It seems— just about when you have things figured out in life, something new comes up to change it all. I have always taken pride in my creations—including the ones that were only in my mind. I like to have a plan and I look forward to crossing things off of as I go. Like I have said before—I remember exactly where I was the moment I had my life written out. Things have always felt comfortable when life was going according to my design. A younger version of me used to believe that happiness was defined by the fulfillment of checking things off the list I had created for my plan.
I write lists—on paper and in my head—of exactly how events will go. Just like I mapped out my ideal life story with a beginning, middle and end . . . even in the trials I have faced, I have envisioned an “end” for each one. For me the murder trial was going to be that “end”. I couldn’t wait to check it off my list as the final chapter of the unclosed book from my past.
As life will do . . . my plan was changed.
It was a phone call. I answered. The man on the other line spoke. He said, “Ashlee . . . this is Shane Bishop from Dateline NBC. We have been calling a few people who are involved in the Rob Hall murder trial coming up. Keith Morrison is going to be doing the interviews, and regardless of who participates, we are planning on doing an episode on our show about everything . . . you all went through . . . and we were really wondering if you would be willing to let us interview you . . . about your part of the story . . . tell about how this affected you and your children—we think your role would really be powerful in telling this tragedy.”
My heart was pounding—and just like during most other phone calls about the past—I could feel my anxiety levels rising. However, I didn’t even have to think much. I had heard they were calling around, and I knew just what my opinions were going to be and what I was willing to do. I said, “You know . . . I appreciate the fact that you are trying to put some light on this whole story, but I am not really ok with it . . . I don’t want anything to do with it. I would actually really appreciate it if you could just leave it alone and let us all be. I haven’t even decided if I am going to be able to live through the trial . . . let alone tell the whole world how it all felt for me. Thank you for calling and giving me a heads up about what to “look forward” to, but I will not be participating in any of it.”
He was very understanding and let me know that if I did change my mind he was just a phone call away. Ha . . . like that would ever happen. I huffed and puffed about that phone call for days. I talked to Shawn; I called church leaders, and my parents, asking them for advise about what they thought I should do. Everyone shared the same opinions I did—ABSOULUTELY NOT!
So that was my decision. There was no way I was going to participate in telling the emotions I felt in the story of Emmett’s death. I couldn’t put my kids through that . . . plus, I was the mom who had called news stations yelling at them for putting our pictures on TV in the days that followed the murder. I had shut down Facebook for months, to not allow anyone in— and hide all my pain. Why on earth would I open myself up to the country about how deep it still ran? Why would I be vulnerable in telling a humiliating story about how I wasn’t enough for my husband—and he got shot in a parking lot for being with another man’s wife? And Shawn . . . we had enough on our plates. The last thing we needed was for me to open up the wounds of the past and talk about a life we did not share.
So I did it again—I went into hiding. I shut down my Facebook account. I zipped up my lips and made a vow to myself that my “story” was not going anywhere. I even began talking about skipping the trial all together. I decided denial was a much safer haven than reality . . . so that is where I stayed.
Shawn came home one day and told me he wanted to take me and the kids to Disneyland. It felt strange planning a trip to get away in the middle of everything—but I couldn’t wait to go. We left Kaleeya and Tytus home with my sister Abbey and her husband Alex. We got on a plane one Sunday morning and didn’t come home for five days.
Denial of anything real life oriented was easy there. We had a blast. I felt like my mind was clear and it was natural to forget the mediation that took place a few weeks before—that had been a bust . . . or the up coming trial. In denial, I didn’t picture life as the limbo state I had been living in. Yes, in the back of my mind the big hurdles were always looming—but they seemed very small from where I was standing. Disneyland was good to me—the happiest place on earth I could have been.
The sad thing about Disneyland— and the mystical false reality that you can live in when you are there— is . . . it all disappears when you fly back home. Dateline was still going to create a show about our past; the trial was going to come, and I was going to have to take the stand. Yes, it may be postponed a few more times—but eventually it was going to find me . . . and I could feel its power pulling me the minute the plane hit the ground.
This wasn’t my life. What was I doing here? How did life come to this? The dense fog that surrounded me on that runway was stronger than any I had ever seen. The world came crashing in and the darkness of it poured into my veins—I was scared I could not take any more.
