What was something that others did that made you feel less alone as you were going through the season of suffering?
They showed up. At every court case, they were there. As soon as I was allowed visitors, they came. Both friends and family flew in from across the country to be present when I needed it the most. They drove for hours to Corona, San Diego, Malibu just to be there. My sister was super woman acting as my “social coordinator” amidst her full time job as mom and a career. The out-pouring of love and support was so endless that there was not a single visiting day that I did not have a line-up of friends and family coming from near and far to see me. They brought feasts from all my favorite places. They brought tacky sweater parties. Cheese fests. Birthday cakes. Thanksgiving feasts. Glimpses of the outside world - of “real” life. They brought encouragement on the darkest days. They brought glimpses of hope. And while He was for not one moment absent, they brought Jesus.
What is one thing you will never take for granted again?
The small things. Being stripped of everything forces a new perspective. It is in the mundane that I am most struck by overwhelming gratitude. The ability to freely walk down the street. Going to the grocery store. Starbucks. Morning phone calls with friends. A Tuesday night dinner with my brother. Watching the sunset. Toes in the sand. Riding my bike wherever it takes me.
There were a number of years - in the months that followed my accident and after I returned home - in which I did not have a license and my bike was my primary mode of transportation. Getting places wasn’t always easy, but I was able. In the time leading up to my sentencing, that bike took me from lawyer meetings to therapy appointments. To yoga and the grocery store. It took me to many beach cliff sunsets. Many days on that bike were spent with tears streaming down my face as wildly as the wind blowing through my hair.
While it was challenging to get around, that bike afforded me the opportunity to engage in the outside world. It became so much more than just a means of transportation, it became a symbol of my freedom.
And that is the heart of what my gratitude for all of the “small things” is really about. That they all point to a gratitude tied to something much deeper, something that I will never again take for granted - my freedom.
What still made (or makes) you laugh, even in the midst of the deepest part of your suffering?
The moments of levity - when you feel like you can barely breath and suddenly you are laughing while tears are streaming down your face. The God moments where you feel so defeated and consumed and God delivers a moment of the straight up absurd to carry you thru.
Case in point: Riding through the streets of Los Angeles on the day of my surrender, handcuffed to a bench. I tried to keep my face to the window to hide the tears falling down my cheeks as I stared through barred windows at the streets and places I’d driven for the past 12 years in freedom. Just as I thought I may not be able to suppress my sobs, the song “I’m in love with a stripper” came blaring through the bus speakers, much to the delight of all my fellow bus mates. It is pretty hard to cry when you have a bus full of soulful sisters jamming out to that one. Thank God for moments of humor.
Is there a mantra/prayer/scripture/symbol/art/song that has daily helped you make it through each moment?
"Day at a time." The day that my accident happened, my world was shattered. Life would never be the same. I was out on bail, facing the possibility of life in prison, dealing with my Dad dying, processing the reality that I had taken a life. For the first time in my life I didn’t know if I could keep on going. The weight of it all felt like it was going to crush me. I didn’t know what my life was going to look like. I didn’t know how to continue on with life when I was responsible for taking the life of another person. Why did I get to live? Why not Will?
Drowning in a sea of regret, despair, and grief, God gave me a glimpse of hope in the reminder that I didn’t need to have everything figured out - I just needed to trust Him one day at a time. At times when the waves of sorrow would crash over me, it was often one breath at a time. But in each breath, each step, each day, God was faithful. He brought me through a season I never thought I could survive, day at a time.
Was there a turning point moment when you moved from the tragedy into hope? What helped this shift occur or was it more of a daily rhythm of choosing?
God provided continual moments of grace and glimpses of hope on the darkest of days, in the midst of the most heart-wrenching agony. But the break through moment in shifting from despair to hope took place when I started to accept what it meant to truly surrender. Below is an excerpt from one of my prison “blogs”, written on my 32nd day as inmate WE5363 from cell 46 of LA County Jail, my first stop as I waited for intake to the State Prison system. It is the story of the day in which I surrendered to the court to begin serving my time, but of a much more meaningful surrender that was taking place.
Sunday, Oct. 21st 2012 (day 32)
My eyes open to 2 realities this morning:
Diane is yelling at me to get up. It’s time for breakfast.
I’ve survived a whole month here. And 2 days to be exact. But who’s counting?
It’s strange how time passes here. Days become indistinguishable, one to the next, as they blur together in fast-forward mode. Yet, minutes will drag on FOREVER, as if Father Time is hitting the almighty pause button in hourly intervals between each tick of the second hand. And in the lapse of time that exponentially prolongs seconds into eternities, I’m no longer a newbie here, as I’m reminded by the all too familiar morning exchange between my bunkeeand me (and thus reinforced by the fact that I just used the word “bunkee”). But in the way that days are swallowed into time’s vacuum, it was only yesterday that I was standing in court the day of my surrender.
The details of the day are all so fresh. I close my eyes and I hear the clink of the bailiff hand-cuffing me and the simultaneous sob that comes from my sister. I blink and I’m hugging Steve, my lawyer, now friend. I’m turning around and clinging to the last glimpse of my brother and sister’s tear-stained faces. I’m walking towards the door which marks the division between myself and freedom. I’m searching for and connecting with the eyes of Will’s sister, his only family member present, in a final attempt to soothe the incurable pain that is locked in our stare, praying she can read the remorse in my eyes that the words I’m mouthing to her will never be able to communicate. I’m stepping through the dreaded doorway, over the threshold where I lose it all. And I’ve surrendered.
