It’s funny how images are burned into your mind—memories that will last for all eternity…memories that are so strong that they seem tangible—like, if only for the veil of time, we should be able to reach out and touch them.
It’s been 10 years now since my own world was shattered in the silence of Christmas night…and I found myself panicking because what once were memories I could play like a movie, I seemed to be forgetting—like I had prayed to forget for so long, but what I realized was my prayer wasn’t really to forget—it was just to pretend like “it” never happened…at least not really…like Carrie Underwood’s song, “Just a Dream” there are still parts of the whole ordeal that just seem to surreal to completely absorb.
So, a decade later, I found myself being ripped apart by this tug-of-war within my soul. Part of me wanted to “allow time to heal” but another part of me felt that somehow that would dishonor the untimely death of my first husband…a death that I have tortured myself over for years and years because I had wished aloud, many times, for him to die during the most tumultuous part—and the last part—of our relationship. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for because it just might come true”…logically I know that I truly didn’t play a part in his death…I only played a part in the “death” of our marriage, but the guilt I bear is heavy—and truthfully I have known little to no true joy or happiness since his death because I have not allowed myself the pleasures of life…only the “burdens” and responsibilities.
So, in an effort to get all of this out from inside of me --in an effort to finally permit myself to “forget” and heal “safely” because the story is down on paper for all eternity, I’m allowing the memories to pour out of me completely for the first and the final time.
I remember Mitchell kneeling before me crying his eyes out one rainy night in early November 2004. It was the night I was to leave Washington in our Ford escape—heading back to PA where the children already were with my mother…the small SUV loaded with all the belongings I could fit. He was sobbing…begging me not to leave—and I left anyway.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love him. I did—but it was like my heart was closed off…and part of me enjoyed the pain he was enduring after all the pain I’d been put through. The part of me that enjoyed his pain is still part of me that I absolutely hate--and cannot believe there is part of me that can be that cold and cruel. I am still utterly embarrassed and ashamed that there is part of me capable of that behavior...something for which I have yet to figure out how to forgive myself.
We were young and our relationship had been a roller coaster.
I remember staying an extra night…and I very clearly remember the last time I saw him alive—he was riding his Honda V-twin motor cycle—I believe heading to his support group. We were both on the WA-101. I was taking the exit for I-5 headed North to Seattle and he was heading South to Mountain View Church of the Nazarene—the day was foggy and cold…much like every other November day in Washington.
I remember seeing his body—after flying out to Washington December 30th or so. I remember sitting and waiting for my baggage in the baggage claim of SeaTac airport and losing what little emotional composure I had—literally sobbing my eyes out.
I remember sitting outside the airport after collecting my bags—sobbing my eyes out again, but I don’t remember getting picked up at the airport—I don’t remember the ride to Meadow Road in Lakewood, Washington where Ron and Marci Kearns lived right next to the church I’d attended since Mitchell and I had married in 2001.
I remember sleepless nights thinking over and over again that “he is nothing more than a picture now” and “how am I going to raise these children? I’m only 21.”
I remember my mother getting me out of bed the night of December 27th…or was it the 28th? I just remember it was before I flew out to Washington. I remember the heavy feeling in the air—thinking I was in trouble for the mess that was left as a stomach flu went through the house and thinking I was in trouble.
I remember my Mother’s face.
I remember how she started to tell me that I, Ashley Elizabeth Lambert-Hollis, at the age of 21 was a widow: “Ashley…this is something I would never want to have to tell anyone…”
I remember sobbing immediately—and then I remember going numb but feeling heavy…sitting on the oval carpet on the floor in front of the kitchen sink in the home where I’d grown up.
I remember Kent Holmes coming over, but I don’t remember what we talked about…I just remember feeling part of my heart aching and my soul dying…
I remember calling the Thurston County Coroner back—the same man whom had called and spoken to my Mother—informing her that my husband’s body had been identified at the scene of a double homicide at 3351 Ken Lake Drive in Olympia, Washington.
I remember asking a bunch of questions—asking for a tattoo to be described in detail on Mitchell’s right upper arm—a tattoo he and his younger brother had gotten together….it was a picture of a card their mother had sent each of them during a really tough time in their lives, but I forget the details of the tough time. I was asking so many questions hoping and praying the body of this man was wrongly identified, but when I heard the Thurston County Coroner describe this tattoo, I knew this was real.
I remember calling Marci Kearns…the wife of the Pastor of my church in Washington—Ron and Marci were like my adopted parents…I don’t remember what I told her exactly, but obviously it was about Mitchell’s death. Looking back now, I don’t even remember the details but I’m saddened that this relationship that was once so close was torn apart in the aftermath of Mitchell’s death...mine has been a particularly messy journey of grief that not even my relationship with my family--let alone friends, has been able to survive....it's a miracle Rob has been able to traverse this treacherous path with me.