Shawn went back to work; the kids went back to school—and I sunk deeper and deeper into despair. The trial was now only weeks away, and there had been no mention of another postponement. Now, the date I had anticipated and craved to come . . . began to be the same one I started to hope would never come at all. I secretly wished they would put it off again—to buy me some more time. Time for what? . . . I did not know. Possibly time to snap out of the bleak false reality that I buried myself in; time to figure out what was real. Time to talk myself out of denial, and remember how to stop living like my past was really just a bad dream.
I was scared to have it over, for fear I still wouldn't remember who I was after all. If the trial came and went, and I was still broken . . . what then? It was a bipolar dance of a desperate need for the trial to come, but a frantic fear that it would not change anything inside of me. I wasn’t sure what way was up. All the strength I felt I had built—to get on that stand and pour my heart out to the man who had pulled the trigger—began to fade.
Days became even more dark as I struggled to find my strength . . . and then one day it came—like many times before—in a dream.
I was sitting at a table covered in photographs. Pictures from my past—from childhood up to that present day—pictures of my life with Emmett, and others of Shawn and me. I just sat there staring at them—feeling the emotion of each and every one. They all had a memory. As I picked up the picture of the kids and me at Emmett’s funeral, I looked up—and there, sitting across the table . . . was Emmett. I stared at him in shock. He said, “Ash . . . one thing is for sure, you never stopped smiling. You always found the good. No matter where you have been in your life . . . you have seen through the darkness—a gift not many of us know . . . and you have smiled.”
I looked around the table. I stared at each snapshot of my life . . . and he was right—I could see one thing in common in every scene—I was smiling. Even in the picture at Emmett’s funeral . . . I had my babies in my arms—and though my mouth felt forced at the time—I was smiling. I could see as I held the picture of that day in my hand all the things I had to be thankful for—all five of them. Maybe that day I felt there was no reason to be smiling—but I had done it anyways. I looked down at the photo of our family on our recent wedding day—two more reasons to smile.
Emmett began to speak again. He said, “I can’t change the past for you Ash . . . but you can change the future. Take our story and tell everyone exactly where I went wrong. I can’t change the life I lived, but they still have the chance to change theirs. You are the only voice who can tell that story now—So do it! Don’t be scared. You have smiled through a lot harder things than this. Tell them the story that no one else can. Tell them to put their family first. . . before it is too late. The truth about our past will save someone—maybe even more than one. You didn’t ask for this, but you have smiled anyway. Don’t hide. Stop pretending it didn’t happen. Be brave, and be bold. The one you are supposed to save will hear you. You don’t have to do this for yourself—because I know you don’t want to—but I need you to do it for me—and everyone else who is right where I was. Your words won’t change our past . . . but they can change the future.”
I woke up with a smile on my face. I called Shane back and committed to the interview. I didn’t want to do it. It went against everything I felt to be true—but I knew that my dream was much more than that—there was a greater plan than mine. The story of Emmett’s murder was not complete without the family he left behind. The details of how he died were insignificant if he was just a cold dead body. The person Emmett knew he had to save wasn’t going to be changed by hearing about a few shots of a gun—they were going to be moved by a story of a family man who stood at a crossroads . . . and chose the wrong choice. Emmett knew it, and I knew it. Our story didn’t have to be in vain. Our past—full of bad choices and broken hearts—might make a difference for someone. So I committed to do it . . . for that one.
Dateline was going to ask about how it felt for me . . . and I was going to tell them. Not because it would be easy, but because I had a promise that my words would make a difference—our hell . . . our story could change an ending for someone else. So with all the pain I had been hiding for so long, I made a promise to not hide it any more.
The interviews could not take place until after Rob was sentenced. So now, with just weeks until the trial would begin—I had a new goal to set in my mind for when all of this would be “over”. The trial was not going to be the end I thought it would be—but another step to a new “end” of the past. In my mind, Dateline became the final chapter to this heart break I had carried. Once it was over . . . our real life would begin.
My plan had been changed, but I was smiling.
Sometimes we have a plan—and sometimes a greater plan has us. One thing is for sure—I didn’t always smile for the plan that was created for me . . . but I have always seen a reason to smile despite it.
The plan I created was going to be easy. . . but the greater plan that has been written . . . has created me.
I always saw myself as an artist—sculpting and creating beauty. As a mother I have felt my creations were close to perfect; as a painter and photographer I have always had a vision in my mind . . . but as a daughter of God—I have become the work of art.
