Subconscious Resistance.”  This continues right after Subconscious Resistance.

(c) All Rights Reserved 2010

By Jennifer Dryden

A bulletproof, white-painted metal door clicks loudly and jerks to the right as it slides open, allowing my mom and I to step through into the search and seize area. The area isn’t much bigger than my room at home – ten by ten or so – and it echoes, unlike my carpeted room.

“Shoes off and everything out of your pockets,” a gruff woman in a green IMCC uniform instructs with a deep voice. If there were a conveyor belt with tubs to place our valuables I would almost assume this was an airport. The two women who enter with us are probably there to see their loved one, already have their shoes off. Must have been here before. I slip my Pumas off and dig in my pockets, retrieving only my driver’s license. I hold it tightly in my hand until she points at me and says, “Next.”

I step toward her with hesitant steps and my shaky hand gives the officer my ID. “Is that all?” she asks in that same deep voice, except this time it’s much louder and right next to my ear. “Yes, that’s it.” I say in return, a little too quiet. I don’t think my voice could get this low, but I’ve never been as ashamed as right now. “Spread out your legs and arms,” she bulls my way as she slips on a clean, green pair of rubber gloves.

As the officer feels each arm and leg, my sleeves and pant legs ripple, reacting to the grip of the gloves. I can smell the latex and automatically remember the chalky feel after peeling off the cursed rubber gloves. I shiver. No need to be a teacher and drag your nails on a chalkboard, just wear rubber gloves and rub your fingers together afterward; it gives you the same effect. A finger pointing to my Pumas on the speckled, tile floor replaces my unrelated thought. “OK, you’re clear.” I breathe in another shaky breath as my mom’s socked feet step into my warmed, invisible footprints on the floor. Her arms and legs reflect a mirror image of mine.

I slip my Pumas back on without untying and retying them again. They fit loosely and I could care less if they look perfect. Who’s going to judge me here? No one. The other two women are standing side-by-side by the next bulletproof, white-painted metal door and I assume that’s the way to the visiting room. The one woman is wearing black sweatpants and a Winnie the Pooh-face sweatshirt; she looks to be in her late forty’s. Her shirt is stained around Pooh’s left ear and in my mind only I gag. She has wrinkles around her mouth, replacing her probably-once special dimples with smoker winkles. She let’s out a croupy cough and my assumption is confirmed. The other woman, a little older than my age of nineteen, is wearing torn jeans – and not because they are in style – and a black too-tight top that barely clears her waistband. Her hair is stained black from an inch above her ears down to her shoulders; her roots are blonde. Gross. These are the people who know the routine of a prison security and soon, I’ll be just like them: shoes off, arms out, legs apart. I won’t be like them. I won’t. I declare this goal in my mind and secretly hate my brother even more.

My mom is standing by my side now with her shoes on. She always unties and ties them again; that’s how she takes care of them. I guess I’m just a college kid who doesn’t care about her shoes. Or maybe it’s just a mom thing. I half-smile at my mom as we look at each other. She raises her eyebrows as if to say, “Welp, here we go!” The door clicks again and the same echo stings my ears as our cemented feet become antsy footsteps, advancing towards door number three.

This time the door is already ajar and we step right through it, letting the others go first. It’s called manners and my mom and I have some. She raised us right – Chad and I. This hallway can only fit two people comfortably side-by-side. There’s fogged windows to my right and a brown and gray painted brick wall to my left. I look up and there’s piping and vents all painted the same brown-gray as if the purpose was to blend in, for everything to blend in. I notice because the environment threatens me. I notice because I’ve never been to a prison before. I notice because this is where my brother lives.

My attention turns to the door leading into the visiting room and my heart sinks, my eyes well, and I stop. Our eyes meet and I don’t breathe. He sees me here. I want to close my eyes and be alone for a minute, compose myself, catch my cool. My mom’s three steps ahead of me, probably assuming I’m right behind her like I have been for the past two hallways. But I’m not. My mom’s hand raises and waves at the scruffy and bloated man standing behind the bulletproof wire window. I see her ears raise slightly and I know she’s smiling now. Her heart probably aches like mine, but I bet she’s just relieved to see her son after so long. One more breath, Jennifer.

