All He Had To Do Was Turn Around

I’ve never been in prison. The closest I ever came was not related to any crime, but occurred when I was a UPS driver. The prison was a daily stop on my delivery route. I arrived mid-morning, and went through a security process that allowed me access to proceed down a hallway to the mail room.  It was during that short walk that I passed by a window giving full view of the inmates milling around in a recreation room.

I remember they were loud, and walked either with a slow shuffle or a swagger.  Some greeted each other with structured handshakes reminiscent of gang brotherhood. Others jostled each other with elbows and shoulders in a way that was rough, but full of camaraderie. And then there were the few men who appeared isolated from all groups. Perhaps they were–as I would learn—the “new fish” who had yet to find their place in the prison cliques. Or perhaps they were simply individuals who preferred their isolation. Looking through that window, it was hard to tell.

I don’t have a clue what life is like in prison. We’ve all heard stories, but they only give us a glimpse of what it’s like to live within the razor wire-surrounded walls.  What I do know is that going or not going to prison teeters on the one second difference between a wrongful or rightful decision.

*          *          *

One second.

I have a friend whose 18-year-old grandson, Derek, was recently sentenced to prison for a first-degree felony aggravated robbery charge. He and his buddy had the foolish idea to arm themselves with guns and rob an apartment occupied with several people.

One second was all that was required to stop in their tracks, turn around, and call it a day. But they didn’t.

Their plan was to barge in through the front door, point their weapons, yell a few expletive orders, then take the drugs and money, and run. Pretty straight forward.  Except they didn’t factor in a rifle pointing at them. Or being fired at, for that matter.

In the end, two people were killed. One was an occupant in the apartment, and the other was Derek’s buddy. Derek was lucky, though, and fled the scene with only a grazing shot to the leg, but was apprehended by the police just a few blocks away.

It was an irreversible moment as he was handcuffed and put in the police squad car. His soft-spoken and gentle good nature had gotten him entangled in his own ability to hang with any group of people. Be it the jocks, the geeks, the punks, or the wayward kids of mischief, he was intrigued by them all. Unfortunately, this time, he had hung with the wrong kid at the wrong time and place. While it was Derek’s choice to be there, he simply didn’t realize what he was getting into.

Although he never fired his gun, Derek’s involvement in the robbery proved catastrophic in terms of the prison sentence that justice dealt him…

Forty years.

*                 *                    *

Our lives are full of seconds, some of which have far greater repercussions than others.  How quickly one second was to become the darkest 40 years of his life. And it is that thought where my imagination wanders…

At night my mind travels to the prison that houses him. I choose nighttime, because that is when people are the most reflective. My wandering curiosity quietly enters the front doors, then slips past the security check point that grants access into the facility.  I meander through the hallways until I find Derek’s cell. I recognize him from newspaper articles that reported the botched robbery. He’s just brushed his teeth, and has climbed atop a bunk bed. Lights out. The entire prison settles in for the night.

My curiosity, though, is wide awake, and in need of answers. And it is there that my presumptive imagination finds them.

I stealthily perched at the end of his bed. Initially, there is some slight tossing and turning, which is normal during your first week in prison. But then, you lay still with your eyes gazing far, far beyond the ceiling. Into the night, as my mind freely travels, his, too, escapes. It goes home to his mother and sister—the two people he most dearly loves.  His dad has been out of the picture for years.

Derek sees them in the kitchen, eating beef stew together on a cold, snowy night. Frigid tree limbs tap against a window as they eat in silence. This used to be a kitchen that was the centerpiece for jovial conversations and sharing the events of the day. Now, it’s as if those days never existed. It is bleak. The slow pace at which they eat their stew is indicative not that the food is hot, but rather that something is missing—that something has been unfairly removed from their lives. They don’t understand why the law must be so strict. It all seems so unfair.  But the law is that if more than one person participates in a felony where death occurs, then all involved are equally responsible—even those who didn’t cause the death. Forty years is too long a time to wait, thinks Derek’s mother. I’ll be dead by then. 

It is a bittersweet place that he visits each night. But his fondest memories are all from his home. Either his mind goes there or remains back in prison, where he must listen to the late-night, psychotic laughter of his cellmate—a convicted rapist, who lies beneath on the lower bunk.  Unfortunately, it’s never easy blocking out reality.

I visited his cell to find an answer. To see what it was that he thought of most.

Loved ones and happiness.

The human body can turn 180 degrees in one second. He missed that opportunity, and will forever regret his decision.

