May 24, 2014

Still Here

A few weeks after we got married I was reading Shawn’s patriarchal blessing. I came to a line that said, “Your mission on earth will be to help heal your family.” The same exact words I had felt in the temple before we met was also a phrase he had read hundreds of times about himself. It seemed so simple that God would have an antidote for our family’s past. He had given Shawn a gift to receive answers about how to help us heal. I got chills all over my body as I reread that line over and over. I felt reassured and lifted by that promise my Heavenly Father had sent to me, and had another confirmation that it would come true.   

A few days later, we were out running some errands as a family. On the way home, we drove past a Walgreens. One of the girls asked if that was where their dad was killed. I got a pit in my stomach, and considered pretending I didn’t hear her. “Nope,” I replied, “that is not the Walgreens. That is just a store . . . see all the people going in and out?”

I had heard these questions while driving alone in the car with the kids, but with Shawn by my side, I had a whole new apprehension about how I should answer them. I was nervous that he would tire of their panic-stricken questions and eventually wouldn’t be able to take it anymore.

And then came the question that always inevitably followed, “Well, Mom, then when can we go to the one where Daddy died?” I blew her off and finally reached the point where I pretended I didn’t hear what was being asked. There was no way I was ever going to entertain that idea.

The questions seemed to disappear as that Walgreens faded from our view. I settled in my seat, grateful that no one pushed me further to answer the request.

However, all of the sudden, another Walgreens glared at us through the car windows and a similar conversation from a different child began. Shawn leaned over to me and calmly said, “I know you don’t ever want to go to THE Walgreens, but maybe we should stop and show the kids which one it is so they can have their questions answered. Maybe it will help them relax and not ask you about it every time we pass one of their stores.”

Now the pit in my stomach seemed to be eating my insides, and I freaked out. “NO . . . Shawn, we can’t go there . . . we . . . that is so not happening . . . EVER. Please just be quiet about it, I can’t . . . we aren’t . . . that is . . . NO . . . I don’t want to ever go there. That is a stupid idea, and we will not be doing it.” I folded my arms in anger and turned my body toward the window, so he wouldn’t be able to see my face.

In his patient wisdom, Shawn grabbed my hand and said, “I really feel that it might help the kids find some peace from their fear of all Walgreens. … Hey it might even be good for you to see that it is just a store . . . like we keep telling them.”

Tears started to fall down my cheeks as I pictured stepping foot onto the ground where Emmett’s body had fallen. But, I knew Shawn was right, and in that moment, I almost hated him for it. I stared out the window as we drove a few more blocks, my eyes brimming with fear-filled tears. Instead of my plan to avoid and pretend that THE Walgreens didn’t exist . . . now Shawn’s idea was to take all of the kids there? It seemed preposterous to my poor heart, and I couldn’t even wrap my head around entertaining the very idea.

I envisioned the Walgreens that now haunted my dreams. I could almost see the yellow tape surrounding the scene of the crime. I pictured Emmett’s and Rob’s trucks and Kandi’s car parked nearby. I pictured the gun; I could almost hear the sound of it blasting through the air. In slow motion, I pictured the bullets piercing Emmett’s flesh; I could hear Kandi screaming. I could see Emmett’s body lying on the ground covered in blood. I could hear the sirens and see the people rushing everywhere, trying to piece together all of the facts. I pictured the roadblocks with cop cars lining the streets. I could almost hear the detectives talking about their preparations to come over to my house to tell me that my husband was dead. I could imagine the fear that stirred inside them as they left Emmett’s lifeless body to come and find me, wondering how to break the news to me.

I thought about the urgent knocking on my door and carrying my heavy body towards it. I pictured opening it to see three strangers who held inside of them all the answers to my past questions . . . and the truth about my future.  I could almost hear them again, describing in bits and pieces the events that had transpired at THE parking lot.  