I remember calling Mitchell’s Mother, Sherri. She was at her older sister Kathy’s house in Kansas City. I remember Sherri telling me that she didn’t believe me and dropping the phone. Kathy picked up the phone and asked what was going on—and I told her Mitchell had been shot and killed. That I had just found out. And giving her the Thurston County Coroner’s contact information.
I remember my children were both asleep…it was late at night, but I remember walking into the rooms where they were sleeping and asking God why while I cried.
I remember staring at a picture of Mitchell I’d kept beside my bed wishing for this all to be just a dream.
I remember Marci trying to get me to eat something the day I flew into Seattle. Food disgusted me…but I took 2 bites from whatever it was that we’d ordered from McDonalds to try to make her happy.
I remember Ron and Marci walking through the crime scene with me—it was after we’d been to the Coroner’s office and I’d been given a little baggie with Mitchell’s watch in it. I remember very clearly how that watch smelled…it smelled like dead flesh.
I remember when I saw his body for the first time—it’d been kept in refrigeration and I could see the stitching on his head from the autopsy. I remember thinking he didn’t look that bad—and when I saw him again in Missouri—after his body had been flown down for his funeral, I remember thinking how awful he looked and wished his family had been able to see him before he’d “come back to room temperature”.
I remember the first time I talked to Jeannie on the phone. We’d said hello to each other and just started to cry. I remember feeling the bond that formed immediately because this woman whom I’d only met over the phone knew exactly how I felt.
I remember meeting Jeannie for the first time in the half circle drive of the home at 3351 Ken Lake Drive—the house where both our husbands and fathers of our children had breathed their last and hugging her. It was foggy. It was cold, and it was raining the typical Washington drizzly misty rain.
I remember wanting to go into the house the same way the bodies of our husband’s had been found.
I remember the first blood spatter on the patio step—just outside the glass sliding door that led into the eating part of the kitchen.
I remember the blood spatter on the wainscoting of the wall to the left of the door. I remember, as I turned to look in the short hallway that led into the den/office where Mitchell’s body had lain in a pool of his own blood until he was found nearly 48 hours after he’d been shot 7 times and died, how odd that I had toured this house him just a few weeks before.
I remember looking at the hole that had been cut into the floor where a bullet had travelled through Mitchell’s body and lodged into the floor and then at the pool of blood that had since dried and bubbled up—I remember leaning down to touch it and thinking that I wanted to put some in a baggie to keep it.
I remember the Coroner talking me through what they’d figured out forensically had happened around 11:45 p.m. Christmas Day 2004…I remember asking what he thought Mitchell was doing—and the Coroner replied, “running for his life.”
I remember turning around and coming back into the kitchen—seeing 2 open Bibles on the breakfast bar in the kitchen.
I remember looking to the left to see where the body of my fellow widow and now friend's husband had been found. They’d assumed he’d come out of the bathroom because his fly was still down. There was another hole in the floor where a bullet had travelled through Don’s body and lodged in the floor. Don was face up where as Mitchell was face down and the pool of blood beside the hole in the floor where Don’s body was considerably smaller than where Mitchell was.
I remember walking upstairs and seeing the broken glass where the gun cabinet has been broken into and thinking how ironic is was that Don was killed with his own gun.
I remember the blow up mattress and camp table and chairs that had been in Mitchell’s room…I remember I took a few things with me—now that Brian, the gunman, had been found and had killed himself, there was no longer an active investigation and I could take whatever belongings Mitchell had left at the house…for Thurston County it was “case closed”—and I remember wishing it could just be “case closed” for Jeannie and I, too.
I remember finding a pile of something—I wasn’t sure if it was poop or vomit at the time. I remember the corn kernels…I’d found it was I walked the yard where they believed Brian had been—I remember the empty beer cans that had been thrown in the side yard—opposite the side of the house where the patio was and the first shots had been fired.
I remember shopping for an outfit to wear to Mitchell’s Memorial Service with Marci…I remember enjoying the distraction, but feeling completely numb and disconnected with my body.
I remember wanting other people to not worry about me and doing whatever I could to help them feel better…and I remember even talking about what I was looking for in my “next” husband…after all we were separated, right? I was the “estranged” spouse—and thus felt I didn’t have the right to be completely broken hearted because if I hadn’t left Mitchell—even after he’d assaulted me—he would have never met Don…or Brian and would still be alive.
I remember sitting in the front row during Mitchell’s memorial service—losing control of my emotions and regaining my composure multiple times. I remember Pastor Ron Kearns speaking—I don’t remember all of what he said, but I do have his notes…and I remember him closing his “sermon” with a poem that went…
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there
I do not sleep
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the glitter on freshly fallen snow
So do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there
I did not die.