I inhale one more breath and resume walking, picking up the pace to catch up to the now-open door held by the gruff-voiced officer. “Thank you,” I barely, but surely, project to her and shoot her a half smile in appreciation. I enter the last and final door to come face-to-face with Chad. My brother. My brother who’s in prison. My brother who has gained weight. My brother who has grown a beard? Gross, a beard? Really? Note to self: tell him it looks dumb.

My mom envelopes him in a long and, from what his red face tells me, a tight hug. I’m next. I stand waiting patiently, staring at my brother’s crunched face on my mother’s shoulder. My blank face creeps a big smile when Chad releases from Mom and opens his arms to me. “Hey, Bud!” Chad says, tailing the greeting up an octave. I open my arms freely and enter into his chest where I cried so hard three months ago in the courthouse. My head hits his chest and I break. I cry because I don’t know what else to do. He looks at me and repeats our conversation from last night, “You have to be my ears and eyes, Bud.” The officer reaches for Chad’s hand still wrapped around me and we lock eyes. “I love you, Bud,” he says before we release. “I love you, too.” I snap back to reality as he releases me back into the prison visiting room. I look around to stable my thoughts.

There are knee-high square wooden tables scattered in five rows from where the white tile ends and the thin blue-gray carpet begins. We step onto the carpet from our stance in front of the on-duty officer’s desk. “We’re at thirteen,” Chad states, naming the table number. “I picked this one because it was closer to the vending machines and more private.” “Private” is a joke because no matter which table you are sitting at, each person is about a foot away from the other. A foot away from pedophiles; a foot away from former drug dealers; a foot away from life-sentencing criminals; a foot away from a bipolar maniac who could lose it at any moment. I try to shake the claustrophobic nausea I’m feeling and focus on Chad.

As Chad sits, he motions with his hand for us to sit down too. My eyes linger to the yellow chair in front of me. It’s just like the ones I had in fourth grade. Four black metal legs and a yellow wooden seat and backrest. I hope these are cleaned regularly. Doubtful. I sit down and declare I don’t care anymore.

There are vending machines – some candy, some soda. There are a few other tables taken in the visiting room and Mom mentions the scarce population. “There are not a lot of people here.” Her voice is extra peppy, trying to lift the clouds of this situation. “I hear it gets crowded on Saturdays,” Chad responds without a clue. We are his first visitors. I sit silent, hands together in my lap, listening and watching. “So, how are ya?” Mom says again high-pitched and alert. “Well, it’s prison. I’m great!” Chad says sarcastically with an eye roll. “I don’t belong here…” I tune out once I figure this will last awhile. The gloom and doom life of Chad Dryden. It must be rough making bad decisions and paying for the consequences. My zero sympathy for him makes my own eyes roll.

My ears tune back in when I hear my name. “So, Jennifer, what’s new?” Chad says with a sigh, shifting his body my way. Both of their eyes are on me and I know I have to say something so I just say, “Not much, just going to school like before.”

“Oh yeah?” he responds. “How’s that going?” Another question?

“It’s going well, Ty and I have a class together: Marriage and Family.” I give a little laugh. “It’s sort of funny.”

“You going to marry this guy?” Chad asks seriously, but at the same time joking.

“Oh, you know it!” I joke, but honestly holding no clue. We all three laugh and it feels nice. The air thins a bit. I’m tempted to mention his dumb beard, but I hold back and let him guide the conversations. I’ll write it to him in a letter.

The topics change from family to how the cats are doing to politics to prison life. It comes full circle back to family as we stand to leave after two hours. Two hours is the time limit on visits with a newbie. Because Chad has only been in here for a few months, the hourly visit is at its minimum. I guess eventually we’ll get five-hour visits. What would we ever talk about for five hours? I silently dread those five-hour visits already.

My mom embraces in a good-bye hug, or as she likes to call it, a “see-you-later hug” and I, again, stand behind her waiting my turn. This time I am in tune with reality and notice how tall my brother is compared to our mom. I laugh to myself and a smile bridges my face revealing my inner thoughts of hilarity. I remember Mom’s last doctor check-up. “Here, I thought I was always five feet, four inches tall, and he said I was five feet, three. I told him to measure again.” Oh Mom. Then as they release, I step up and take my turn with hugs, I notice how I’m almost taller than him, if not taller than him by a couple centimeters. He thought I’d always be shorter than him. Ha! He gives me a really tight squeeze and then releases, changing his grip to my upper arms. “I love you, Bud. Thanks for coming! I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too, Bro. Love you, too.” I say, meaning it, but slightly lying. I’ll always love you, but right now, I don’t miss you. The door buzzes and Mom and I exit, only looking back once, noticing Chad’s already gone.