May we all be so lucky to take some time to learn from his mistake…even if it’s just one second.


Copyright Ros Hill 2017



Goodbye, Ken Copeland

It’s 7:30PM and dark.

You sit in your car in the grocery store parking lot and stare at the side of the building, as the tears well in your eyes.  Cars and shoppers pass by, but nothing steals your attention.

Earlier in the day, you had a friend take a photo of yourself, standing by two large garbage dumpsters at your town’s Activity Center. In your hands were a pair of running shoes—the same running shoes you had written about in your previous story titled, Wonder. This photo was to accompany a follow-up story about finding your shoes—to tell your readers about how they had spent the last two weeks on the feet of a college student in Wharton, Texas.  About how the kid doesn’t even prefer running shoes, but much prefers boots.  After all, he’s going to school to be a certified welder.  You were going to tell the story about how you had left your shoes out by those dumpsters to dry in the sun after your morning run.  About how you had driven off and left them behind, only to be found by a man who would later give them to the kid from Wharton, who, just happened to be visiting the Activity Center that day.

And through a series of odd events and coincidental conversations, someone would recall the details of your description of your lost shoes, and surface with the answer of their whereabouts.

And then, today, your shoes arrived.  And you were all prepared to write the sequel to Wonder.

But, then, the details of that story became completely insignificant, as did the photo.

Because today, a friend of yours was killed in the line of duty.

*                    *                    *

I’ll wonder about Ken Copeland for a long, long time.  I’ll wonder about his wife and kids, but mostly his son, Nile, who I train, and is, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida. I’ll forever think back on Ken’s last words to me: “Ros, Nile loves you.  You’re the best with him”.  And how can I not stop thinking about his son, when you know fully well that “the best with him” will never be there to rub his hair for one last time?  How can I not think about Ken as he would marvel with Nile at his pet tarantula that has turned a slight hint of blue?

Four years ago, I met Ken for the first time when he was working routine security during my daughter’s high school basketball game.  The instant I saw his smile…that instant…I knew this guy had it—the gift.  He could lighten up any room with just his smile.  For ninety minutes, I stood with him at the end of the basketball court, and we talked like buddies who’d been separated for years.  The conversation flowed and never dipped into boredom.  I drilled him with endless questions about his experiences as a police officer, and he answered them as candidly as I never expected.  I just let him run with the stories.  And why not?  I mean, he was the model of sincerity.  Of committed fatherhood.  Of being just a great, great guy.

*                    *                    *

And so I parked my car outside the grocery store tonight and stared at the side of the building.  I needed a place to stop and let my eyes pour.  That’s where I started writing this story.  It’s where emotion was riding heavily on my shoulders at each tap of the keyboard.  It’s where I found myself wondering about the fragility of life and the cruelty that can harbor within it.

So much travels through your mind when you suddenly lose a friend.  So much emotion sweeps through you, that it becomes nearly impossible to handle.  But you aren’t his family, and that thought alone—thinking of them—just levels you.  And you aren’t Nile, and the helplessness just eats away at you because you don’t even know how to begin to offer your sympathy.  The kid’s rock was taken away from him, and all of us—to be forever missed.

Goodbye, Ken Copeland.  I’ll never stop wondering about you.

After all, you are a wonder.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017


The Accident

All it took was the unavoidable collision of his pickup truck into the side of the car that had pulled out in front of him.  He didn’t know it, but in the instant of steel violently kissing steel—that moment of sheer terror—he was about to rediscover just who he was.

Seventy-eight year old Sadie merely wanted to get home.  Four turns and she’d be there.  For 62 years, she’d never had an accident.  She’d nicked her bumpers on a few parking lot light posts, but nothing of any real significance to qualify as damaging.  The first turn required crossing three lanes of the highway.  Her car would barely make it past the first lane.

There was no time to accelerate.  No time to brake.  No time for prayer.  Time was up.  The pickup suddenly appeared.  How she hadn’t seen it, was beyond her.  But there it was at 60 mph, and horrifyingly unavoidable.  She braced herself for what might be her last day as the truck T-boned the rear driver’s side door, sending her car into a tail-spin.

Somewhere along the way a cervical vertebra in her upper neck and several ribs fractured, but it was her conscience that was absorbing the brunt of the hit.  The truck had gone airborne, and she could hear the terrifying roar of its engine as it lifted off the road. Dear God, what have I done? No matter the damages, no matter how minor or major the injuries, or how fatal an ending, she would be held responsible.  Especially in the worst case scenarios, her conscience would never rest, but forever be burdened with relentless and undeniable blame.