All the details of the power that Walgreens had over me that night were replayed on the movie projector in my mind. It was as if someone had flipped the switch that turned it on, and once it began, there didn’t seem to be any way to turn it back off. Like a flame held to a firework, just the thought of that store brought out an explosion of every emotion I had felt on that dark night.

The thought of going to Walgreens on purpose was so scary. How could that help me heal, when just the thought of it brought me so much pain? I had vowed I would never go there; I had no desire to even entertain the thought of going there as long as I lived.

I wiped away a few more tears, which were now being shed along with my pride. How could I allow myself to let it go? I was so scared that Shawn’s idea was exactly what I needed.  As much as I was fighting it, I knew he was right. I looked over at my new husband and as the tears continued to fall down my cheeks, I humbly made a decision. “You are right, Shawn. WE have to go. I am so scared, and I don’t want to do this . . . but they deserve to see where their dad died . . . don’t they? Since he died, I have told them that we will never be going there, and there is no reason they should even think about that place . . . but we do. It’s all we think about some days, like it’s controlling every decision I make. It isn’t going to go away, is it?”

He grabbed my hand again. “Jordyn and I will wait in the car. You guys can get out and take as much time as you need. We will be right here.”

Within a few minutes we were parked in the Walgreens parking lot. I wasn’t sure exactly where Emmett’s body had fallen, but I had been given enough facts to know which side of the building was the site of those grim events.

Shawn parked the car. My heart wanted to fight its way out of my body. I could not breathe. I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the night the detectives sat with me on my couch, and I had a one-million-pound weight sitting on my chest. “What if Rob WAS still there?” The question that had been asked a million times by my children now danced around inside of me. “What if SHE was still there?” My eyes darted around the parking lot to scan it for any sign of her.

My foot hit the pavement and soon I found myself opening the doors on each side of the car so the kids could hop out. Ty was asleep so I left him in his car seat; and Kaleeya said she didn’t want to go. One by one, Teage, Bostyn, and Bailey piled out of the car. We held hands and crossed the parking lot. There were a few cars, but for the most part, the lot was pretty empty.

Emmett’s truck was not there, as I had pictured it in my mind. There was no yellow tape to barricade us from the scene of the murder. I couldn’t see “Kandi’s” license plate parked in any of the stalls. It was just a big, empty parking lot. To the normal person . . . no one would ever suspect that someone’s world had been shattered on that very pavement.

The kids started picking up papers and rummaging around through anything they found on the ground. They were speaking a thousand words per minute. They said things like: “Look, here is a bag . . . maybe it got shot out of his hands. Look here is a piece of paper, maybe he left us a note on it. Put all this stuff in your pockets . . . what if it was his?”

They looked all around the concrete for signs of his blood; they circled around any stain on the ground they could find, and talked about it belonging to him. They shuffled together around the building looking for any clues Emmett might have left for them.

Tears fell down my face as I watched my little babies searching for a sign. They didn’t cry, or get mad . . . they weren’t even looking for Rob . . . they were just looking for hope. They were praying that they could find something of their father’s to hold on to. 

I finally started to wonder about exactly what they were thinking, and I gathered them close to me. “Hey guys. What is it we’re looking for?”

Teage yelled out, “MOM . . . maybe he is still here?”

I fell to my knees. By this time we were at the back of the store, far from the location where their dad had died. They all moved in closer and I scooped them around me with my arms. “Sweethearts, Dad is not here. He is not going to be here. This is where he died, but we aren’t going to find him no matter how many times we walk around this building. I am so proud of you guys for being brave enough to come here today. Daddy isn’t going to be here, but I bet you his spirit is here with us right now watching us miss him so much.”

Each of them had tears in their eyes. We found our way to the backside of the building and sat on the ground with our backs against it. The twins began to whisper, “Daddy, this is where you died . . . and we have wanted to come here so we can find you . . . but you aren’t here Daddy.” Teage chimed in, “Dad . . . I don’t know if you can hear me . . . but I found your bag . . . and I will keep it safe for you. Your bag is safe now Dad, there are no bad guys here anymore. Nobody has a gun. I think it is just a store now.”

