Blessings in Disguise
It was an odd perspective on the world, floating high above my own head. There I was walking through the store like a normal eleven-year-old when I found myself floating. I looked down and saw myself trailing down the aisle. I could see the dirty white tiles and the shelving on each side. Time slowed, someone said my name and it was over.
It’s strange the way the mind deals with pain and uncertainty. I had never before experienced that out of body type sensation and never did again. Although it did not frighten me when I was floating, I was certainly unsettled when it was over. Sure that I was losing my mind, I didn’t mention it to anyone right away. Instead I shoved it to the back of my mind and tried to ignore it.
It didn’t take much to figure out why I felt like I was going crazy; I just didn’t know how to fix it. I had been struggling emotionally since the day my seventeen-year-old brother came home from a sleepover and told us his best friend’s head had been blown off.
He was covered in mud from head to toe from crawling through the fields trying to get away from the danger around him and he stunk with fear. My father called the police and in a very short time they had arrested my brother for murder. Did he do it? None of us knew at the time, but in my heart I didn’t believe him capable of it. The next few days were like one long nightmare. Concerned friends would call to get the details of our tragedy and before we could hang up the phone, call waiting would interrupt with a new caller wanting the same information. My parents and sister were asked to relive the nightmare over and over again via the phone. They could go hours without ever hanging up. After a while we began taking the phone off the hook.
I cried, I vomited and when I did sleep my imagination conjured up images of our dead friend. I dreaded bedtime. I wasn’t scared of the dark - I was scared of the dark images. The scene my imagination created stuck with me for years.
After a lot of prayer, I found a bit of peace and began to move on. It wasn’t easy. People I had once considered friends turned their backs on our family. Since the family of the murdered teen attended church with us, it began to cause a division. Many believed that my brother was guilty, many did not.
As the investigation progressed and his trial drew near I came to the conclusion that in order to spare my family more grief I must bury my own. I don’t know where I came up with that notion. I certainly didn’t get it from my parents. I knew they cared about me, but I also saw the demands being placed on them emotionally and physically and I didn’t want to add to that.
Things moved on as normally as they could until, finally, they set a date for the trial. It was at this time that the stress grew. I believed I needed to be at his trial to show my support and love. I felt that responsibility with great certainty and at the same time felt a great fear of sitting in that courtroom. When I finally gained the courage to tell my parents that I intended to be there, I was relieved to hear them deny me that request. Instead I would stay with my best friend’s family until it was over and continue going to school.
I felt guilt and relief battle for dominance in my heart and I began to tune out everything else around me. The out of body experience burned in the back of my mind. Events and emotions swirled in my head like a tornado until one afternoon at school I fled to the girl’s restroom and broke down. I cried almost hysterically. I had no idea if anyone else saw or heard me or how long I was in there. I just completely lost it, huddling on the cement floor with my face in my hands. At some point I felt someone touch my knee and looked up to see my teacher, Mrs. Corn, kneeling in front of me.
“I think I’m going crazy!” I blurted out between sobs. “I don’t know what to do.” I told her about my out of body experience and was sure she would agree with me.
“You’re not going crazy.” She said the words firmly. Her calm tone and manner cut through the haze and I clung to that statement. I wanted to believe that she was right.
“No. You’re not going crazy. You’ll be fine. It’s normal to be upset. God is going to take care of you and your brother and your family.” She smiled at me and I did believe her. Once the hysterics had fled I could see the truth in her words. It gave me the courage to face my life again.
The trial began and every night I would sneak into my friend’s little brother’s room to watch the news. I wasn’t supposed to watch the newscasts, but it was all I had. I couldn’t be there and I had to know what was happening. The reporters would give a brief recap of the days events and I would grieve over the lies that were being told. It hadn’t taken long for us to realize that he was being framed. There was evidence and testimony that could have been used in his defense, but they were knocked down at every turn.
After each newscast I would get sick to my stomach and sleep very little. The trial lasted a week. On Saturday, Mom and Dad agreed to let me go and hear the closing statements with them. Again I was scared, but the relief was greater.
Saturday dawned a cold December morning. The temperature hovered somewhere around twenty-five degrees, but my nerves made it feel like it was twenty-five below. My stomach fluttered with a hundred butterflies. We entered the courthouse through a back entrance and rode the freight elevator to avoid the news media. It was an old elevator, the kind with an operator that rides up and down with it all day. As the elevator lurched upward, my stomach dropped out the bottom and it didn’t catch up with me until I stepped off the lift.
The courthouse was old. Every surface was hard and cold and unbending. My footsteps echoed as we walked down the hall to the waiting room. The echoes grew louder with each step until the sound came rushing back to pound in my brain, mimicking my heartbeat.
We joined a small group of our closest friends and supporters in a tiny waiting room with one window. The door had a frosted glass window to offer privacy and there was an old metal table and chairs in the center of the room. At the appointed time, we all filed quietly into the courtroom. Defendant’s families on one side, victim’s on the other, like a wedding gone horribly wrong. Observers entered the room and quickly chose the side they would stand with. The benches in the gallery were hard and narrow and polished so slick I had a hard time staying in my seat. The Jurors entered quietly and took their appointed chairs. Some looked at my brother with anger; some with sadness and some wouldn’t look at him at all. The air felt thick and heavy, like a weight pushing me down into my slick bench.
Then it began. First the Defense attorney and then the Prosecutor. Each argued, pled, demanded and cajoled in behalf of their case. The Prosecutor stood before the jury and listed every grievance she could think of, then turned and pointed her sharp, manicured claw at my older brother.
Like a flash, memories and emotions rushed through my brain. Him picking on me, the two of us arguing over nothing, fighting, scratching and teasing. Then images of laughter and fun came close behind. I knew my brother. I knew the things our family had gone through because of him. Drug and alcohol had plagued him due to his birth mother’s use of the same when she was pregnant. He’d runaway more times than we could count and generally been a most difficult child, but our family loved him just the same.
There is no accounting for why you love someone. You just open your heart and accept. Despite all we had been through we still loved. In the end it was a two edged sword. Defending us from the attacks of others and giving us the strength to stand together; yet wounding us deep within our souls. Scars that still stand today, though faded they may be.
It was what we clung to. God is love, love is faith and faith in God is what kept us alive. We waited for over six hours for the jury to return with their verdict. Six hours of butterflies beating my insides until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Again we filed into the courtroom and sat waiting for the bomb to drop.
“Jurors, have you reached a verdict?” The judge’s voice sounded raspy and hollow.
“We have your honor.” Juror number one stood slowly and unfolded the sheet of paper. “We the Jury find the defendant guilty of Second Degree Murder and Armed Criminal Action. We ask you to sentence him to life imprisonment for Second Degree murder plus fifty years and one day for Armed Criminal Action.”
I sat stunned. They had asked for the highest penalty allowed for his supposed crimes. It wasn’t fair. They were wrong, he didn’t kill anyone. The room spun and I couldn’t breathe very well. My throat was tight and I tried so hard to hold in the tears that were pressing against my throat, begging to be released. I shook and trembled and fought the emotions that were threatening to pull me under.
Guards hauled him to his feet and turned him to face the crowd as they shackled his feet and hands.
“I hate you.” The mother of the deceased stood in front of him. “I wish you were dead! I hope every day you think of what you did to my son.”
The dam broke. Dad wrapped his arm around my shoulder and my defenses crumbled. Like a violent storm, tears rushed and my heart shook and trembled. I looked into my now shackled brother's eyes and didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be okay. I love you.” He said it for me. Chained and facing the scariest chapter of his life, yet he was the one comforting me.
We both grew up that day.
Dad led our family out of the courtroom and people who cared immediately swarmed us. The courtroom had been packed, but the halls were just as crowded with people who came to support the two families. The hall no longer echoed and beat at my brain, now it was a stream of tears rushing and pulling at our hearts. It was a blur, a face here and there. What I remember is the hugs. The love that poured out so strong that I knew I could float in it and not drown.
Eventually I found myself tucked back into our car and heading home. I don’t remember how I got there. In fact, I remember very little of what happened in the weeks that followed. What I do remember through the haze is that I wasn’t alone. I didn’t need to be. Suffering was easier as a group than alone. It wasn’t a burden to any of us to share our grief - it was a strength. It’s what bound us as a family, strengthened our faith in God and helped us find hope in the impossible. Never alone and never without love.
Eighteen years have passed since then. With time come questions, acceptance, forgiveness and then more questions. Life is a never-ending cycle. Sometimes its heartache, sometimes its joy; but it’s accepting the first that allows the second to be appreciated. With each trial we face, if we look hard enough, we can find blessings in disguise.
For our family the blessings came in a variety of ways. My brother and I became friends. We never were before the trial. As a family we learned to depend on one another. We’re closer now than we could ever have been previously. And he's alive. That alone is a big blessing. Although he didn’t commit murder, he was struggling with alcohol and drug dependency. Now he’s drug and alcohol free. He never believed he’d live to see his thirtieth birthday, but he’s recently celebrated his thirty-fifth. He’s a different man, a better one for his experiences.
The biggest blessing we have found, though, is the one of seeing God’s hand move in our lives. We hurt, we suffered and we healed. They say that vision is always twenty-twenty when looking at your past, and that’s true. I find that I see more clearly today the blessings that were there for all to see then. Hidden to my eyes only for a short time, disguised as pain, but revealed as blessing.