Two years ago, I buried my firstborn son the day before Mother’s Day. Since losing him, there have been a myriad of agonizing emotions and unsettling experiences in the aftermath of his tragic death. My story isn’t comfortable or easy to read, but it is what has happened, and I feel it has become my mission to tell my experience of surviving after my precious son, Zachary Spoolstra, was killed by a drunk driver. This has been an awful journey, one that I would not wish on my worst enemy.
Hearing the news from the police officer that my son had been hit and killed by a drunk driver felt like a bullet through my heart. I sank to the floor, my body losing all of its strength, my lungs emptying in a pain-filled groan, my stomach churning with nausea, my hands cradling my face as I sobbed, trying to keep this horrible reality out. I attempted to stand but my body remained a pile of skin and bones on the floor. I wanted to get up and to run, away from this horrible news and from this awful pain that pierced my heart and soul to its core. I knew I couldn’t escape it and I grieved as only a mother who has lost a child would understand. I knew this pain, this sorrow, this emptiness, this Zach-shaped hole in my heart was going to be a part of me for the rest of my life.
Can this be real? My mind repeated over and over as I participated in all the immediate decisions and events that follow losing a loved one. Casket, flowers, headstone, funeral, cemetery, and a whirlwind of other decisions all had to be made. There were brief moments of solace when hundreds of friends and family attended his funeral to honor his life and memory, a testament to the impact my son had on those around him. But unlike many who were able to get their “closure” to this horrid event and emotionally put it all to rest, the agony I have been forced to endure had only just begun.
It wasn’t long before I had to attend the beginning of many court hearings and mediations, the sentencing, and eventually the probation hearing. I felt a deep desire to be at every court appointment because my son could not. I had to be his representation, his defense, his voice. I had to stand for his honor and ensure that he would not be forgotten. Every appointment was such a traumatic, emotional experience because they evoked and triggered every emotion I had already experienced surrounding the death of my boy.
Each time I went to court I also had to sit close to or right behind Joshawa, the drunk driver who killed Zach. Seeing Joshawa filled me with excruciating anguish. Even now, trying to describe it I cannot capture in words the inescapable, inaccessible pain that had nestled so deep within me. A pain that no doctor could ever treat, a place so untouchable that God alone was the only being who could help.
Instead of a trial, which would have been a lengthier and more demanding process for all of us, a mediation hearing was agreed upon. I didn’t want to draw it out and for some reason, despite the awful pain that seeing and being next to Joshawa had evoked in me, the hurt never turned to anger. For some reason, God had opened my eyes and helped me to see Joshawa as if he were my own son.
If this were my son, what would I want for him? I would want him to have a consequence large enough to learn a lesson. I would want him to experience true repentance by apologizing to the others he had hurt, and then to change his life so he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Through the entire mediation and following sentencing and probation hearing, I was hoping to see these elements in Joshawa: penitent man who was truly sorry for the immense damage his crime had created in my family’s lives. Despite my wishes, I never saw him give a compassionate look, nor was there even a quiver of emotion in Joshawa’s voice as he eventually pleaded guilty to hitting and killing my child. My anguish grew, learning that after hitting Zach, Joshawa, a doctor, had never even walked over to offer aid to my dying son. Every time I see Joshawa now, my mind plays out the last moments of my son's life; Joshawa staying in his car while my son bled to death in the middle of the road.
In mediation, there was an agreed upon amount of time in prison, which was 3.5 years fixed and 8.5 years of probation. At least there was a significant punishment for killing Zach, I thought at the conclusion of the mediation. The sentencing was scheduled and I waited patiently for the date to arrive. I thought non-stop about the mediation agreement, and I hoped that during the sentence being served, he would find the sorrow and compassion I wanted to see in him. Believing that Joshawa would be spending at least 3.5 years in prison made me feel that the state took this crime seriously and had delivered an adequate punishment, that my son’s life had value, and that the court recognized the awful pain of separation my family and I would have to endure until we see him again.
When I arrived at the sentencing, I was surrounded by friends and family. All of my remaining children had taken the time to write emotional impact statements that they each read aloud during the sentencing. When I stood to give my victim impact statement, I noticed Judge Southworth never looked at me. I even held a picture of my son Zach, as a visual reminder of why we were all there. He said, “I’ve already seen it, I don’t need to see it again.”
When Joshawa stood to speak, I was maddened by Judge Southworth’s attentiveness and eye contact. I felt Judge Southworth gave more respect to Joshawa than he gave to me and my family in our statements. His neglect to hear us in the same manner as the offender— hurt. I struggled to not be overcome with emotion as the sentencing proceeded.
At the conclusion of the sentencing, Judge Southworth announced that Joshawa would only spend a max of one year in a rehabilitation prison, with an evaluation at six months to see whether he needed to serve another six months. I immediately felt victimized. This was not the mediation agreement we had reached. This minimizing of the sentencing we had agreed upon made me feel as though the court saw little value in my son’s life, that the court’s decision lessened the severity of the crime Joshawa had committed, and that the court didn’t acknowledge the immense impact Zach’s death would have on me and my family for the rest of our lives.
Six months passed quickly, and Judge Southworth did just as he said he would for Joshawa at the probation hearing—he released him on probation. What a traumatic, disappointing, and soul-crushing experience it was to have justice for my Zach ripped away. Judge Southworth’s decision seemed to solely benefit the drunk driver who had killed my son, and did nothing to recognize, help, comfort, or validate Zach or the many family and friends who were traumatized by Joshawa’s actions.
Someone that is a Facebook friend with Joshawa, told me recently that he just announced his engagement to his girlfriend, who I saw with him at court. It is easy to see the imbalance of justice, when because of Joshawa’s actions, Zach’s ability to make these same life choices and have these same experiences have been ruined by Joshawa, and yet here Joshawa is already moving forward in life, smiling in his engagement pictures, appearing as though nothing has happened. I wonder does Joshawa even think about Zach? Does he feel bad that he took Zach’s life? Does he understand how many people’s lives he has broken because of this one choice to drink and then drive?
When May hit this year, I was mentally preparing that this was going to be a difficult month. Not only is it Mother's Day, but also the anniversary of Zach’s death. It has also become the first month that I started to receive restitution payments that were ordered to be paid by Joshawa as part of his sentencing. I saw the envelope come in the mail and after reading where it came from and then knowing what it was, I dropped it like a hot iron. My instinct was to run from it, not willing to deal with the emotional trauma this physical piece of paper represented: that Zach was in fact really gone, and that this was the ONLY acknowledgement I had from Joshawa that he needed to make things right. I left it alone until I gathered the strength to finally open it up. Two humiliating $27.50 checks were made out to me as restitution payment for my son, and would be made monthly for the next 7-8 years. I was hoping a letter or note would be included in the envelope with Joshawa expressing his sorrow to me privately instead of to a courtroom of strangers. The checks were alone however, cold and impersonal, like money sent to a bill collector.
My mind shouted, No amount of money is worth the life of my child! I grieved while holding on to these two checks, tears flowing freely as my broken-heart ripped open again, feeling no comfort, no validation, and no hope. I hated this blood money in my hands. I hated that it was proof that Zach was gone. I ached for him more than ever, wishing that I could go back in time and save Zach from this fate and change this miserable existence of life without him.
Instead, here I am, still nursing my broken heart that will never be healed in this life, groping with the imbalance of justice that was served, struggling to establish a new normal in my life that doesn’t include my beautiful son, Zach, and still reeling from the reality that the man who killed him is already out of prison.