November 12, 2014

Face To Face

I never knew life was going to be filled with so many moments. Moments of much strength have come when I have least expected them—but moments of overwhelming weakness have hit at a time when I thought I was strong. It is hard to prepare for all the moments we will face in our lives, because frankly we never know what is even just seconds away.

There are some moments in life we face with a back up squad. We call our moms when we need parenting advice; we ask our dad to help us fix a broken down car. So many of our obstacles are easily tackled with someone else on our team—another set of hands to ease our burdens—a voice to urge us on.

Then there are those moments that we have to face head on—all alone. Giving birth—yes someone can stand by your side and tell you when to breathe, or even beg someone else to come and give you drugs—but there is not a way to give any of that responsibility to any other party. Professional exams—you can study your heart out with other people, but when it comes down to the day of the big test . . . everything is up to you, and only you.

In my younger years, I had not seen many of these “I have to face it head on all by myself” type of experiences. I have always had a team to lean on, and others to divvy out the burdens placed upon me. I did not know what it was like to be placed in front of an obstacle I had to fight alone . . . until I was face to face with my past.

The trial date was set and just days away. Jury selection morning was finally here. I decided to take my kids to school on the way, so I knew I was going to be a little late—but it was not like it mattered, no one even knew I had decided to attend. I had butterflies in my stomach—I was nervous contemplating seeing the faces of the people who were going to be sitting through the trial, listening to all the facts of the case. I was curious what they would look like, who they would be. I wondered what they would think as they sat in their seats . . . when it was my turn to take the stand. I wondered what they would believe. I wanted to see for myself—so I knew exactly what to expect.

I got to the courthouse and parked my car in the giant garage. I made a mental note which level my car was on and slowly made my way to the elevator. I stared at my feet as I walked. In the elevator the thought crossed my mind to just go back to my car and drive back home—but when its doors opened, I walked out onto the sidewalk. I looked up. There it was . . . the courthouse where I would be spending the month hearing about how Emmett was killed.

Thoughts whirled through my mind with every step that I took. What are you doing here? What is it that you are looking for? What if Kandi is in there . . . then what is your plan? Like many times before, my mind went through all the possible scenarios that could go wrong in that courtroom full of potential jurors. I skimmed through all the reasons why I should go get back in my nice warm car—but I kept walking.

Inside the courthouse—once I passed through security—I reached another elevator. It carried me up a few flights. It finally reached the right floor. I walked down the long hall, and stopped in my tracks as I reached the door. I knew that the judge and all the jury duty nominees would be sitting inside. I stood there a few minutes, trying to talk myself into turning the handle.

The butterflies were in full force. I knew the minute I turned that handle and opened the door, the past was going to be real again. I knew that I would have to take a seat . . . and that would mean I was ready to embrace the fact that the trial was going to start. I could see my pulse in my hand as it reached for the lever . . . Stop . . . I am not ready. If you do this—you can’t undo it. Once you sit on those seats—once that judge sees your face—you are committed to hearing the truth. What if it hurts more than you can bear? If you walk in that room right now . . . you can’t hide from it anymore. You will hear the facts, you will see the pictures, and it will all be real. Not just real—it will be blaring in your face for Heaven knows how long this trial will last. Last call . . . to walk away. Ashlee. If you do this, you are doing all of it. You are coming to every minute so you can to put together the broken facts and heal your mind of this hell. If you walk in that door, you will not run away. Turn that handle . . . this is it. Maybe you are not brave enough to do this, but are you brave enough to walk away and never know?

I didn’t have it in me to walk away and never know. I needed those facts to the puzzle that still had missing pieces in my mind. I slowly turned the knob and opened the door. There were still 100 people on the panel. The room was over flowing with strange eyes—all of them on me. The bailiff grabbed my arm and led me quietly to an open seat.

As I walked to my seat, a few people realized they knew me. The judge instantly asked them to leave. I put my purse on the ground and stared at my feet for a few seconds—still trying to understand my need to be there. I offered a silent prayer that I would be able to find what ever peace I was there seeking that day. I didn’t know why I had come, but I had a secret hope that it wouldn’t take me too long to figure it out.

