“I’m not sure I’m in the right place,” I voiced to the guard at the x-ray machine. “Is this where the Victim Impact Panel meets? I’m looking for Sam.”
He held out his hand. “Hand me your purse.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, relinquished my purse, and stepped through the x-ray machine.
“Upstairs and to the left,” he said, returning the purse, which I strapped across my shoulder.
At the top of the stairs I joined the line. “Name?” the lady sitting at the registration table asked.
She scanned the rows of names.
“I’m here for Sam.”
“Oh, in there,” she said while pointing to her right.
Forcing one foot in front of the other, I stepped into the courtroom and gasped. The place was packed! I should have gotten here earlier.
My brain was already on high alert, and being here put me way out of my comfort zone, but this—this crowd—threw me over the edge. Swallowing the returning lump, I scanned the courtroom and finally spotted an open seat. Pushing my feet forward, I squeezed between people, and tried to control my brain activity.
Smoke residue disturbed my lungs and pricked my eyes. The lump would not retreat. Positioned between two women, I pulled out my notebook, ready to record the night’s events. Someone coughed as my brain whispered—You’re the only one here taking notes.
I closed my notebook.
When the guard stated the rules of the evening, reality hit me. Everyone in this room aside from guards, employees, speakers, and myself are here because they are required to be here. A judge ordered these folks to attend this program to emphasize the possible consequences of their actions for driving under the influence. They’ve been summoned. I came voluntarily to support a colleague. But the ones I’m sitting with don’t know that. They think I’ve been summoned too.
The lump would not go away.
He introduced himself as he stepped to the platform, but I missed his name. Dressed in black, his muscles bulged as he bent his arms. Chains rattled, but the noise didn’t originate from the motorcycle chain bracelet around his wrist. Shifting in my seat, I glanced left and caught a flash of orange. One. Two. Three. Three prisoners. Two guys. One girl. And there’s the guard. Wow! People from all walks of life are here.
I returned my attention to the speaker. Hints of bitterness and foul language permeated his message. Darkness began to overshadow the night. As the woman to my left nodded off, a blubbering man on the front row in the center section stood up, and walked towards the speaker. Glancing at the sheriff facing the crowd, I held my breath. If the man’s actions evoked apprehension for the sheriff, one wouldn’t know by his stolid body language. The weeping man embraced the speaker. I exhaled. He wiped his eyes as he returned to his seat. The sheriff scanned the courtroom.
Finally, my colleague, Sam, addressed the crowd. As Sam shared his story, the darkness slowly retreated.
While alcohol contributed to deaths in both families, there was clearly a distinction between outcomes. For the muscular man dressed in black who lost his brother, darkness hovered, and his story left me confused. On the flip side, even though Sam lost his young daughter at the hands of a drunk driver, his address promoted change. His story, shrouded in light, encouraged people to walk away from this discussion different than when they entered. He urged people to seek help—to make better choices—to choose life.
Sam’s countenance was evidence of a difference that I hoped others would recognize. While some clearly did recognize the difference, and sought him out at the end of the panel discussion, two people were oblivious. The woman to my left nodded off again. While the woman to my right checked her cell-phone, I glanced at the sheriff. He glared our direction. My brain activity peaked. I’m sandwiched between two offenders who are breaking the rules. I came to support a colleague. I hope this doesn’t get me into trouble!
Leather creaked as he walked towards us, eyes glued on the woman to my left.
Before the sheriff approached our row, the woman on my right slipped her cellphone in her pocket.
“Get up and stand at the back.”
The drowsy woman’s eyes flew open. Her head jerked. “Up! Stand in the back.”
She stood, and walked to the back of the room. His leather police belt groaned while he retreated to his perch in the front.
When the panel concluded I hoped to speak with Sam, but he was surrounded. The stack of pamphlets he held was quickly dwindling. I decided to speak with him the following day.
Crossing the street to my vehicle, the empty parking spaces reminded me I had just exited a DUI Victims Impact Panel. My brain overflowed with thoughts:
- How’d these folks get here?
- Will these tragic stories alter their life in any way?
- Will they heed Sam’s offer of hope and actually get help to break their addiction?
- How many sitting in that room already regret their actions?
- Who in that room will nurse their addiction and find themself behind iron bars?
- What will it take for folks to make a change?
This was the second time I heard Sam’s story within a week. Once again I walked away with a heavy heart.
“How was it?” my daughters asked when I returned home. What could I say? My brain was still processing the details.
I did what my arms had ached to do all night. I embraced them both, held them close, and whispered, “I love you.”
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the consequences of driving under the influence. If you missed the first post regarding this topic, you can access the story, Her Name Is Megan, via this link.
The third and final installment in this series is titled More Than A Number and deals with the cost of drunk driving crashes. Click the title to access the link.