This piece may contain content not suitable for children.
If you would have asked me while I was growing up what my thoughts were on “hate”, I would have told you I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a wasted emotion, and wasted energy to hate someone or something. Then at some point in your life, you go through an unimaginable tragedy, the kind that you only see on TV.
See, my beautiful daughter Ashley May was taken and killed at the hands of her father on August 21, 2001. At the precious age of 5
years old, she was beaten over a hundred blows and thrown across her bedroom, her abdomen hit on the bedpost. She passed away from internal injuries four days later, since her father would not seek medical attention for her. Ashley’s death was painful, and the hardest part was that it was preventable. My 4-year-old son was also severely beaten, but survived his injuries. So, you go through this horrific tragedy and it changes your life in so many ways.
But if you ask me today what my thoughts are on “hate,” I would answer the same way. See, hating Rodger, Ashley’s father, would get me nowhere. It would be an exhausting, time-consuming emotion that would slowly eat away at me. I have chosen to live my life, and to not be consumed by negativity. Now, that doesn’t mean that my life has been easy. Losing Ashley was the hardest and most painful moment of my life. But even though I didn’t hate this man… forgiving him would be another hard challenge.
After burying my daughter, I had to go through the painstakingly detailed trial. When the trial began, I went to the attorney and told him I want to see and know everything. He tried to shield me from some of the details and autopsy photos, but I wouldn’t let him. I saw everything, and he took the time to show me everything in detail and explain to me patiently and compassionately everything that happened. The enlarged horrifying autopsy photos, the testimonies… everything. I spoke with every witness, thanking them for everything that they were doing. I even had military escorts during the trial so that the reporters weren’t able to contact me without my approval. And throughout the trial I didn’t cry once, I kept all emotion out of it…
Until the last day. The day of the sentencing. I left the trial, arrived at the hotel room and cried and cried for over an hour until I had no tears left to cry. And then I took a moment and wrote this poem:
The Lonely Night
The nights are so lonely,
Because there is no more escape
No more crowds to hide in
No more streets to walk.
The night is when the demons come
Where there is nowhere to hide
And there is nothing left to say
All you can do is cry
And when you cry
Until you can’t cry anymore
That’s when you truly are alone.
Because not even your tears
will keep you company.
All you are left with
is an emptiness inside
A hollow soul too tired to care
A broken heart too hurt to love
Your mind screaming for help
but your mouth can’t form the words.
You pray that sleep will come
to make the demons go away.
But fear will sit deep
inside of you throughout every
moment of every day
For too this day will pass
and the night,
that lonely night will come again.
That was honestly my darkest day, and after writing this, at that moment, I knew that I was taking the first step in the grieving process and that I needed to begin to forgive Rodger of his wrongdoing. While he was in prison, I actually contacted him first. My family was confused and couldn’t understand it, but I knew that I needed to know what he was thinking, to try to understand what happened. I will never truly be able to comprehend how someone could hurt a child like he did, but I also know that in order to live my life, I had to take the steps to heal.
The first letter I received from Rodger was a lot of small talk. He thanked me for letting him stay in contact and thanked me for sending him pictures of my family. It took several months for the next letter to come. It started out, ” I apologize for not writing back sooner. It’s not easy knowing what to write, or when or how often. I want to write every day, or every week at least but I don’t want you or Austin to feel pressured to keep up.” He goes on to say, “Carissa, I sincerely hope that you can appreciate just how hard it is for me to try to communicate with you. I feel so much guilt, so much hurt and so much fear at how you might react. I don’t want to hurt you anymore. Please write back.”
The next letter was one that went into what he did and why: “Ashley died as a result of my actions and my inactions. First, the fact that I beat her severely and second because I did not provide medical help for her. Austin is very lucky in that he did not receive the same injuries that Ashley did. I am not proud of what I did or didn’t do. It is simply the facts I have to live with. I look back and see that there were several times when, had I chosen differently, I might have saved them both from myself. I cannot change the past, though. I can only strive to never allow myself those mistakes again. I am becoming a better man, Carissa. I’ve learned quite a few things that show me where I can improve my decision-making in the future. Speaking of new starts, I’m almost done with my Assaultive Offenders treatment program, and since I started it I have learned so many things about myself and the reasons I made some of the choices I have made-especially those which lead me to hurt Ashley and Austin. I’m not proud of myself, for making those mistakes, but I am learning to recognize the thoughts which lead up to them, and by seeing those thoughts ahead of time, I can stop myself from getting to that point again. So, I guess it is safe to say I am proud of myself for being able to change, and willing to accept the consequences of my actions.”
Even though it took years I have gotten to the point where I believe I’ve forgiven Rodger for what he has done. I will never forget, but I truly believe that everything in your life happens for a reason. I think that all of this is so I can in turn help others. I continue to have limited contact with Rodger, and I will give Austin the opportunity to have contact if he chooses once he is 18.
A couple years later, I began a charity in memory of my daughter called “Ashley’s Promise”. All the proceeds go to Easter Seals Nurturing Program, which teaches parents who are already suspected of abuse and neglect on how to be loving and nurturing. And honestly, if I help one child, one family, or even one person struggling with grief, then I feel like I’ve truly kept my daughter’s memory alive.