Guilty. Death penalty.
The silence was profound in the lobby outside the appeals court where Susan sat with her oldest son, Matthew. The youngest of her boys waited before the judge, guilty. They knew it to be true. The list of offenses was long and the evidence undeniable – multiple counts of robbery, arson, murder. All to support Danny’s drug addiction.
The lawyer approached and shook hands with Matt. “The appeal was denied. I’m sorry.” Susan braced herself as the words rung in her ears yet again. She had heard and read variations of them so many times now; but it still gave her a split second of vertigo. She took a deep breath of stale air as she pushed to her feet. One foot in front of the other toward the exit into sunshine and life beyond. Let Matt deal with the details, let the lawyers play their games that took decades, let the death and destruction linger here in this dreadful place. She had made her peace with Danny’s fate years ago, her very sanity had depended on it. The unseen wound that never completely healed festered today; but Susan had survived much worse. At least today she was moving forward with closure. This was her final walk down this long corridor and back out into the living world.
The afternoon spring sky helped settle her. She sat on a bench with her face upturned as the sun’s warmth radiated through her closed eyelids. Slow inhale, slow exhale. Meditation techniques went skimming through her mind with little effect. Once again, she tried to reconcile the person that was capable of such horrendous acts with the little boy and preteen she had raised.
Her sons, less than two years apart in age, had been inseparable. Bike rides, fishing, ball games. Life had been normal then. Now, when she looked at Danny, she saw a stranger with dead eyes stare back at her. It truly felt like there was no soul left to him. But Matt still had hope of reaching his brother. Matt’s faith had seen them through the darkest of days. Matt’s love was unconditional, whereas Susan had said her goodbyes to the past.
The mother of a convicted serial killer… the label was woven into the seams of her being. Mother of cub scout of the year, mother of the valedictorian, mother of the groom, mother of a military chaplain. Mother of Matthew; these labels she wore with honor. But in this melodrama as the Mother of Daniel, her role was designated to victim – unseen, unheard, unacknowledged. The smudgy black label forever tarnished her spirit.
When Danny hung out with the wrong crowd in junior high, Matt had talked with him which seemed to be the end of it. But over summer break, while Matt was away, Danny took up with the same group of boys and they experimented with recreational drugs. For a few of them, experimentation escalated into addiction throughout high school. Once Matt graduated and began seminary, Danny quit school altogether and, with his friends, committed petty crimes for drug money. No amount of tough love from his mom or encouragement from Matt fazed Danny’s downward spiral. At first Susan comforted her constant heartache and fear with the thought that since Matt and Danny were close Danny would find his way back. Sooner or later, he would hit rock bottom and return to his family for help.
Rock bottom arrived in the form of a killing spree that ended with the death penalty.
It also led to this very moment in time, with Susan sitting outside on a courthouse bench absorbing the sun’s warmth. For a brief moment Susan considered turning west and just walking until she hit the ocean. Then taking a boat to the far side of the world and walking some more, all the way around in search of nothing, or something. Sooner or later, though, she knew that if she walked long enough she would end up exactly here again, in the same place she started. Living in two realities but belonging to neither.
The events of Danny’s life had polarized her choices. There was her life before the arrest, when he was only a petty thief and drug addict. Then life after the arrest, when he was a serial killer charged with heinous crimes.
She brushed at a few stray tears and stared at the world as it flitted past. People coming and going; normal people living normal lives. Soon Matt would come out and drive her to the center for her four o’clock session. There she would find her daily measure of peace and refocus her purpose.
Susan’s own journey through grief led her to open a counseling center for parents. The parents of maximum security prisoners. Each with their own identity to reclaim and hidden wounds to share. She helped provide a safe environment for those just like her. And it was enough.
Susan saw Matt as he descended the concrete steps coming in her direction. He held out his hand and reassured her with a smile as they moved forward into their next chapter of the future.
The week after Danny’s execution Susan received a piece of mail with no return address. Opening the envelope, she removed a small piece of torn paper from inside:
I’m sorry for the pain I caused you