To continue reading, the next chapter is “One  Step From Rock Bottom“.


Filed under Uncategorized

Don’t forget your heart

Note: I am in love with my internship. It’s my dream job. It’s the best career boost yet.  But this needs to be said for me and for you.

Everything in college is either one path or another: love or career. There’s no happy medium unless you’ve figured out the key to life’s purpose: the assumed purpose of having it all, perfectly juggling it all, ultimate happiness. The continuous smile spread across your flawless face that shimmers like the stars in the always-clear sky.

So when you’re stuck at the fork in the road, where you can talk yourself into success on either one, remember there’s compromise. There’s always compromise… maybe not now, but later into the future. That future you cannot predict. Planning can smooth wrinkles on your puzzled face and impressive notches on your resume can substitute tar in cracks to the road. It all can be lined up with one-inch margins, size 10 Times font, and a crisp water-marked ivory paper you slide into glossy folders and align behind a cover letter explaining your love for children, passion for the industry, and clear goal of being big someday. It’s all there in black and white and you’re confident. You worked for this future, you chose the career path, you had your chance to choose. You chose.

But when you choose it, don’t forget your heart. The heart you’ve probably ignored for the past two years and figured the aches inside were just from stress. The stress that came from sleepless nights of studying, the events that have to be perfect, the forms that needed to be completed yesterday, the people who count on you, your talent, your passion for the industry, and finally, the stress from your mother calling to make sure you’ve eaten lunch today. Even then you lie to save time and say, “Of course I’ve eaten,” when you haven’t stepped away from your computer since seven this morning. You get by from the vending machine down the hall and even though the Cheese-Its aren’t satisfying your hunger, you count the calories and carbs and call it good enough.

Then when your phone rings halfway through your copy-editing shift, you silence it and figure he’ll understand… and anyway, he’s not as busy as you are. You have expectations, deadlines, and a paper to put out. You’ll talk to him later, maybe tomorrow’s best. Silently you question your chosen path: the career path. A shrug of your shoulders is what soothes your nerves and puts you back on the fast track to your future and the newsprint in front of your dry eyes. This is a choice.

This was my choice.

It’s been a good choice. I mean I’m living in New York City, the capital of the publishing world, the Big Apple, and have my dream job (granted it’s an internship), but it’s exactly what I’ve worked for. You don’t get into publishing unless you are willing to live in New York City. Plain and simple, it’s like a silent law of the land. I always wanted the top job, the top responsibility, to be on the top of the world. “Rely on no one but yourself” was my college philosophy. It still was my philosophy up to two weeks ago when I was sitting in my cubicle, editing my first manuscript as a professional in the industry I only dreamed about for years. It was my top moment yet in my life. I was on top of the world. My smile reached out to my dimples; the dimples that only peek when I’m truly happy. I swiveled around in my tall-back chair and no one was there. No one to hug in celebration, no one to fist pump like a fan of the Jets, not even someone to meet for a drink after work. That one person I call after something big happens was miles and miles and states and states away. And that person, my person, isn’t male because I chose long ago. I chose men create drama, heartbreak, and bumps in the road, my road. I chose the career path, ignoring my one true passion in life, my one thing I’ve been completely confident about my entire 23 years of life: having a family. Then, I realized I forgot my heart.

And honestly, I can assume it’s back in Iowa, packed away in the tubs that sit in my mother’s basement, under my pictures from sophomore year, and resume folders. It’s probably in the one I packed up the summer before my junior year and sent home with mom to be stored along with party beads, pictures of my ex, and Uno Attack. It’s probably around the time I lost all faith in finding someone to share my life with, the time when I stood hands drooped at my sides with a limp white flag in my hand at that fork in the road, choosing.

So choose. Just remember: both roads will give you success… but don’t forget your heart.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Erratic Emotions

It’s finals week. Not only that, but it’s my last finals week in my college career. And, let me tell you this: I’m an emotional mess. A good emotional mess, a confused emotional mess, an excited emotional mess, and all of those descriptive words I forgot. Let’s go over the list of things that are about to change in my life.