The pickup helicoptered counterclockwise for 360 degrees, before smashing into another pickup that had been waiting to turn left into where Sadie had pulled out.  In the ensuing silence that followed—after the glass and vehicle debris had settled, and fluids were forming puddles—three drivers sat in their vehicles in shock and uncertain what their immediate conditions were.

Thomas, the 38-year-old driver of the pickup that had hit Sadie, wiped deployed airbag powder and glass fragments off of his arms. There were a few lacerations near his wrists and forearms, but nothing serious. His door opened without difficulty, but the passenger’s side door was a different story.  It was nearly bent in half due to a heavy, direct hit from the front of the second pickup. Thomas could see the other pickup’s driver who, miraculously, smiled and gave a thumbs up.  He returned the same gesture, then swung his legs out before standing.  Inspecting his truck, and then giving himself a full look-over he said, “What a miracle.”

Then he remembered the woman.

He remembered her look just before impact: sorrowful eyes, a heavy brow, and downturned lips. The look of someone lost in fright and remorse.  The back half of Sadie’s car was practically unrecognizable. It was mangled, crumpled and twisted, and would have been the death sentence for her granddaughter who had opted out of the ride to grandma’s house.  There was no sign of Sadie as Thomas approached her car.  He looked around to see if she might have been ejected, but then heard a moaning sound. On her side, and in the passenger’s seat, lay Sadie.

“Ma’am,” said Thomas, “Are you okay?”

“My neck.  Something’s wrong with it.”

“Well, don’t move.  I’m calling 9-1-1 now.”

“How’s the man in the pickup? I pulled out in front of him.  I just didn’t see him coming.  Dear, God, I—”.

“Ma’am, I’m okay.”

“Jesus Christ. I hit you?” she said, in a voice overcome with emotion. “And you’re walking?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m fine.”

“Are there other people? Was anyone hurt?”

“There’s only one other man, but he’s okay.  I hit his truck after yours.”

“Oh, my God, what have I done?”

Thomas leaned into the car and took Sadie’s hand.  She responded, squeezing tightly. “Please don’t let go,” she said, “I need you to understand how sorry I am.  Are you certain no one else was hurt?”

“It was just us three.  No one else.  You’re banged up the most, so let’s focus on you, okay?”

“Please don’t leave me.” she said. “Please stay with me. I don’t want to be left alone.”

“Ma’am, my name is Thomas, and I’m not leaving you.”

“I’m Sadie, and I know you’re not. I’m not going to let go of your hand.”

*                 *                *

Thomas was 12 miles away from his double-wide mobile home which sat on a two-acre plot of land that he had purchased years ago.  It was bought with the full intention of being a temporary residence while he built his dream house—a small house, a simple house, and a place to dream of one day becoming his very own.  But life got in the way, filled with a history of poor decisions.  There was a time when his carpentry skills were paving the way for financial stability. It was a time when work was abundant, because word had spread quickly about just how gifted he was.

And just as quickly, or so it seemed, he lost touch with nearly everything.  Mounting debts and a failed relationship splintered any hopes of fulfilling his dream.  Once he lost his focus and drive, the carpentry business went as well. There would be too many long nights when he couldn’t sleep, and would sit outside in an old aluminum lawn chair.  He’d gaze at the stars and wondered how was it even possible that in a universe so overwhelmingly expansive, his life could be of any value. And, yet, how real it was that his feeling of worthlessness could overpower its vast enormity.

He’d once met a woman—his first love.  They’d met at a carnival—just two people strolling on their own around the amusement rides.  By chance, they had been seated together on a Ferris wheel.  Small talk led to laughter, which led to a hotdog stand, which led to exchanging phone numbers.  Two months later, she moved in with him, and two months after that she moved out.  No explanation of any kind, just an ambiguous hand-written note, succinct enough to crack his heart.


 Just finding a pen to write this is more burdensome than I could ever imagine.  Trust me, the pain is deeper than the cut I’m now giving you.  I have a past that you have no knowledge of, and it will forever remain so.  I never intended for things to end as they are.  I can only wish you the best with whatever comes your way.  Hopefully, it’ll be someone of far greater worth than I.


The note was forever indelibly trapped in his brain, and for no one to see, but him.  To the end of the earth it would follow him.  Even measured against the size of the universe, it would always be larger.  Three o’clock in the morning, and sitting in that old aluminum chair, he’d wonder not so much about how far away or how many stars there were, but rather what was it about himself that couldn’t keep her grounded next to him. It wasn’t a matter of her mysterious past that was to blame, instead, it was him.