We each took turns talking about what we missed and loved about Emmett, good memories from the past. They talked about Shawn and Jordyn and the new hope we had been finding. They whispered messages to their dad of the love they had for him, and the love they were finding since his death.

They continued sharing their thoughts with him for a few more minutes: “Daddy, we miss you. … Why did you have to leave us? … I am sorry you got shot here, Daddy. … We wish we could talk to you and see your face. … We love you Daddy.”

On the backside of the Walgreens—where their dad was murdered—I sat and cried with my babies. We did not fear as we searched for hope. All the anger that still raged inside of me seemed to leave for a brief moment as I listened to the loving words my children whispered to their dad. We didn’t talk about Rob’s or Emmett’s mistakes . . . we cried for the pain that our fear of that store had brought us.

A part of me healed that day. Walgreens WAS just a store. Kandi and Rob weren’t there. There were no bad guys with guns waiting for me. There was no yellow tape mapping out where the crime had taken place. All the questions that had stirred up my home were answered. For the first time my children’s question, “What if he is still there?” had an answer. Rob wasn’t still there, Kandi wasn’t still there, and neither was Emmett.

That parking lot didn’t hold on to the fear of its past; it just carried on as if no one had ever tragically died there. If that parking lot could let go of all it had seen, I hoped that one day, we could let go of the painful story it had written inside our hearts.  

My children truly thought Emmett was going to be waiting for them. Like in a video game where the hero resuscitates after dying, I think they thought their dad would just pop up again. They had hoped that he would be lying there, and that their love would give him the energy he needed to breathe again. They wished that the genie from Aladdin would come and grant them a wish to undo their past.

No miracles happened that day to bring anyone back to life or to erase the past, but the miracle of healing a dark pain began its journey. That day, I realized that my little angels were not only going to be brave enough and capable enough of finding true healing from our tragedy . . . but that they were also going to pave the way for me to do the same.

Just like their box of hope to send to “The people of Japan,” they still searched for hope in this world. Their faith was powerful and their encouragement for me to be brave was empowering.

That night as I tucked my three older children into bed, I asked each of them the same question: "How did you feel when we were at Walgreens tonight?" Bailey said, "Sad. I miss Daddy so much." Bostyn said, "Sad and happy. Happy to know that Walgreens is just a store, and there are no bad guys there, because every time we pass one I feel scared." Teage said, "Happy. I always wanted to see what it looked like. I felt scared not knowing what it was. I am so happy Dad left his grocery bag there so I could find it."

Fear of the unknown can make us feel scared. Sadness can build up into anger. When we find a way to let out our emotions, fears, and thoughts, it can make us feel capable of feeling happiness again. My children’s constant anxiety about that store turned into relief just by doing the one thing I had been holding them back from doing all this time. I felt a release of fear in myself as well, and for the first time since Emmett died, the pain in my chest was a little lighter that night.

Sometimes life is going to feel like you are trying to wade through a giant puddle while it is still raining . . . without any reason for all the dirt that is getting all over your shoes, or any hope that the puddle has an end. Just keep walking, eventually the rain may stop falling and you will find that those puddles were all just part of your journey.

(These pictures are of us four during one of our rainy day adventures when Emmett was in law school)

Whether we are making all the right decisions, or all the wrong ones . . . we will struggle. Satan had a plan in the pre-existence before the earth was created. In his plan, no matter what we did on earth, we would walk away from life with a free pass. The plan Satan proposed to our Heavenly Father before we came to earth was a plan of ease. There would be no struggle or pain, but in his plan we were not allowed to choose for ourselves. His plan would leave us to follow directions, without experiencing the highs or lows of this mortal life . . . and without experiencing life’s joys. All of us would end up in the same spot, with no deviation as to how we got there.

