I was at work when my cell phone rang and I could see from my contact list that it was “Parole Officer – Diane” calling. Diane had been assigned to our case last Spring and had interviewed me for several hours. She was the only person that I encountered within the judicial system, in the five months that passed from arrest to sentencing, who actually took the time to listen, really listen to what happened to my family and understand how much it effected us. During the sentencing in June, she stood in between me and the assistant district attorney prosecuting our case. To my right was the defense attorney, next to him, his client; the offender. We were standing before the judge’s bench when Diane reached up and touched my arm because my right hand had begun to tremble uncontrollably when I started to speak.
It’s not like I’ve never spoken in public before, I have, many times but this was different, very different. It was personal. I was talking about my children. The gentle reminder of Diane’s presence calmed me, enabling me to continue to read aloud the 3-page, typed statement I’d prepared. The court calls it a Victim’s Impact Statement. For me, it was a bearing of my soul, exposing my innermost feelings and fears, in public. Difficult. Painful. But as any parent can relate, when it comes to your children and in particular, their safety, your own comfort is inconsequential. You do what you have to, for them. You do ANYTHING. Diane gave me strength that day to do what I needed to do, so when I answered her call and she asked if I would speak on a Victim’s Impact Panel, I said, “Yes”.
This would be the second time a panel of this kind was held in our county and the second time I would speak on it.
This past Thursday, the panel gathered in a small room off to the side of the community room at our city’s police station. We met with a victims advocate who is also a psychiatrist. She gave us breathing techniques and other ideas on what to do if we got anxious while speaking. We introduced ourselves to each other and briefly mentioned the type of crime that had effected our lives. The woman next to me was one of three of us from the first panel. It was oddly comforting to see her again. Hers is a powerful story. She and her husband were attacked by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. He had machetes hidden in his jacket when he entered their home and cut them both, badly. Her husband lost a thumb. He was a carpenter. He turned to alcohol. They’re separated now.
Shortly after the introductions, we took our seats at the front of the community room and watched the parolees shuffle in, one by one, sitting three at a table. There were ten, maybe fifteen tables. Questionnaires had been placed in front of each seat and they were instructed to fill them out at the end in order to receive “credit” for being there. Five officers were strategically placed throughout the room.
Like the last time, Diane introduced me first and rather abruptly, the room went from chatty and busy to silent while all eyes settled on me. I took a deep breath and began to recount what happened to my family and how it has effected our lives. After a while, even though I could still hear myself talking, a part of me seemed to detach from the speaker and I also became the looker, the watcher, the observer; scrutinizing the bodies that sat before me. I found myself noting what they were wearing, how they sat; their demeanor. There were men and women of various ages, although the majority of them were young. They were dressed in every fashion, whether it was proper attire, or not. Although, they were told to remove their hats before we started. They were black, white, Spanish, Asian and other. It was a mixed crowd and unless you knew what brought this diverse group of people together, you couldn’t guess what they had in common. I didn’t have to. Other than the fact that they were all here by court order, mandated to sit for the next 2 hours and listen to our stories, I knew that each one of these people was a convicted felon, having committed such crimes as aggravated assault, battery, arson, fraud, attempted murder, burglary, illegal drug use or sales.
Like the last time, I found the audience to be quiet and respectful. And again, I was honestly taken by how attentive everyone was. Really. You can’t fake eye contact and most of the people there seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. For many of these offenders, it was the first time they came “face to face” with real consequences of their actions.
After revisiting the life-changing event that brought us to this room, we were escorted back into the smaller room to “debrief” and discuss our experience with the psychiatrist and other law enforcement agents that were there. About ten minutes later, Diane came in holding the questionnaires that the parolees were required to fill out and handed them to us to look at. It was interesting to learn what crimes these people actually committed and fascinating to learn what, if anything about our stories had an impact on them. I was curious to see what they would say to their victims if they had the opportunity, “I’m sorry”, was the most popular response.
Just like last time, it was the effect the crime had on my children that made the biggest impression on the offenders that were impacted by my story. Perhaps it was the fact that I was too distraught to put up a Christmas tree for my kids or that my 9-year old daughter was having nightmares and wetting her bed. Maybe it was hearing that my son (who had just turned 11) was a primary suspect and upon learning that, I instinctively refused to sign the complaint statement that would allow the detectives to pursue their investigation, leaving us effectively, on our own. Or, it could have been me telling them, that for most of November, December and January, my boy would sit outside our house, in the cold, for over an hour after school, waiting for me to come home from work, rather than go inside by himself because he was too afraid, that struck a chord with some.