He was 12 miles away from home, and thinking of nothing more than what his life had become: a day-to-day realization that he had reached a point of little value.  His self-worth, like everything else around him, had crumbled.  So, he thought, this is life at the bottom.

And then he hit Sadie.

*                    *                    *

Inside the ambulance, a paramedic secured Sadie in the portable cot. She was wearing a cervical neck brace, and was holding Thomas’s hand as he sat next to her.  Though he said he felt fine, it was suggested he still get checked out at the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Somewhere along the way—far back down the road before the accident—Thomas lost touch with what he was capable of. He had lost sight of what made him a great carpenter, and instead only saw the pitfalls of his life that were clouding any chance of returning to the man he once was. While taking responsibility for Sandra’s leaving didn’t help matters, in the ambulance, an unexpected change was taking place—a resurgence of self-worth.

Hardly a word was spoken between the two during the trip to the hospital, and hardly a word was needed.  Though Sadie’s mind was a whirlwind of disbelief, regret, and sorrow, there was the newfound sensation of peace as well.  There was no doubt that the accident, and everything it entailed, was her fault, but no one had been seriously injured.  That was something she could very much live with.  Vehicle damages mattered none, as they could be repaired or replaced.  Shattered lives don’t share that luxury.

And there Thomas sat, holding the hand of someone he knew nothing about. He noticed dirt under her nails, and asked if she were a gardener.  “All my life,” she said. “Nothing beats working with your hands.”  The carpenter in Thomas couldn’t agree more.   Was Sadie, in some unknowing way, sending him a message?  What if, he thought, the collision was more than just an accident? 

At times, when the ambulance went over even a slight bump in the road, he could feel her grip tighten, needing the reassurance that he was still there—that he wasn’t going to leave her—that things would be okay.  She had made a horrible mistake, but needed his acceptance in forgiving that mistake.  Without uttering a word, Thomas did just that, and wrapped both of his hands comfortingly around hers before watching the tears drop from her eyes.

Indeed, the universe is big, he thought, smiling.  And with plenty of room to make a difference.


Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Power On

It’s December 31st in far north Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border. As I drive, I think about Alicia and all that she’s been through.  How do you even begin to cope with such an ordeal, let alone comprehend it?

My thoughts are interrupted by fifteen motorcyclists merging onto I-35—all riding high-speed, aerodynamic sport cycles known as “crotch rockets”.  The moment they hit the highway is the moment all of us driving south become part of their lawlessness.  Two lanes become four lanes as they pass cars and semi-trailer trucks on both shoulders.  One motorcyclist is laying horizontal on his seat as he speeds between cars, riding along the broken white line lane divider. His legs are outstretched with one hand on the handlebar and the other pumping a fist in the air as if declaring some sort of victory.  Another cyclist is riding a wheelie at the same speed traffic is moving.  To play in this game of highway anarchy means you have to be invincible, indestructible, and lucky this isn’t your day to die.  Whether you’re lucky or not is something Alicia is all too familiar with.  She understands a 20-year-old’s thrill to play with speed, but one careless mistake could easily result in a jack-knifed semi, a 10-car pile-up, and who knows how many fatalities and life-threatening injuries.  But what do you care?  After all, you’re going to live forever.

It’s one thing to live in the moment; it’s another thing to want to live beyond that moment, and to know why.

Alicia knows about the fragility of life and how quickly it can end or be permanently changed. Recently she’s been the recipient of far too many unbearable moments. Heavy moments where many of us might have said, “No more,” and surrendered the fight. But if you’re fortunate enough, you might get to see things as Alicia does.  Put one foot in front of the other. Keep walking. Power on.

Alicia shows up in an email from your sister-in-law in Michigan, sent to you the night before encountering the motorcyclists. She’s her co-worker. Just when you thought that long line of holiday shoppers was enough to inconvenience your day; just when you thought the crust you burnt on the edge of the pumpkin pie was enough to kill Christmas dinner; just when you thought your sore hamstring muscle had dealt you a losing hand, you sit speechless, having read about Alicia’s year. Life is full of unwelcome events and circumstances.  But sometimes the load can be so overbearing, its weight just stamps you into the ground.  And there you remain, unable to rise because, quite simply, it’s just too much to handle.