I picked at my fingernails for a few seconds—still trying to talk myself into looking around at the strangers who surrounded me. I listened to a few different people answer the questions being asked of them by the judge. My heart dropped every time they said the word gun. I grabbed my phone out of my purse and stared at the clock. It had only been a few minutes, but I already was getting the urge to leave. I took a few deep breaths and reassured myself that I had the strength to do hard things. I put my phone back in my purse, determined to be present in that courtroom.

I finally looked up . . . into the eyes of Robert Hall.

My whole entire body froze . . . including the butterflies in my stomach. Shivers went down my spine. First of all, I had NO idea he was going to be there, and second—he was not just in the room—we were sitting face to face. They had seated me—with nothing between us but a half wall barrier—a few feet directly in front of him. The room went silent around me—all I could hear was fear pulsating around every square inch of my body.

Similar to my run in with Kandi at the restaurant—my body went into fight or flight mode. In that second, everything inside told me to run—to get as far away from that man as possible. Then a wave of fight would spark my emotions, even greater than my need to run away. I wanted to start yelling and screaming; I wanted to cry and hit him. I wanted to tell him the stories that I had lived because of his choice. I wanted to show him how he hurt me—and even more, how he had destroyed my children.

My anger shook through every limb as I stared into the eyes of a killer—and not just a murderer . . . the man who WILLINGLY pointed a loaded gun at my husband . . . who pulled the trigger on my dreams—the man who shot a bullet into my family.

Rob. The mug shot—I had screamed and yelled at many nights alone in my room—had a body? He had eyes? He was a real person? Somewhere in my mind I had imagined him as a fire breathing dragon, or a vampire with sharp fangs—to me, he was supposed to be a mystical creature out of a horror film—one that had no emotion and no feeling . . .  He was just a man?

After a year and half of dreaming about the moment I would see him—and it all came to this? I couldn't ask him any questions? I couldn't speak to him? I still didn't know what his voice sounded like or if he had a favorite food. I knew nothing about this man. How could a normal looking person—one I didn't even know—have so much power over me?

For nineteen months I had begged to be given this opportunity—to meet the man with the gun. My requests never got approved. I had a vision of what it would look like—finally being face to face with Robert Hall—but I always pictured it going so much different. I wanted a minute of freedom, to ask and tell it all. I wanted unlimited time to pour out the pain that was still stuck in my heart. I wanted to hear him tell me the story only he knew.

It wasn’t fair that I hadn’t been able to see his face long before this day—when hundreds of people surrounded me . . . ensuring my silence. And maybe that was the plan all along. “Victims” can’t have freedom of speech, for fear their words will sway the jury. I had learned in many meetings before this day—I had to be a fly on the wall. Any emotion could be warrant for a “mistrial” granted to the defense. If the jury were to see how the facts of the case affected me, the trial could be a mistrial—and we would have to start all over.

I didn’t know Rob was going to be at jury selection . . . but I knew the rules. I swallowed my emotions and choked the tears that were building up inside of me—like a volcano waiting to burst.

He would not look me in the eye—but all I could do was stare. I hardly took my eyes off of him the entire day. He fidgeted back and forth in his seat, but he never once looked at me.
I listened to everyone’s voices, but I didn’t hear a word. In my mind I was still rehearsing all the words that Rob Hall was going to hear some day—the heartache he had caused. The stories of the lives his decision had affected.

I found it ironic I decided to go alone that day—because that is exactly how I felt . . . all alone.

A hundred people surrounded me, but I had never felt so alone in my entire life. Nobody was holding my hand and telling me what to feel. Not one person in that room knew my name, or had felt my pain. Not even Rob knew that my heart was about to burst. Then again maybe he did . . . and he didn’t care anyway. I had walked into that courtroom prepared to begin to piece together the facts of a murder—in hopes that it would piece together the broken pieces of my heart . . . but I was not prepared to stare into the face of the man who had caused it all.