One man who commented on my story said he felt “helpless” while listening to me talk about what happened.
So did I — at the time.
And just like last time, I remained unemotional and composed, throughout– until I got into my car to go home.
I realize, you can’t let an event in your life define who you are. It’s not what happens to you but what you do when something happens that becomes part of your character. It’s recognizing what you would do differently and what you did well. It’s about trusting your instincts and finding the strength to do what you know in your heart is right, even when the person closest to you is trying to dissuade you.
Ultimately, it’s what you learn from the event that helps shape who you are.
I’m not quite finished dealing with the aftermath of this event. It’s opened up a Pandora’s Box in my life. It’s put me onto a path I never expected to be on. But I’m Okay with where I am today and even though it’s not a very comfortable place to be, I believe I’m where I’m supposed to be. I think that’s true for the rest of my family, too.
When I ask myself if it was a good thing for me to speak and tell my story, again and when I wonder if it made a difference or mattered to anyone, I can honestly say, “Yes, it did”, to me anyway. It helped me put things in perspective and reminded me that I am living life on life’s terms, not mine and of how far I’ve come from feeling helpless and not being able to put up a Christmas tree.
A friend of mine is writing a book. It is a labor of love that she has been mulling over in her head now for the better part of 10-years. It also happens to be a fascinating story that is very near and dear to our hearts. She’s finally at a point in her life, where she has the time to focus and can sit down and write. A couple of weeks ago she asked me to go to Pearl River with her to interview a woman I know for her book.
At just over four feet tall and weighing in at about 105 lbs. Betty, is an absolute powerhouse. Her hair is short and a soft golden, auburn color. Her eyes are a sparkling blue. Her smile is slight but constant. At lunch, Betty is all go; non-stop chatter, breaking her beat only long enough to take a sip of her Pinot Grigio with ice. It takes her one-hour to drink one glass of wine and you can count on her drinking at least two, probably three. At 82, Betty is single. She likes her coffee “dark like her men” and is looking for “a rich man, with a bad cough and one foot in the grave.” I sat across from Betty, studying her, marveling at her quick wit and sharp memory.
She talked about her childhood and the various jobs she held at the Industrial Home (orphanage) that she grew up in, during the 1930s, in Ireland. Catholic nuns ran these homes with little love and no money and while thousands of girls, ages five and older were accepted into them, Betty’s case was unique. She was the only infant to be admitted into her “home”.
“I was the pet you know. They (the nuns) called me “Bet-Nee.” She told us proudly. “The other girls knew I was the pet so when they wanted something, like to wear long socks or play in the field, they would send me up to ask for it.”
After 3 1/2 hours of being mesmerized by Betty, I finally asked for the check. Upon its arrival and without hesitation, Betty grabbed it from the waiter. Slightly shocked, I watched in awe as my friend, who was sitting next to Betty, tried to wrestle the paper out of the tiny woman’s, tiny hand, unsuccessfully. (“She’s really strong!” my friend later told me.) Betty did not give up the check. My friend and I are a bit old school, and there is no way we would let an 82-year old woman pay for lunch so before she could get to her wallet, I handed the waiter my credit card along with a “look” that required no verbal explanation. He was off and Betty was pissed.
She admonished me, profusely.
I have no desire to upset an 82-year-old woman, so when she insisted we come back to her house for a minute before heading home, there was no back talk. We obliged. Once inside, she took us into a spare room and showed us a beautiful portrait of her parents that she has hanging on the wall. Her mother died shortly after she was born. Her father was too poor to care for her and with the help of his sister, brought Betty and her sister to the Industrial Home. After a few minutes of chatting, Betty disappeared into the hallway. A moment later she popped back into the bedroom carrying a short, pale blue, wool, winter coat.
“Here.” she said gently and handed me the coat, “I never wear it. It should fit you.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Puzzled, I looked deep into Betty’s sparkling blue eyes for clarity and in that instant, she gave me, a “look” that required no verbal explanation. I was humbled.
I took the coat from Betty and thanked her, profusely.
My lesson was learned. Old school or not, I would not disrespect this gesture. I would not say “no” to Betty twice in one day or perhaps, ever again.
In short, Betty’s story about growing up in the Industrial Home was indeed a heartbreaking one to hear but she is not broken and there is no bitterness in her words. “We did the best we could with what we had.” she said. Her attitude is remarkable and so is she. And I can only hope and pray to be like her, one day.
So yeah, I’m a “Bet-Nee“ Wanna-Bee.