  1. I’m graduating college, thus no more school, homework, quizzes, tests, pointless lectures, or useful lectures.
  2. I’m moving out of my apartment I’m in love with to move my things home to Carroll.
  3. I’m moving to New York City. Enough said.
  4. I’m leaving my friends, family, university, and community that I’ve known my entire life.
  5. I’m leaving the Midwest and entering an entirely different world called the east coast.
  6. I’m no longer considered a student for the Summer Publishing Institute but a professional.
  7. I’m losing any student funding and security – health insurance, etc.
  8. Starting in October, repaying over $$,$$$ worth in student loans.

The list goes on…

My point? I’m changing every aspect of my life and I’m kind of freaking out. I cry without notice for any amount of time, varying from 30 seconds to a full-on 15 minutes – in excitement and panic. I shake my head in disbelief of my dream coming true while sighing “Oh my God!” with a huge smile on my face. I shake my fist at no one in particular about the frustration of studying and cramming for projects and exams. You name it; I’ve felt it in the past week.

Last Friday I awoke questioning my path and if my dreams of having a family and being a mom – the one thing I have been confident about until my love for editing/writing – were being overlooked. New York City has been my dream since I entered the journalism industry sophomore year. My license plate reads, “CY2NYC” for God’s sake! This is a dream for me too. This swings back to the emotional mess part of finals week.

Not only did I survive my first final, I aced it. My book presentation went amazingly and I take my very last final exam of my life tomorrow at noon. I’m finishing strong and loving it behind teary eyes and smiles that are as about erratic as it gets. So if we cross paths or you read some questionable tweets or Facebook statuses, know that it’s just Jenn being an emotional crazed graduating senior who is trying to keep all her dreams alive while making sure her apartment is spotless for the twenty-plus family members and friends coming this weekend.

Happy Graduation to my fellow Iowa State graduates!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Buttons of insanity

By Jennifer Dryden (c) March 2010

We all have buttons. Not like the remote control buttons you push to adjust the volume as you sit hunched over on your futon. I’m talking about the internal buttons. In our minds, there are buttons. Many buttons that when pushed, unleash a sudden fury. The buttons that are blamed for our moments of insanity. They’re not physically perched on our skin but they might as well be. People who know us well, know which buttons to push and from time to time will push them – some with all knowing, some out of pure innocence.

Today, a very touchy button was pushed. I was talking with my number one fan on the phone after finding out my car battery had died and dealing with the AAA guy who only told me that they were out of my car’s type of battery. The gist of the conversation went like this:

“Now that I have you on the phone…” my mom transitioned to the next part of our already ten-minute conversation. This is almost as bad as the “We need to talk…” intro in a bad romance movie.

“OK…” I answer back, hesitant on our next topic. The conversation went on to tell me about something she thought I needed to do “today.” I was aware of the timeliness to this matter and had happily scheduled it during the upcoming spring break (that can’t get here fast enough). I continued to listen when all of a sudden my mom approached the all-too-tempting button by repeating herself.

“Why don’t you just get it done today?” she said in her business-like mom tone. My mom’s usually bubbly and chipper, but this was the authoritative mom voice.

I searched around for a bit of sanity to stand on as the button met the platform it stood on. The red florescent warning sign flashed in a strobe in my head. Without a second thought, my head exploded all over my MacBook Pro, my bed, and the phone that was being held up to my ear. My eyes bulged nearly out of my head as I held my breath. There was no control over the words that would spill from my pursed lips in the next minute. Let’s just quote The OC’s character Summer and call this a “raged blackout.”

I remember saying, “Do you know what my to-do list looks like for today?” and “I had this scheduled during spring break, not today.” and “I have to do laundry; I have to get my car fixed; I have to start and finish my digital fiction assignment; I have to read 30 pages in Visual Communication; I have to transcribe a recording!”

I said all of these things without breathing a breath. Correction, I didn’t say them, I yelled them. I yelled the above paragraph as well as other hardly understandable mumbled gibberish into the little hole on my BlackBerry at the one person who loves me the most. Although I still don’t agree that this was approached the right way because my mom is all too aware of my buttons that keep my sanity within my body. But what other choice did she have? She’s human; she has opinions and to top it off, she’s my mom. She has hovering, pushing, and annoying rights on me.

