Statement to The Court, SLO County

My last post on this blog was in early June of 2014, shortly after the death of my former fiancé Leigh Binder. I found myself grieving deeply for him both during his swift decline from a brain tumor and in the aftermath of his death from it, crying at work every day, having to leave early on more than one occasion, even taking “mental health” sick days. His death was so sudden, coming at a time when we were both still getting used to thinking of each other as “friend” rather than “partner,” that it felt like he’d never left the home he had shared with me and my son Jackson in California for four years.

As difficult as those weeks were, if I’d known then what was to come, I can only imagine how I might have spent that time instead. Those of you who know me personally already know what I’m going to say next. For those of you who don’t, consider this an update of my life since then, as well as an explanation of my abrupt absence from writing here.

On June 18th, two weeks after Leigh died, my son Jackson was driving home from the YMCA when a car coming the other way driven by a young man, under the influence of heroin and meth, crossed over the center line and hit Jackson’s car head-on. Jackson died at the scene. He was 18 years old, and had just graduated from high school. He was my only child.

It’s been almost three years now and I’ve only recently begun to write again, if you don’t count my regular journal/diary entries. I am taking tentative steps in the direction of writing about what happened and my life as a result. We’ll see how it goes.

It took over two and a half years from the time of the car crash for the defendant to plead “no contest” to the charge of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter by an Intoxicated Person. The sentencing hearing occurred on Monday, March 20th, 2017. Jackson’s friends and family were invited to speak to the court. Below is the statement I read on this occasion: (for the time being, anything I post here will remain closed to comments.)

I didn’t want to come here today. I’ve dreaded it as long as I’ve known it was going to happen, because I didn’t want to have to see the man who killed my son. I didn’t want to see his parents, to look into the eyes of his mother and see what? Pity, anger, remorse? Relief? How would I feel if I were Alexander’s mother? How would I live with what my son did? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I can tell you without a doubt that however sorry she is for what her son did, she wouldn’t trade places with me for anything in the world. Because even though her son did a terrible thing, he is alive. He will get a second chance to live in the free world, to work, to fall in love, to have children of his own, to find something to be passionate about. And no mother in her right mind would sacrifice that for anything or anyone else.

Jackson would barely recognize me if he could see me now. I haven’t been able to return to work, and am on the verge of tears at all times. I can barely talk about my son to others, nor can I bring myself to go through his personal belongings, except to dig through his dirty laundry periodically to find a new piece of clothing with his scent on it that I can hold close and breathe in. My best friend is my grief counselor. I feel, at the same time, both empty and full: Empty because of what was so violently ripped away from me and I can never replace, and full of something that doesn’t even have a word in the English language to describe it, it is so far beyond sorrow or anguish. I don’t know who I am anymore, because for 18 years, I was Jackson’s mom. I was a daughter, a sister, a friend. A woman and a writer. I’m still those things, but every single relationship in my life has been affected by my son’s death. I’ve lost friends, become estranged from family, and fumbled my way in then out again of potentially loving and life-affirming new relationships. It was Jackson more than anything or anyone who gave my life purpose and meaning, who brought me joy and laughter. Without him, I’m just plain lost.

I live in Los Osos. The cemetery is on one end of town, and on the other is the stretch of S. Bay Blvd where Jackson had the misfortune to be at 5:05 p.m. on June 18, 2014. I can’t go in either direction without passing either the place he died or the place he is buried. As I look out the window of my condo onto what I believed, until June 18th 2014 to be a little paradise, I see boys from the neighborhood riding past on their bicycles and I think, “That should be Jackson.” I see a car drive by with a surfboard on the roof and I think, “That should be Jackson.” I see a young couple stroll past arm in arm, laughing and self-conscious, and I think “That should be Jackson.” When I see a teenage paraplegic in a wheelchair being pushed by his mother, I think, “I’d take that.” When I read about a young man with brain damage learning to walk and talk all over again, I think, “I’d take that.” If I could die so that he would live again, I’d take that too. Gladly I would take that.

I can’t tell you what Jackson would say, but I know what he was. Jackson was intelligent, kind, philosophical and inquisitive. He had a strong sense of responsibility beyond his years, a lively sense of humor, and an abundantly generous heart. He loved animals and nature, and believed passionately in our responsibility as humans to protect and care for our environment and all its creatures. He dreamed of traveling to faraway places, making a difference in the world, and experiencing new people, cultures and ideas. He loved to play chess and board games, to ride his bike, to hang out with his friends and play video games. He enjoyed road trips, especially to Yellowstone National Park where we went every summer from the time he was 3 years old. He was learning to surf. He had just enrolled in Cuesta College, where he planned to study Psychology, and then join the Peace Corps. He loved his family, and was a friend to many without regard to social or economic status, age, sex, mental or physical abilities, skin color, or religion. Jackson treated all people with kindness and respect, the way he wished to be treated, and he always spoke up for the underdog. He was loyal to a fault. He was a gentle soul and a free spirit. He wasn’t a planned child, but he was the greatest gift I could have ever asked of this life.

What would Jackson want for Alexander Gonzales, who chose to take meth and heroin before getting behind the wheel of a car, who knew he was an addict, who knew he was a danger to others and could have prevented that car crash from happening? I’m sure he’d want him to be held accountable for his actions. You can’t go through life expecting other people to clean up your messes. At 18, Jackson knew this. He knew this when he was 6. And if you do a bad thing, if you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry and you do everything you can to make it right, and never do it again. He’d want him to stop using drugs. He’d want our justice system to treat his addiction as everybody’s problem, not just his. He’d want him to contribute something positive and useful to society. He’d want him to do something to help someone else out of a dark and hopeless situation. He’d want him to be sorry for what he has done.

Then he would look at me, this boy who always erred on the side of forgiveness. He taught me more about being patient, tolerant and open-minded than I ever taught him. He would want me to find a way to forgive Alexander Gonzales, not so much because it would help Gonzales, who for all I know doesn’t care or need anyone’s forgiveness, but because it would help me. To live with hatred and resentment in your heart is to let the trespass committed against you consume you. It crowds out the love that belongs there, and victimizes you again and again. Jackson wouldn’t want that for me, he wouldn’t want me to suffer any more than I’m already suffering as a result of his death, because he loved me. Because he knew how much I loved him. So I’ve tried, and I’ll continue to try, and maybe one of these days I’ll get there. It’s the second biggest challenge I have ever faced. The first one is living without Jackson. It’s been 1,006 days since he died, and every single one of those days has been hell for me.

We all will live with this for the rest of our lives. Alexander Gonzales will live with whatever punishment the court sees fit. He, his parents and his doctors will live with their consciences. I will live without my son, and the world will live without the intelligent, creative, generous and optimistic young citizen that was Jackson Garland. We will all suffer as a result of what happened, and we are all diminished as human beings by it. There is no victory here for anyone.

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