As I think over the day I just experienced, yet seemingly transpired in another lifetime, I’m reminded of the intense and equally contrasting emotions that the word, even just the thought of, surrender has evoked in me. It began as just the name of an unknown date on the calendar. The day when I forfeited all that meant something to me, gave up everything and everyone I love and walked away from my life. The words “surrender date” rendered me powerless to the crippling paralysis of fear that would overtake my mind.
I remember sitting on my therapist’s couch—cliché but true—and as the subject of the unknown day came up, everything inside me tensed. She paused , and in a manner both gentle and matter of fact, pointed out what a freeing and beautiful word “surrender” is in the midst of a very scary and disillusioning legal process. Obvious though it might be, it hit me like a ton of bricks. How I had let the all-consuming anxiety surrounding that day define the word. And as I stepped back from the despondency I had allowed to take root, gradually, the truth in the meaning of surrender began to resurface in my mind.
To let go. To release control. To give it all up. ALL of it—the good and the bad. NO more clinging, NO more grasping. Palms up, to borrow the words of a wise man named Bob (we’ll call him a friend for practical purposes, I don’t think he’ll mind).
So, as I walked through the court doorway that marked my claiming and watched it close behind me, counter-intuitive as it may be, there was something freeing in the act. Though it will forever be one of the hardest days I’ve made it through thus far, the fear of all the loss was replaced by a peace that doesn’t logically register. I was there in physical submission, but the true surrender of heart, that no man can dictate, had already taken place.
Waking each new morning, I’m reminded that surrender is not just a singular action, it is a life-long process. Daily there are new fears and worries: When do I go to Chowchilla? Will I be housed with the same people there? Will these arms comply with fire camp training and even be able to do ONE pull-up? What news will be waiting on the other end of the line when I call home TODAY?? Will I ever again see my Poppa in this lifetime???
Conversely, there are new hopes and dreams to release to the heavens as well: For the appendages I’ve carried with me throughout life, otherwise known as arms, to do the unthinkable and sprout functioning muscles. For the pneumonia to be gone from my Dad’s body so he can continue to fight the brain tumor. To be able to sit at Malibu fire camp holding my Poppa’s hands as we visit and eat REAL food. For MIRACLES.
As I’m reminded by day 32 of the mile-markers that 24 hour intervals serve, I pray for the continued ability to daily let go. To surrender all, day at a time, because I know how senseless it is to grasp and cling in the illusion of control. And so I open my hands, palms up, and release all I’ve got that isn’t mine to hold into Greater Hands. Hands that receive it all and hold everything securely. My hopes. My fear. My Poppa. Our futures.
All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give,
I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.
I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee,
My blessed Savior, I surrender all.
What was one of the greatest miracles that you kept you going in the midst of your deepest suffering?
It was Christmas day. My first Christmas as an inmate when I got the news. I was sitting on the linoleum floor of my prison dormitory common area having a Christmas party with some new friends. We ate nachos with top ramen on them and “prison cheesecake” made of powdered coffee creamer and sprite (where there is a will, there is a way). I remember being so grateful for the sweet moment with new friends in the midst of such a scary time, but being so crushed to be away from my family - especially my dad, who was so rapidly declining. Shockingly enough, it was not the brain tumor that was the main concern, but the pneumonia that had overtaken his frail body.
I remember the guard walking up to our small circle and calling my name. I didn’t want to admit it was real, but I knew it was. Shaking and sobbing in the cold office of the kind, empathetic lieutenant, I called home to confirm the news from my brother - he was gone…. My poppa had gone to be with Jesus.
In this life, I was never going to see him again…. I could not imagine any greater devastation.
Then I was told I would not be allowed to attend his funeral. I was shattered.
At first I was resigned to my powerless state. I was an inmate, afterall. Although it went against every fiber of my being as my fighter-of-a-momma’s daughter, I tried my best to accept my reality. Thankfully that did not last for long.
As part of my “welcome to prison warming package”, they had given me a handbook called the “Title 13”. My counselor assured me that although I was a prisoner, I had rights - my Title 13 outlined them all. So I started reading.
It was 2 days before my Dad’s funeral that I marched into my counselor’s office with that prison bible and showed her the exact clause that challenged her reason for denying my right to go to my father’s funeral.
While I fought my hardest from the inside, my amazing brother and sister had the prison warden and everyone on her staff on speed dial. They were relentless in advocating for me.
On the morning of my Dad’s memorial service at Bible Fellowship Church in Ventura, CA, the church he pastored faithfully for 16 years, I was there. With my hair curled in toilet paper prison curlers, I was able to stand in front of the multitude of people whose lives had been so impacted by the amazing man that was Roland Niednagel.
I was there to share my love for the man who had given everything he had to be the most amazing father to me that he could possibly be. A man whose wisdom, kindness, love for Jesus and laughter could not be matched. One of my closest friends. I was able to be there to honor the life of the greatest man I’ve ever known.
Talking to the officer that was my escort, in the 20+ years he had been working at the prison, I was only the second person he had every escorted to a funeral. In that time, he had only seen a handful of people ever be released to go. It had been over a decade since it had happened. For the duration of my time at Chowchilla, I was referred to by the guards as “the celebrity”.
While all logic and precedent said I should not be at my Dad’s funeral, God made a way. In a place and at a time when there appeared to be no hope, God’s goodness and mercy proved uncontainable. He gave me my miracle.
I got to be there.