The button in question is very touchy and I’ll tell you why. I am probably one of the biggest planners you’ll meet. I’m an organizer; I’m a perfectionist on certain things, including my daily schedule. I am notorious for getting things done in a timely manner; I’m reliable and good on my word. When people doubt I can get something done, especially in a timely manner, I kind of lose my mind. Thus, this button is cemented in my mind. I don’t think it’s a bad button to have. I just need to learn to breathe through the brain contractions when someone tests it. So beware, people of the world, because this is one of my buttons.

(And yes, I did apologize.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Concentrated Breathing

By Jennifer M. Dryden (c) 2009

The back room of our long upstairs hallway is Chad’s room – my older brother by five years. It’s not set up like a typical bedroom though, right now his queen-sized bed is on its side and draped with a tarp, his wide-screen HD television is covered with our parent’s old flowered bed sheets, and cardboard boxes are stacked as high as my waist and as far back to reach the window leaving only walking room between the boxes and the heater vents. The air is just as crowded, but is silent. It’s our last day as a family for a while.

Chad and I sit on the king and queen wicker chairs like we have so many times before growing up – sometimes the chairs were elevators while playing hotel, other times they were cars driving someplace in the living room during my pretend trips – but this time they are just chairs.

“Bud, you have to be my ears and eyes,” Chad says as he strains to make eye contact with me. I won’t look at him but I listen. He continues, “You have to tell me what’s really going on, always. Don’t let Mom sugarcoat things. Look after Dad, too. Take care of them, Jennifer. I’m counting on you.”

My eyes search the room for something else to talk about but everything points to this discussion. There is no escape, so I reply with, “Don’t worry, Bro. I got them.”


Go to your happy place.

I sit holding my mother’s clammy hand in a dark wooden courtroom. It feels like I’m sitting in a scene for Law and Order, with the same intimidating robed judge thumbing through papers. It’s the morning of October 12, 2006 – I don’t know what time it is though because my phone’s turned off. The sun is just reaching the third floor windows, making me squint, so I assume it’s around eleven. I don’t dare ask my mom for the time; she’s probably counting the minutes left with Chad. It’s sentencing day; the day we’ve been expecting but happily ignoring for more than two years.

I sit in silence, not moving a muscle, afraid one twitch 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 Dad was around putting his foot down. I bet he wouldn’t drink as much or even have a reason to drink if our dad 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.


My mother enters through the adjoining hotel room door gripping the frame for stability. “We have to leave… now,” she blurts. My slumber is broken and my eyes peek open as she flips the light switch. Am I dreaming?

“Why? What’s going…?” I ask throwing my feet over the edge of the bed and putting my glasses on. My eyes squint; I try to adjust to the light that has just invaded my black room.

“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. The reception ended not even an hour ago. I rise on my bare feet as she looks around for her purse in search of her cell phone. She’s disoriented. Maybe I’m not dreaming.

“Mom, calm down. Call Uncle Rick,” I order, 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. My eyes are wide but glazed. It’s not until we are speeding 70 miles per hour in a 35 zone that I realize this is bad. My head jerks up and my chin hits my chest as the first hill smacks us into the pavement. No, I’m definitely awake.

Uncle Rick steers the plum van aggressively making the landscape blur as we whiz by. I sit gripping the “oh shit” bar in the far back, no seatbelt on. He misses small hills completely leaving us airborne until we greet the ground nose first. I decide to buckle up. 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.” Chad’s dressed in his lime-green button-up, a matching lime and green-striped tie, gray slacks, black shoes. ­I struggle to think of him dressed in anything else. He’s always been a little preppy with his wardrobe; he matches everything. What will he look like in orange? I wince.

Chad passes and sits with his suited lawyer in front of us. A waist-high fence separates us. 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. No jury was called but in two of its seats sit one of the victims, now recovered from his injuries, with his English interpreter.

I eye the stranger as he sits; he’s 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 turns around and my mom leaps up as if something had launched her from her chair.

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

Chad’s eyes narrow, but stay glued to the wooden floor for a good minute. He’s lost in thought; his lawyer nudges him; Chad blinks. Something’s different. Maybe this is the turning point. He finally feels bad about what he did. It’s about time.


The ER drop-off spot is empty. The nurse says the medics are “working on site” so we take a seat in the waiting area but Mom doesn’t sit. She’s pacing by the automatic door, making it stay open. The dewy smell of early morning lingers in the entryway. I lean forward so my head can rest on my hands. Aunt Carol, who just walked in, rubs my back but I cringe at her fingertips. 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 – “Who Knows” – 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.

