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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

LATER CHAPTER – DECLUTTERING CHAD

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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If I could go back and tell myself some things

If I could go back to my teenage self, I’d say many things. Here are a few:

– the after school childcare job will be the best life-changing decision you can make as a teen. You needed that discipline and a kick in the pants to become unselfish and focused. You needed to realize that your reputation is important and stepping through those security doors at Carroll Area Child Care Center and Preschool gave you direction.

– ditching the stereotypical high school click you were associated with took guts because you took a lot of slack for it, but you had to do what you had to do. It was a little late for your GPA, but you’ll surprise yourself with multiple degrees and certificates later on.

– your family will go through a tragedy mid-high school. Be prepared to take a lot of the control of your family dynamic and remember this will be a long process. Concentrate on your breathing. You can’t die if you’re still breathing. Some hope: this won’t define YOUR life, but it will define another’s and take a couple strangers’ away. Learn the importance of praying now. KEEP WRITING! Don’t zone out.

– you’ll stay in contact with very few friends from high school, but Brook turns into a kind of family your parents couldn’t give you. You’ll be her maid of honor and you will get a niece you love more than you thought possible, and a Scott who completes your best friend.

– school and your family are more important than your boyfriend… especially the one you are in love with right now. He’s a loser and you deserve so much better. This isn’t love.

– you’ll fall in love two more times and one breakup will be easier than the other. The length of your relationship doesn’t determine your true feelings. You fall fast with your college love, but the roller coaster will be the best and the worst you’ll ever feel.

– Elementary Education is not for you. Recognize how long you have been writing. Buy three binders and sheet protectors because you’ll need them to store your hundreds of poems you’ll write in middle and high school.

– Make sure you’re still late to Destination Iowa State because you’ll meet your college best friends there. Forget your high school boyfriend… he holds you back and blows it with your family during Thanksgiving. One strike too many. But don’t worry, your new friends will keep your spirits high, but you’ll get through it just fine.

– Captain Morgan and Dr. Pepper at Sigma Chi is not a good idea. Remember the night may seem to last forever, but it won’t.

– you’ll find that loving yourself is your top priority upon your college breakup. You and this man will both break in different ways and it will bond you for life on a level no other person will understand. You still (at 25) would take him back in a minute.

– your initiative will surprise you and you’ll gasp many times in amazing wonderstruck that THIS is your life. Live within these moments and forget the rest. You are successful.

– your heart palpitations are not hurting you. Don’t worry yourself sick. Caffeine still isn’t an option though. It’s healthier.

– you’ll love journalism at first because you write and edit for the Iowa State Daily newspaper, but soon you’ll encounter the bright light that is your true genre in Benjamin Percy’s advanced nonfiction creative writing class. Your memoir assignment will change your life. Believe you’re good.

– Apply to New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute in 2010… I know you’re tired of school but it will bring you the escape to your dreams. You will meet many of your lifelong best friends: Desire’e and Katie C.

– Pay more attention to Sterling Publishing at the NYU career fair because you’ll work for them in the best way possible and grow a friendship that you’re going to need while living so far from home. Throw paperclips at this friend and allow her to take you for walks in Madison Square Park during lunch breaks. Laugh all the time.

– Don’t hate on Iowa so much. It’s really beautiful once you get some perspective outside of it for awhile. Home is where your mom is not where the money is.

– Your life may seem dramatic and your teenage emotions are running wild, but I’m telling you… CALM DOWN and hug your mom more.

– Dad may seem distant and he is but as an adult, he’s really great. You’ll eventually see eye-to-eye on a few things. You two will finally put issues aside and actually talk. It just takes time.

– I don’t know what to tell you about our brother. I still don’t know what to say to myself. Pick and choose, is all I can say.

– Depend on Casey and Bryan for advice like you’re doing. Amelia will declare you sisters at age five. That bond is unbreakable even when your quarterly trips to Cincinnati turn into once every couple years. They save your dumb teenage life. Be thankful.

– I’m sorry to report that at 25 you’re still unmarried, back in school (again), and live alone. Actually I’m not sorry because everything you’ll do up until this point will get you here. You’ll celebrate being single because you’re a strong, independent, and happy woman. You’re becoming a teacher right now and you are teaching your first high school unit on journalistic feature writing. You’re LOVING it. You live alone because you’re an adult who likes to unwind after a long day in the quiet, not because you have no friends.

– you will always have friends.

– you will always have a supportive family.

– you’re still figuring it out and plan to kick some more ass to make it in this crazy world!

Sincerely, You-at-25

PS: I’m not telling you to change things nor telling you to “stop before you…” because you don’t live in regrets. Everything happens for a reason and you’re happy.

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I Got It From My Mama

By Jennifer Dryden © September 2012

Mom. Teacher. Mentor.