Alicia thinks otherwise.  Her past two years…

March 2015

Her younger sister, Leanne, commits suicide from an overdose of Xanax in her mom’s house.  Her mom blames herself for not checking on her. Alicia had been working with her sister to overcome depression.  Alicia’s reaction is extreme anger at Leanne for having done this to her mom, let alone in her house.

April 2016

Alicia’s newly married daughter, Kendra, goes unconscious at the wheel, causing her car to run against a concrete divider, shredding her tires in the process until her car comes to a stop.  A virus had set up camp in her heart.  The entire incident is witnessed by a fire chief and a construction worker.  CPR is administered immediately, but the virus is stubborn and unwilling to give her a pulse.  The EMS station is nearby which makes the ambulance’s arrival within minutes.  Three electrical shock attempts later with the defibrillator and she is revived. Who are these people?  Where am I? What the hell has happened to me? All questions to be answered by the attending physicians.  But for now, time is of the essence.  Kendra goes into surgery to have a pacemaker/defibrillator installed.  And just when she thinks she’s heard it all, she is informed that due to her condition, she will never be able to give birth.

May 2016

The ailing heart theme is unrelenting (and will return). Alicia’s older sister has a heart attack and stroke.

June 2016

As her daughter recuperates from surgery and adjusts to a changed life, Alicia is diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer.  She goes through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but due to intense burns, the radiation is stopped early.

October 2016

Alicia’s mom suffers complications from a compound vertebrae fracture, leading to abdominal hemorrhaging, and then dies from cardiac arrest.

November 2016

Alicia has surgery for a permanent colostomy bag. But the procedure leads to a handful of problems, most notably is a nerve that has been “disturbed” in her bladder. Catheterization is required for weeks until the urologist can figure out the culprit.

December 2016

Alicia’s older sister dies from a second heart attack.

Alicia has a permanent port installed for future chemo infusions. Every two weeks she undergoes hours of treatments to allow seepage to enter a bag attached to the port.  The permanency of the port means for the rest of her life she’ll be required to have contrast X-rays to make sure the cancer doesn’t spread any more than it already has.

2016 was a year to forget.  Adding insult to injuries, ailments, and suffering, there is the laborious necessity of dealing with her health insurance coverage.  Though the Obamacare plan did not offer her a renewal, she would not be where she is today if she had not had it. She has since spent endless hours trying to find an insurance company that will approve the doctors and specialists she has had.

It wasn’t until I gave Alicia a phone call to ask about the details of her past two years that I felt the weight of her anguish.  I had already written a part of this story based on my sister-in-law’s email. I read it to Alicia to see if she approved of its direction.  When I finished, there was silence.  The emotional chord I had touched was, understandably, deeply sensitive. She didn’t just lose her sister to an overdose, she also lost her in all her attempts to show that this world is worth hanging around for. She did her best to keep Leanne from going the wrong direction, but in the end it was her sister’s will to release herself from this life that proved too strong.

Here was a woman I had never talked to, but as I listened to her and as I shared what I had written, I couldn’t stop thinking of my very first story called “Sterling Spirit”. All of the emotions that poured from me when I wrote about the tragic death of 7-month-old Sterling Archer Nesbitt had surfaced again. All I had intended to accomplish calling Alicia was to gather the facts. I had no idea how the depth of her story would affect me; how I would be so drawn to the magnitude of her exhausting two years.

Tragedy is inescapable amongst us all. It harbors in the darkest corners and often shows no warning. Those who can rise up against tragedy intrigue me more than anything, and I could tell Alicia possessed that quality. There were telling signs in her voice—cadence, inflection and, believe it or not, humor—that indicated she was a fighter. It’s rare that you meet someone who has had the type of year that Alicia has had. It’s even rarer for that person to maintain a positive attitude. Despite the chemo, radiation burns, bladder issues, colostomy, insurance hell, and family deaths, her level of optimism remains high. The doctors and nurses who have had her as a patient couldn’t agree more.

Before our conversation ended, I had one last question: “How have you been able to handle all of this?”

“I have my kids, and my co-worker Patt, to thank for helping me get through everything, though it’s hardly over.  My family has been my greatest support.” Her voice paused with emotion before gathering herself, then said, “How did I get here? All that has happened—how did I become a part of this? I guess it doesn’t matter since I really have only one option, and that is to power on. It’s really all you can do.”

Alicia’s prognosis is good. The doctors feel confident her treatments will be successful, and that she’ll begin to see some daylight. And, who knows, hopefully 2017 will be a year to be remembered.


Copyright Ros Hill 2017