In the plan we all chose, which Jesus Christ said He would fulfill for Heavenly Father, we get to choose what roads we travel. We get to choose the direction in which we put one foot in front of the other. We knew that we would be tested. We knew that others’ agency would affect us. We understood that we were sent here to overcome obstacles and grow from them. We were aware that sometimes we would have to do big things that were hard and scary . . . but we still begged to come to earth and carry out that plan. We chose it because we knew that we could overcome the hard times to find the joy. In Satan’s plan, there would have been no hard times, but without darkness . . . it is hard to appreciate the light. True joy comes only after we have overcome our trials or been set free from the pains that have pushed us to find a better way.

We can walk in paths that always feel safe, or we can be directed to those that challenge us or help us grow . . . our own personal puddles.

In Satan’s plan, we would never fall, but we would also never fly. We would have been in a state of “BLAH,” never falling beneath an acceptable marker, but also never reaching our full potential. We chose a different plan because we all saw the potential that we had within ourselves to one day fly, and we knew it would only be possible through Jesus Christ’s plan.

It is because we experience pain that we are motivated to push out of it. Fear and pain encourage us to ask ourselves the difficult questions like “What if he is still here?” I lived with that question constantly, and it hindered my actions. I worried that Rob was ‘still here’ and had a similar fate for me. I worried that Kandi would be around any given corner on any given day. My children’s pain had caused them to ask the same question, but for them, it was about their father. “What if he is still here?” They had spent all that time wondering if he was still at Walgreens, and I had held them back from finding their answers.

It wasn’t until we set foot in that parking lot that we truly learned that no one was there. Rob wasn’t there waiting to kill me. Kandi wasn’t there to take anything more from me, and Emmett wasn’t still there, waiting for us to come and wish him back to life.

Shawn was right. We had to go there that day. We needed to release the fear, let go of the pain, and answer the questions inside each one of us. His encouragement for me to step outside of my comfort zone is what brought healing to me in a way I would have never been able to do on my own.

Sometimes the growth part of life really hurts. Getting out of that car took every ounce of energy I had . . . but walking around and sitting with my babies in the back of that building reminded me that even through pain . . . there is peace to be found.

Some days we might find ourselves just crying on our closet floors all alone, but sometimes we have to face the fears that hold us back. Don’t fight against the things that can help you let go of your anger, your fear, and your pain. For us, Walgreens was a building we held accountable for our pain  . . . because Emmett and Rob were not around to be held accountable. We had to visit that building to let go of our fears.

If there is a ‘building’ that needs to be visited in your life, don’t let it stand there waiting all alone. Let it be accountable for the pain it has caused, so you can let it go. If you spend your years hiding from it, or pretending it isn’t real . . . you are not punishing anyone but yourself.

The Walgreens parking lot didn’t care who I was, or what heartache I had faced because of it. It had no idea that I would drive a few extra miles, just to avoid driving by it. That parking lot had no idea of the number of times we said its name in our home, and it couldn’t have cared less that just the thought of it sent chills down my spine. It just carried on, continuing to do the job it had always done. It was just a parking lot after all. It wasn’t powerful or grand. It WAS just a store.

“What if he is still here?” can become a question that causes fear for anyone who has suffered pain . . . or it can be a question that brings relief if we ask it as we turn to our Savior and realize that He has been there all along. He is still there. During the highs and lows of life we knew would come, He holds our hands and carries us through. He sits in the Walgreens parking lot with us as we fight the fears and the questions that try to pull us down. He sheds a tear as we battle in our minds the decisions we face each day. He didn’t say it would be easy, He only said it would be worth the fight.

We need to learn to fight only those battles that can truly bring about change. We only get this one life. If we spend it focused on questions about the past, without doing whatever it takes to answer them, we will not be able to move forward into the future.

We all have our own ‘Walgreens’ to overcome. We each have our own questions to which we need to find the answers. Stop fighting those questions and face them head on. When it is time to step up to the plate . . . hit a homerun. As you watch that ball fly over the bases, you may have to squint because of the sun to see it soar, but if you look hard enough, you will see it. When you are in the right place at the right time, and you let go of the pride that tries to prevent you from being there . . . that is when little miracles take place.