It is in those humbling moments that you realize you don’t have all the answers—on those early mornings when you wake up to understand your stubborn view was wrong; or those dark nights when you are humbled to see your vision of life, was only one version of the course to your end goal—that you find your relationship with God. Those moments when your humility brings you past the pride of hanging on to your own ideals—and give your life back to the one who gave it to you in the first place . . . that is when you are sculpted a little more. Hopefully to someday become His perfect masterpiece.
I didn’t choose this greater plan—it chose me. So many times I have doubted my worthiness of the missions I have been asked to go on, but I have seen great blessings on those days when I didn’t ask why.
Sometimes we walk brightly in faith—a gentle tiptoe, holding our hands out to feel what is in front of us—and other days He asks us to take a blind leap in the dark . . . with no time to see what is in front of us.
Those leaps, take greater faith than any of the tiny tiptoes that preceded them . . . but it is in those leaps—that we learn to fly. “Absolutely not”—two words I have learned to use sparingly. It seems everytime I have uttered them in my life, it has turned into a learning experience—one where I had to make way to a greater plan.
It is usually in those moments— when we think we have all the answers and have life all figured out—that God gives us a chance to grow in His way.
Our faith doesn’t grow . . . until it is stretched. So warm up kids—because we came here to grow. God is there. He absolutely does not forget us. He hears our fears, and He knows our pain . . . but He also sees the gifts we cannot see. He knows when our ‘absolutely not’s can become the very thing that sets us free.
So to everyone who has felt alone on a mission they did not choose—it is going to be scary. It is going to be dark; some days you are going to wonder which way is up. It is going to be hard. It is going to be lonely and long; there will be moments when you feel you should just give up. You will feel small—you will see yourself as insignificant and meaningless. Your pain will sometimes feel that it is all in vain. You will grieve over the lost path you thought you would take.
There will be days when you want to stand on the top of a skyscraper and tell the world of all the hurt in your heart; then there will be days—even years—when you want to crawl into a cave and keep it all hidden safe inside forever. Some days you may even ask why. So when those questions come . . . those deep dark questions that penetrate your very soul—Has anyone ever been where I have been? Am I alone? Are my cries just echoing inside of me?—Absoulutly not. You are not alone. Your fears are real, your pain is heavy . . . but YOU are not lifting them alone. Maybe life is giving you more than you feel you can bear—but He has absolutely not left you alone to carry it yourself.
Like my little ones at Disneyland for the very first time—we may feel like we are the first to experience some of life's rides. It may seem like we are the pioneers to having faith in something we cannot see. It feels overwhelming when our boats take us on our first ride into a dark cave, but just like the log ride at Disneyland—eventually our boat will see the sun. Maybe sometimes just in fractions of a second at a time—but little by little it will be there. So look for the light. When your journey brings you out of the tunnels—and back into the sunshine . . . smile for that little flicker of warmth that is still lighting your path.
Find a reason to grin, despite the roller coasters you are riding. Sometimes you will be disappointed. Sometimes you will wish there was more; other times you will be pushed to adventure onto a ride you would have never chosen for yourself. In all of the rides you take . . . there is something to be learned and experience to be gained, but we cannot do it alone. We have to turn to something more powerful than ourselves. We have to find a hero to give us strength.
We don't have to be our own super hero. Life wasn't meant for us to save ourselves. There are many in the world pretending to have all the answers to all of our tough questions—but truth is . . . there is only one who can truly save us. Because of Him we can smile no matter where we are. Because of Him we can find peace when the super heroes of the world let us down. (No offense Frozone . . . you were awesome.)
There are not many things in this world that are concrete—even our super(est) of super heros—but Christ will never let us down. We can never forget that He will absolutely not leave us alone. He has been down the waterfalls you are about to encounter; He has ridden in all the dark caves. He has seen every rapid. He is there; He is real—and He knows right where you stand. Make sure you are taking a stand to the right causes. Don’t let your list of things you will “absolutely not” do, stop you from fulfilling the mission He has written—to sculpt you into the perfect masterpiece He envisioned you to become. Take that leap. Be bold, be brave . . . and never forget—YOU are absolutely not alone.
(I haven't yet written about the experience of my interview with Dateline, but here is the link to their episode about the Rob Hall murder: