Donald Miller has a book called A Million Miles in A Thousand Years. I bought it the week it came out and I’ve read it about five times since. It’s one of those books that you can read one hundred times and get something new out of it every time. I will probably continue to re-read it until the pages are torn and the cover is too frayed to hold together. And then I will buy a new copy.
Among the pages of this book, Miller speaks about the element of story and how he decided at one point to tell a better story with his life. He says that story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. Analyzing his life and the obvious lack of story, he decides to train to hike the Inca Trail, find his Dad who he’d not seen in 30 years, and go after a girl he’d been interested in. He begins to live and feel pain and loss and true joy. He takes risks. He makes himself stumble into new scenery and put one foot in front of the other until he goes somewhere. He throws himself into life as a character gets thrown into an inciting incident.
I read these words while flying from my hometown in Idaho to Portland, Oregon after spending a week with my family recently. As the landscape gave way to forests of my favorite shades of green and the mountain lakes reflected the rising sun, I pondered what this week had meant to me. I too had told a story with my life. When we began to descend and I saw Mt. Hood standing snow-capped and proud, greeting me to enjoy her beauty, I stared in awe. She had remnants of the past season melting down her, but she stood tall, awaiting the new season and promises of sunshine. Maybe even enough to completely melt the snow that had been covering her for months.
I thought the drama in my family was over. But an appeal was made and a trial date was set and there I was jumping on a plane to sit in yet another courtroom across from my whole biological family. My sister was once again going after every penny she thought my Dad had. When I got in, my Dad and I spent one day getting prepared. During my testimony as his witness two years ago, I cried and shook and every word out of my mouth was a fearful testament to the discomfort and sadness I felt sitting there. Having to defend my father against my sister. But this time, there was no jury, just a judge to decide. I prepared for the trial hoping I wouldn’t break down this time. The only advice my Dad gave me was to speak from the heart. And if I got scared, to just look at him and pretend we weren’t in a courtroom.
My biological mother was there. I hadn’t talked to her in months. There is a certain feeling about seeing someone for exactly who they are. And once you can see the poison that runs through someone’s veins, the guilt or sadness over not being around them immediately leaves your heart. That’s how I felt watching my mother walk in. Her and my brothers sat down the hallway from me the whole time. She even brought my 16 year old brother, who my Dad has partial custody of. But that’s who she is… dragging anyone into her theatrics if it makes her feel justified. She came up, tried to give me a hug and her and my oldest brother tried to chat me up. I was sickened. I wanted to scream at them. How can a person sit there with a smile on their face and ask their daughter about her life and then step through a door ten feet away to announce to a judge that the same daughter is a liar and a gold-digger?
The worst part was that they didn’t even testify until after I had finished my testimony, meaning they were only there to refute what I had said during my time at the witness stand. All they cared about was that I looked like a liar. That the stories I told looked like they’d come out of nowhere. But I still told them. With truth in my heart, a fire in my eyes, and the knowledge that speaking what I knew to be true would allow me to sleep like a baby that night. I wouldn’t allow nerves or fear to get me this time. No, this time I was prepared. And this time I wasn’t worried about the relationships I’d lose for speaking what I knew was the truth. There was no one to hold me hostage but myself.
I opened my mouth. My first words were shaky, but still strong. I talked through the fear and with only a handful of objections the whole time and only a few seconds of my voice breaking to allow a cry, I kept speaking. I told the judge about what it was like to live with my biological mother. I told him about the harsh words she constantly spoke of my Dad. I told him about the constant moving out, sometimes in the middle of the night because my mother had bailed on rent. I told him about the missed school and bad grades. I told him about the time my Dad couldn’t see us for five months because of a temporary court order… I told him that my mother had told me my Dad had abandoned me. That she said my Dad would rather live with his new girlfriend and not speak to me. And I told him that it wasn’t until I was 16 that I found out my Dad hadn’t actually left me, that it was a temporary court order. I told him about visiting my biological sister in the mental institute where she was diagnosed with depression and bipolar. I told him about when I was 15… when I was date raped by a classmate and I begged my mom for counseling and help and she did nothing. I told him about choosing to begin a relationship with my Dad just a year after that incident, needing to be loved and cared for by someone, anyone. I told him how I immediately saw the structure and function in my Dad’s house and how I quickly decided to move in with him. I told him how much I loved that year with my Dad, planning for college, learning how to handle my finances, learning the importance of keeping a job, learning to save and the consequences of not being responsible. I told him that I am the woman I am today because of my relationship with my Dad. And I looked my sister’s lawyer right in the eye as I said that simply put, I showed up to this trial for one reason alone, to expose my sister’s lies and put an end to the decade long drama that has ruined my biological family.
Then, came the hardest part. The cross-examination. I think it’s safe to say that my sister’s lawyer sufficiently hates me. And I’m thankful for that. He wanted to back me in a corner. With a snicker from his mouth and a condescending tone in his voice, he told me that I really moved in with my Dad because my Dad has promised me material goods, didn’t I?
“Isn’t that what really happened, Miss Allen?”
“It sounds like that would be your opinion of what happened, but that wouldn’t be an accurate statement.”
“Isn’t it true that you were driving a rusty, old car before moving in with your Dad? And that your Dad gave you a new car after moving in?”
“Exactly. Meaning I already had access to a car before moving. And what you left out is that moving in with my Dad meant I would no longer be ten minutes from my high school, but 30 minutes, so my Dad, being the loving Dad he was felt it was essential to get me a car he wouldn’t have to worry about me driving in. And by the way, when that car did break down and needed new tires and a new battery, I paid for it. With the job my Dad told me was required if I was to live with him. And the monthly car insurance? That came from me as well.”
We went on this way for only five minutes. I had made it clear that this time, he wasn’t allowed to put any words in my mouth. It was the most liberating moment in my life. My sister, who had gasped and laughed and cried during my testimony in the first trial two years ago, just sat there staring. I had shocked even her. And even better, she knew I was telling the truth. The biggest difference between her and I was our consistency in word. For the past decade, her outlandish stories had changed numerous times and become more and more elaborate and inconsistent. Mine, however, had stayed exactly the same. Because they truly were from my heart and my memory. And hers were from the disturbed mind she’d showcased for us all. And while she got tripped up, changed her story, and ended up stuck during her testimony… while her lies were highlighted in yellow and laid out before her in medical reports she couldn’t deny… while she went to bed that night having to live with the knowledge that she had tried for over a decade to ruin a man’s life… I slept like a baby.