It is easy for others to say to someone suffering from pain: “Let it go,” but for the one suffering . . . it is much easier said than done. In my case, the letting go has come through taking baby steps. But it has been in each baby step that I have seen the little miracles that have given me the hope to let it go.

What if He is still here? He is. You may not see Him from where you are standing . . . sometimes we never do until we fall. If you have lost sight of the truth because of the angle at which you are trying to see it, maybe it is time to change your position. He has been there all along, and . . . He is still here.


Brian said...

Not all of our events are as tragic, but your post does help put a "necessary spin" on our outlook on life. Thanks

Melissa said...

Your last paragraph beautifully sums up our Savior's role in our lives. Thank you for posting another comforting essay that blesses the lives of those who read it.

Lisa said...

I could feel the emotion as you told the story. I have felt my own children's sorrow and fears following the loss of their father. I am so happy you have Shawn to help your family through the healing process. It does take time and many, many different little moments here and there. I am so grateful for the Savior and his perfect love and understanding. Thank you for your honesty, and your willingness to share the realities. It is helping so many of us on our own healing journey.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ashlee for your honesty and writing this blog! You are a strong woman and so inspiring. Shawn sounds like an awesome guy... so happy you have found love again!!

Anonymous said...

Ashlee I've been reading your blog for a few months now and can't begin to tell you how much you've inspired me. I have been going through a loss very different and less traumatic than what you have gone through but your words have buoyed me up and given me hope. Thank you for listening to the Spirit and being so inspired. You have helped more people than you know

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy and appreciate your words. Thank you for sharing.

There should be done clarification on a point that is commonly misunderstood and misused. It was actually Heavenly Father's plan which Jesus Christ said he would fulfill.
I blame "My Turn On Earth".

Kristin Hanson said...

Thank you so much for sharing your pain and journey of healing. While my trials may not have the same magnitude, the simple truths you testify of can help us through any trial. I can only imgaine a part of how hard it must be for you to share such raw and private periods of your life. Thank you for doing a hard thing - you have touched my life and reminded me of the importance of living a life not ruled by fear.

Anonymous said...

beautiful. I am grateful of your effort in sharing what you you have learned through your experiences--good and awful. It is helping me so much, I have come to depend on your blog posts to get me through my pain right now. You are and angel.
I hate that there is pain in this world that can rock our world and change everything we have relayed on and known. I cried when I read about the pain of your children in the Walgreens parking lot, because I know that there is nothing harder than seeing our children in deep pain that they didn't even cause. They so innocently view the world and I am saddened when their innocence gets taken away and they have to grow up too fast. But they are resilient and strong and you are right, it is part of the plan that we so eagerly accepted. I have learned so much from my children and the way they deal with their pain. You're children are amazing.
thank you for chaining my life for the better, giving me hope and being someone that many are leaning on right now to make it through.

Anonymous said...

You are amazing!!!! Insightful and strong! Thanks for being a great teacher of truth.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ashlee!! You are an angel to many!!!!

Anonymous said...

I had a dark childhood and I've struggled to make sense of it. By reading your blog, although our experiences are not at all the same, I can finally see my life more clearly than I ever have before. Thank you for sharing every part of your journey, from the gravity of despair to the lightness of hope. Mostly, thank you for sharing the pure joys you experience in motherhood, despite the trauma in your spirit. Now I am looking for more of those moments with my own children every single day.

Anonymous said...

I love reading your posts. When I read this, I thought about my own children and when they call for me. “We love you daddy” really impresses on me, since I am a dad. I still have a younger child that still loves me like this…for now, my older children….not so much. They still love me, but I don’t get to hear it that much anymore. 
This post reminds me of the “Stripling Warriors” and their obedient and strong mothers that raised them. You are one of those strong mothers raising your own Stripling Warriors.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put!

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