My mom and I enter the emergency 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. His fingers are the first things I notice; all ten are there, but blood seeps out darkening his already maroon button-up and his tan suit cuff. Blood never washes out. That thought erases from my mind quickly as I move my eyes to his chest; his new tan suit and maroon button-up are cut up the center, revealing his bare chest already forming purple blotches of bruise. His chest pounds up and down every half-second and his screams of agony make my ears ring. My head spins and eyes roll back as I try to grip his bed rail. I’m going to pass out.

“Give me some fucking morphine!” he yells in a pain I pray I’ll never know. “Ahhhh, Ma! It hurts!” I tense at the volume and quickly snap back to reality. 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.

They finally release Chad’s head from the brace and he jerks his head up to meet my eyes. The whole world stops for a second… I don’t breathe. He sees me here. I close my eyes, making it a bad dream. Bad dream, bad dream. I open them again. He copies my gesture; his eyes pinch close leaving his slits wrinkled. After holding his breath for five seconds, they flip open and bulge with desperation for relief.

Morphine is injected; Chad calms down. He drifts in and out of consciousness. His eyes are open and 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.

He walked into the courtroom a scared but still cocky boy, but as he rises to make his remarks to the judge, he instantly matures while turning his attention to the present victim. As he clears his throat – now caught with tears – to begin his apology, his voice cracks to resemble a pubescent teenage boy’s. 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.

“I know I can’t bring your friend back and I know I can’t take back your injuries and memories, but please believe me when I say I’m truly sorry,” Chad barely projects toward the two seats in the jury stand, his tears now unstoppable. “I made the dumbest decision that night and I’m so sorry for your hurt. I’m really, very sorry…” His hands are intertwined together shaking like a patient of Parkinson’s, his eyes leak tears probably blurring his unbroken stare with one of his three victims. The victim talks with his interpreter, while she repeats Chad’s words in Vietnamese. The victim lowly smiles and nods in understanding.

Chad nods back before turning counterclockwise to the judge. Chad sits.


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.


“There’s been a fatality in the other vehicle.” My family gasps behind me and I turn to catch the women collapse into each other. Wait a second, slow down. 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.

The room discusses the next task; telling Mom. I’m the only one allowed into the emergency room, but I’m sixteen. I can handle it. Uncle Rick claims he’ll handle it but announces it’s going to take a family-wide effort. My aunts nod in sad approval. My head is still spinning and I have to pee again. Damn nerves. I enter the bathroom, sit, and sing quietly, “Who knows what could happen, do what you do just keep on laughing. One things true, there’s always a brand new daaay.” Breathe.

I wash my hands and peer at my blotchy face in the mirror. My nose wrinkles from the orangey hand soap… I hate oranges. I wipe my hands with the brown paper bag towels then swipe my face so the mascara lines only circle my eyes and not stain my cheeks. I reenter the waiting room. Mom’s weeping into Uncle Rick’s chest. Beat me to it, I guess.

Marshalltown, Iowa, is not big enough to continue Chad’s care so in the morning he’s ambulanced to Mercy Medical Center 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, Chad 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.

Chad’s morphine button dangles from one of the ten tubes somehow connected into him and although he pushes it over and over again, the morphine is controlled so he won’t overdose. He pushes it once more before cussing in frustration and throwing it down. The chest tube leaking pink fluid into a pouch makes me feel, from what Mom says, sympathy pains. It’s hard for me to breathe.

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 orange 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 and the echoes settle in my head as well as the courtroom 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 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. You 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…

Chad and Jennifer on a family Caribbean cruise Thanksgiving week of 2003. This is what Chad was wearing during our cousin's wedding and what was cut off of him the night of the accident.

Chad and Jennifer at Jennifer's high school graduation reception May 2006. This is the outfit he wore through hearings, trials, and his final sentencing court date.

Chad, Jennifer, and our mom on a visit to IMCC in Coralville this past summer 2009. This is what Chad wears now - faded jeans, white Nikes, navy tee with a gray sweatshirt. He's going on his fourth year in state prison.

Read the second part of Concentrated Breathing here: http://wp.me/pEbtR-1l


Filed under Uncategorized