I stared into his soul. I tried to find the story he kept buried deep inside. The one only he knew. The missing part of my story . . . the one where a gun was taken from a hoody pocket and aimed at my husband’s head and heart. The part of the story that took away Emmett’s breath; the part of my story that left me a widow at the age of 28 with five babies to raise all by myself. This man that was seated only a few feet in front of my view—he did this to me. Because of his anger I had been through hell; because of his choices my world had been turned upside down.

My eyes burned as I continued to choke back tears—and I did everything in my power not to blink. I didn’t want to miss a second. I didn’t want to look away, for fear he had that gun in his jump suit. Even more, I didn’t want to look away for fear his eyes would tell a story the minute I did.

When you are trying to stare into a man’s soul, the only place to look is into his eyes. He wasn’t looking back, but I could see them. His eyes were sad. He looked much older than his mug shot—like the year and a half he had waited for this day . . . was even longer for him than it had been for me. I wasn’t sure if I should throw a stone at him, or go and give him a hug. My heart hurt—not only for the pain he had caused me . . . and my children—but for the pain I could see in his eyes. Anxiety waved through my body as I tried to figure out if I hate—or pity—the man that now sat in front of me.

I didn’t know why, but for the first time I saw the me I had lost. I saw me as the little girl who walked around the playground looking for people who were alone; the younger me who found the lost puppy at the park and walked around door to door for hours to make sure he made it safely home. I could feel empathy—the kind that my daughters had shown—I finally felt for myself.

Once the jury panel was selected and we were dismissed, I all but ran to my car. I slammed the door behind me just in time for the emotion of the day to come pouring out. I sobbed the whole twenty-five minute drive home. I wept for the years I lost with the family I had created; I poured my heart out with all the pain I had been holding inside. I yelled at Rob for the gun he had used, I cursed his name for the choice he had made . . . but for the first time, I mourned for the pain he had caused in himself. I stepped into his shoes for a second and I felt of the deep pain he had heaped upon his own shoulders. I sobbed for his family, and the never ending torment they must all have faced at one time or another because of the decisions of the three in our story. This story had more victims than just me—and they were all in pain. Some were victims of the choices out of their control, but Rob . . . he was a victim of his own demise.

I learned a lot that day—not so much about life or my faith—but about pain. Some pains we have to face head on. Some come because of a choice that we made—and others are placed upon us by the sins of someone else.

Rob would never tell me the stories I longed to hear . . . but being face to face with him gave me strength to start to let it all go. I could see his cracking soul . . . and I knew I wasn’t the only one broken from this story. He would have to pay for his own sins . . . but I was no longer going to.

Forgiveness . . . I think I felt a glimpse of what that could mean in my life. I wasn’t going to get the scream session I had longed for . . . I probably wasn’t ever going to hear him say he was sorry—and maybe he really didn’t care about how it felt for me. He killed Emmett, he was going to go to jail . . . but that wasn’t going to be what healed my heart. Peace wasn’t going to come by the years Rob spent in jail . . . Just like Rob was that day . . . my heart was in chains . . . but someday, I knew I was going to be able to set it free.

That moment, when you think you are face to face with your enemy . . . you feel alone. You want to run away, for fear you will be hurt again. You want to scream and cry, in hopes of letting that person know all the pain you have carried . . . because of them. You want them to hurt—exactly how you have hurt. In that moment when you realize you have let the pain define who you have become—that this enemy holds all power over you . . . they have come to own you. That moment is hate.  

I was comfortable with hate. I knew it well. It was powerful and up to this point, it—more often than not—won!

It wasn’t until I stared into the face of my life’s worst enemy that I realized he was just a man. It wasn’t him that held the power over me . . . it was my own hate.

The moment you are face to face with the past that has broken you—may be the same moment you come face to face with the knowledge of how to set it free. That moment when you realize you are the prisoner—not the man in chains—that is the time when you want to plea to your Father for true forgiveness.