I am not there
I do not sleep
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the glitter on freshly fallen snow
So do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there
I did not die.
I remember Traci singing a combined version of “Old Rugged Cross” “It Is Well With My Soul” and something else…and as she sang I remember thinking back to when I’d walked into her brother,
Troy’s, house in 3rd way in Lacey the day before—after walking through the crime scene with Traci’s parents. I was wearing Mitchell’s West Point PT jacket—though I don’t remember what ever happened to it. I remember her rubbing the arm of the jacket before she hugged me…and then hugging her brother Troy…but I don’t remember anything else.
I remember Cathy Edgin playing the piano, but I don’t remember who all was there…I remember being told there were several that couldn’t get back form Christmas vacation for the funeral, but I don’t remember who those people were either---I think the Schroder’s were some and Pastor James and his wife Lindsey…but I’m not sure of that either.
I remember the hotel where my Mother, Mikayla and I stayed in Leavenworth, Kansas.
I remember seeing Ben and Betts Kaiser at the Funeral Home—and being rather shocked when I saw how awful Mitchell looked after not being in refrigeration for 3 days.
I remember Ben speaking at the Funeral—and I remember I spoke, but I don’t remember everything I said other than mentioning the open Bibles at the crime scene being a sign that even in the midst of everything—God had a plan. (Looking back it was stupid and insulting thing to say in front of Mitchell’s family.)
I remember not wanting to let go of Mitchell when I’d walked up to say good-bye to him in his casket…thinking this was the last time I’d ever see his body except for photographs. I remember my Mother coming up to get me—I don’t know how long I stood up there.
I remember walking out of the red brick Nazarene church in Napoleon, Missouri to his burial plot in the cemetery that is bordered by the Missouri river on that foggy day in January 2005 and looking to the right to see the newly constructed Veterans Memorial…and seeing, just barely, through the fog the cement piece surrounded by red brick with a Bible verse engraved on it. The Bible verse said, “Be still and know that I am God.”
I remember sitting in a folding chair in front of Mitchell’s casket. My mother, with my daughter in her lap, to my right (I believe) and Sherri—Mitchell’s mother—sitting to my left.
I remember getting lost in my own thoughts as the Pastor officiating Mitchell’s funeral read more Scripture. I remember thinking how odd it was to have my mother—who never liked Mitchell—on one side of me…her energy feeling like she was saying “Ashley, if you’d only had an abortion or let Uncle Bill and Aunt Lois adopt the baby and never married Mick this wouldn’t have happened.” And Sherri’s energy felt like, “Ashley, if you had just been a better wife and not lied about my son assaulting you this never would have happened and Mitchell would still be alive.”
I remember jumping—startled by the first set of gun shots fired in the traditional 21 gun salute at a Service Member’s funeral.
I remember the aching in my heart as I heard Taps played…thinking the melancholy sound of the bugle fit perfectly.
I remember watching in silence as the team of United States Army Soldiers—led by an African American Sergeant First Class lifted the flag from Mitchell’s casket—the casket his mother had picked out…she’d told me about the little details like the crosses that were the fastening brackets for the handled on the sides…and the color was pretty close to Infantry blue—blue was Mick’s favorite color.
I remember the black of their dress uniforms…the shine of the bills on their “saucer caps” and their shoes.
I remember the white gloves on the hands of each Soldier as they perfectly and precisely folded the flag—stopping twice to remove lint or a thread from the flag.
I remember the Sergeant First Class leaning over in front of me until his eyes were level with mine as he held the flag in between his white glove clad hands. I remember biting my lip in a vain effort to control my emotions as this Solder said, “Ma’am, on behalf of the President of the United States of America, the Army and a grateful nation, I thank you for your husband’s selfless service to his country and present this flag to you in memory of him.”
I remember setting the flag on my lap—looking at how perfectly it’d been folded and thinking what an ironic comparison this perfectly folded life was in contrast to my life that was shattered in pieces on the floor.
I remember wanting to throw that flag on the ground as I screamed at the top of my lungs and jumped up and down on it in the mud that this whole situation wasn't my fault and that this wasn't fair—I knew how much I’d blamed my mother for my father’s death. I was 5 when he’d died and the only memories I have of him are the afternoon before he died when he was blind and looked like a skeleton in a dark room of Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas—and now my daughter, who was 3, and my son who was 13 months old would have no memory of their father…and how if any parent had to die it should have been me because Mick was the one to get on the floor and play with the children while I was the one to cook, clean, do laundry and pay the bills…I was the “worker” and didn't really know how to play.
I remember how upset people were that I’d had Sherri pick up “Infantry Blue Balloons” filled with helium so Mikayla could send balloons up to her Daddy who she knew was now an angel in heaven. Sherri and Mitchell’s younger brother, Wally, were the only two from the Hollis side of the family to participate in the balloon release. I remember Sherri telling me that the other members of the family weren't ready for anything remotely happy—they were still heart broken and in shock. I remember thinking that it was absurd that they couldn't get over themselves enough to think about what Mikayla would go through for the rest of her life with her “real Dad”…and then reminding myself that not even my mother had that frame of reference…I was literally the only one who had grown up without their father being alive.
I remember my Mother getting upset with how rude Mitchell’s family was being to her—or at least how she perceived it. I was too much in my own world to notice.
I remember my Mother and I screaming at each other in the rental car as we drove back to the hotel. We both hit each other and I got out of the car in the middle of no-where and ran into corn field that had been cut—only 8 inches or so of the stalks remained. The night was crystal clear—not a cloud in the sky and I could see millions of stars in the sky as I screamed at God with everything I had in me: “This is not my fault! This is not my fucking fault! I fucking hate you! I fucking hate you for letting this happen!” And then I fell to my knees and cried some more—I don’t remember getting back in the car or the flights back to Pennsylvania…other than I flew alone and my Mother had my daughter with her.
I remember going and getting my hair highlighted and permed the day after we returned from Missouri…and I remember going out to dinner that night at the Anchor Inn with the members of the Punxsutawney Presbyterian Church Choir. I don’t remember what I said—when I replay those memories, I am talking but there is no sound…I just remember my Mother being appalled at whatever I’d told the others over dinner…apparently a detailed account of the murder scene.
I remember I didn't go straight home that night. When everyone left the Anchor Inn, I headed to a bar in town known as “The Hotel” to drink—I've never been much of a drinker, but I didn't want to go back to my parents’ house.
I remember watching others I’d gone to high school with laughing, joking and having a good time as I sat detached and numb sipping on a vodka cranberry. I remember thinking how it had felt like the world had stopped turning for me, but for everyone else it was life as usual.
I remember my old crush from high school, Paul Wherle, coming up and talking to me. He must have sensed that I was on a collision course for an massive break down—and I know I got drunk that night. I remember Paul drove me back to my parents and sat with me in their living room talking until nearly 4 in the morning.
I remember my mother coming down and asking me to come into the kitchen where she chewed my ass and told me to get “that man” out of the house and get “my ass” in bed. Looking back, I think she thought Paul was trying to take advantage of me, but I don’t remember him making “a move”—just talking and making sure I was ok.
I remember my mother waking me up at 6:30 the next morning with my step-dad…a man I’d called “Dad” since I was 5, but never felt like I was “his kid”—especially in comparison to how I’d seen him interact with my sisters…it wasn’t really anything he’d ever done or not done. It was that I knew in my heart my “real Dad” was dead and I was angry about it because it was like my mother “just” moved on.
I remember when they woke me up, my Mother handed me $1,000 and told me I had 24 hours to get myself, my things and my children out of the house. I’m not sure where she thought I was going to go—looking back, I think she thought I’d talk to my Aunt Martha and stay with her like I’d done when she had kicked me out of the house my Senior year of high school. I remember she was especially angry about two things:
#1 that I had called Indiana University of Pennsylvania—the college where she worked, thus my tuition was waived and I was scheduled to begin classes mid-way through January 2005—and postponed my enrollment until the fall of the year…telling the college administration office of the loss of my husband and the brain fog that has set in. I remember telling then that getting through the day was challenging right now, and I couldn’t imagine trying to concentrate on classes—let alone even try to get passing grades. The college said they understood and felt this was a good decision given everything I was going through and happily delayed my starting of classes until the fall semester.
#2 that Kent Holmes—who was not only the Reverend of the church I’d grown up attending in Punxsutawney, PA, but was also the father of the children whom I’d babysat very regularly since I was 13. Our families were so close we’d vacationed together at my family’s summer place in Harborside, Maine nearly every summer since Kent had been assigned to our church—announced from the pulpit on the Sunday my mother and I were in Missouri burying Mitchell and about what had happened Christmas Day. His actions came from a place of love and wanting the congregation to be informed and ready to support me and my family in the wake of this massive tragedy…my Mother took his actions as sharing our family’s personal business with others…we hadn’t even put an obituary in the local paper because my Mother didn’t want anyone to know…for her, the fact that I’d been rebellious all through Junior High and High School, endured copious rumors and finally gotten pregnant and “ran away” to get married at the age of 18 was embarrassment enough in a small town she said “never lets anyone forget anything”.
I remember calling Ron and Marci to tell them my Mother had given me 24 hours to “get out”—and they told me I was welcome to come back to Washington and live with them until I could get on my feet. ...