Fruit Loops, books, and first graders were the main components at first. A sneaky mission had to be deployed and my tippy toes were ready. I had connections at the cafeteria doors and all I had to say was, “I’m going to my mom’s room,” and I was free. I gave up my lunch and lunchtime recess to sneak down to the first grade pod. While I munched on cereal I sat at the teacher’s desk, waiting for the sneakered footsteps to screech in the hallway. Sometimes I sipped the teacher’s watered-down Pepsi from her mug. The screeches came. I closed the bag of colored loops, pick up a book, and took my place in the teacher’s chair at the front of Mrs. Dryden’s first grade classroom. I quickly practiced how to hold the pages just like my mom and then laid the book on my lap. The students filed in and sat at my dangling feet.

“The title of this book is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” I read in my best second grader voice. They all listened. I looked up at my mom and she nodded with a smile. A smile now I have learned is her proud-of-you smile. This became a routine – each time the same Fruit Loop cereal, the same class, and the same proud-of-you mom smile. The only difference was the book. The book was my favorite part; the question, always, “Which one today?”

 

I owe a lot of my motivation and teacher preparation to my mother who has been a determined woman and an admirable teacher her entire life. While enrolled at Western Illinois University, her father – my grandfather – kept saying, “Just make it through your sophomore year…” because tradition held that women might not graduate with a four-year degree. My mom pushed the words out louder each time she replied, “I’m going to graduate. I want to be a teacher!” And she did graduate and has taught every grade from preschool to fifth grade, spending most of her years in first and second grades.

I have only seen her teach a handful of times, but every time she does, it’s like she transforms into an entirely different person – she’s in teacher mode, as I call it. She’s focused on a lesson, on behavior, and on tying one concept together with another. She’s firm but caring, and that’s something I’ve only seen a little bit at home – there’s more caring than firmness with my brother and me. Truthfully, it impresses me. This is cliché, but she puts 110 percent into her job, something I think is rare these days regardless of industry.

She currently teaches second grade and always teases her students that maybe some day she’ll be smart enough to go on to third. She says, “You’re just too smart for me now!” as the last few days of school wind down to a close. She says it helps the students giggle on the last day of school rather than cry about the changes ahead in third grade. On Fridays, it’s show-and-tell and one day three students all brought musical instruments – one guitar, one small drum from a Caribbean trip, and a Burger King amp toy that had rock and roll sounds. She had all three of them play in a band in the front of the room while everyone else danced. I remember her telling me this. I replied with, “Didn’t it get chaotic?” and she responded simply, “It was Friday; they’re kids. Let them have fun because learning is hard work.” I then declared to have more fun with the children I work with at Ames Community Preschool Center because I take things too seriously sometimes. She’s a mentor because she sets a good example.

She has always encouraged me to be whom and what I want to be and to reach for my dreams no matter how crazy they might sound. Believe me, I’ve had some farfetched dreams and she helped me reach a big one of mine in New York. She’s been my rock and my counselor when overwhelmed. Most of all she’s been a soundboard for lesson plans, practicum, education classes, and visions of my newest paths to success. She also debates with me on the current news on education laws, ruckus in the field, and general opinions on the diversity of our schools pertaining to students, staff, policies, standards, and “growth” according to standardized tests. She’s always honest with me, which I appreciate and learn from the most. Many things we agree on, but other things we see differently. That’s when she makes me learn and think deeper into what this law is really proposing.

There were many nights after John Kinley’s C I 426 night class where I would come home motivated and excited to become a teacher. By the time I unlocked my apartment door my mom and I would be in a deep conversation over the phone about the policies I was planning for my room, my philosophy of teaching, and how even though I dreaded a night class, every night in that class was motivation enough to keep going further. This is when I really started to respect my mother on a new level because she knew what she was talking about and had incredibly amazing ideas to contribute to mine. I have always respected her about raising me and always believing and supporting my ventures and dreams… the list can go on forever… but this was a connection we had naturally. This stemmed back to her proud-of-you mom smile umpteen years ago.

Even though my mom is an elementary teacher of seven- and eight-year-olds, and I will be teaching English to students ten years older than that, she has helped me more than anyone else. Her impact cannot be matched. A mentor lets you talk it out, pushes your thinking, and reminds you of your strengths when you can only name your weaknesses. She puts in her two cents to better you for the future even if your future’s unknown stresses you out. A mentor also gives you opportunities to test your abilities with students, grading, planning, and organization. I’ve been setting up my mom’s classroom bulletin boards, desk arrangements, and centers before first grade. Once my handwriting improved I started labeling folders, notebooks, mailboxes, birthday charts, and nametags. Now my mom sets a yearlong theme for the classroom and she lets me go wild. She says I’m more excited about it and wants to provide me with practice – even if it is a different classroom setup than high school English – she is giving me these experiences just like she was doing during lunchtime and recess in second grade.

With each conversation I have with my mother as an adult and as a teacher, she’s leading me in the right direction. She is invested in my success and shares a passion for teaching and young people. She drives me to be a better teacher and inspires me to be a better person. My mom has gotten run over with a lot of bumps in the road that could have interrupted her career as a teacher, but she never let it. Like I said before, she transforms into something almost supernatural in front of a group of students – something too good to be true. But it is true, and when you see it, it blows your mind. She has always stood tall enough to know that home and her job are separate worlds, which is something I admire. I can only hope to be as much of a success as she is in the classroom, but most importantly of all, in life.

Thanks, Mom.

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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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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“.


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