For the first time since Rob pointed a gun and shattered the night, I felt true hope—and not the kind of hope that could only come after the ending of a trial—I felt reassured that everything would one day be made right. I knew in that moment that no matter how the trial would end—I was going to be standing.

There are not going to be many moments in our lives when we have the opportunity to stare at our pain face to face . . . but our struggles are real. Even the ones you cannot see are sometimes unbearable. Many struggle with depression; some are plagued with disease. Some people have been abused, neglected or forgotten.

We are all facing some sort of trial. Not everyone will get to sit in a courtroom through a murder trial to try to put together the broken pieces of the past, but we all—at one time or another—will have to face them head on. If you have spent the last nineteen months—or the last nineteen years, trying to run from the past . . . STOP.

Running from the past doesn’t change anything today—it only dilutes the happiness of tomorrow.

Now is our time to set it free. The past was long ago—even if it was just yesterday . . . it doesn’t have to follow you around any more. You can start fresh today—and you have a Savior who can show you the way. Your pain may have held the power over you in your life for all this time—but you don’t need it to survive. It is hard to let it go . . . when it has been your lifeline—but once you set it free . . . you will see that it was suffocating you all along. Set yourself free. Pray for the peace you are walking around seeking.

Maybe you aren’t standing outside of a courtroom waiting for a reason to turn the handle—but it is waiting for you to. Turn the handle. Step inside. If you walk away and pretend it is not there—it still isn’t going to go away. Maybe you are not brave enough to do this, but are you brave enough to walk away and never know? It is your time. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to smile every day.

Not every day will be breathtaking . . . but there will be beauty in each one.

Most days we take a few steps forward . . . or fall a few back—on the day that I was face to face with the man who murdered my husband—I didn’t fall back—I flew forward. I didn’t read about forgiveness in a textbook or my scriptures—I felt it in my heart. I was face to face with the love that Christ had blessed me with. I knew that because of Rob I had much that was taken from me—but I also knew . . . that because of Him I could be made whole again. My happiness had nothing to do with where, what or how Robert Hall would spend the rest of his life. My happiness had everything to do with me. I was face to face with the past—but I was finally able to see what the future could bring.

Life is going to knock us down. It is a proven fact (at least for me) that the more we try to do good—the harder Satan will get us to doubt—and to fall. The next month of the murder trial would be just that for me. I would get knocked down, and then I would get right back up—over and over and over again . . . coming face to face with reality, coming face to face with more heart ache . . . but even greater—coming face to face with the knowledge that I was not alone.


Janean Justham said...

Thanks for being brave.

Anonymous said...

I remember staring into the eyes of someone that had hurt me desperately and realizing that nothing I could do could do to them could match the pain they were already feeling. It is so hard to let go of that anger (which was far less drastic than your situation) but feel a relief at the burden being lifted. It is so hard to see someone lose the light of Christ in their eyes because of their choices.

Thank you for continuing to share your light with us!

glenda said...

Every day when faced with ups and down I tell myself let it go.
I chose to move forward...onward...
Thank you for sharing with all of us!

Aunt Viv said...

This is exactly what I needed to read as I struggle with forgiving some family members who have greatly hurt me. Thank you for your wisdom and sharing what you have learned on your journey. My favorite line in your post was, "Running from the past doesn’t change anything today—it only dilutes the happiness of tomorrow. " I think i am going to put that up in my house where I can see it daily. God bless you and your sweet children.

Blake and Kathryn said...

I've followed your blog from the beginning, and though you've inspired me on multiple occasions and I've been in awe of you more than once...THIS post was the one so far. Where you have shared the most strength, wisdom and Christlike love. I can't imagine all the pain you have gone through. But in this moment you were able to look past your pain into not only someone else's pain, but your very enemy's pain. That Ashlee, is the pure love of Christ. You are amazing!! Thank you for sharing how forgiveness isn't a one time event or "checklist", but a series of moments where we see others as our Savior sees them. I know I've never met you, but I love you. I love your strength, your beautiful story, and hearing another journey of healing. Thank you yet again for lifting me up!!

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