Logan and Noah Miller accomplished the impossible — they made a feature film with an award-winning cast and crew despite having no experience, no money and no contracts. When their father died alone in a jail cell, Logan and Noah Miller vowed that “Touching Home” would be made as a dedication to their love for him. Their book “Either You’re In or You're In the Way” captures their experience writing, producing, acting and directing the feature film that is a tribute to their father. An excerpt.
On January 5, 2006, our father died on the cement floor of a jail cell. He’d been in and out of jail over the past several years due to alcohol-related offenses, locked up this time since mid-December. He said nobody really messed with him in there because he was one of the oldest inmates, and the guys sort of respected him for that. He was also the resident artist. Our father spent his last Christmas and New Year’s behind bars. His name was Daniel Arthur Miller. He was fifty-nine.
Earlier in the year he’d been given a seat at the table with “the guys that run the joint,” as he put it, after one of them saw him drawing on a piece of paper at lunch. Valentine’s Day was approaching, and the guy asked if our dad would draw him a Valentine’s Day card for his girlfriend. No problem. Our dad drew the guy a card. The guy sent it to his girlfriend. She loved it. Word spread through the jailhouse, and by the time Valentine’s Day rolled around our dad had drawn cards for nearly every guy’s girlfriend in there. Free walls and refrigerators all over the county were displaying our dad’s love-work.
From then on, he was royalty. Whenever he was in the Marin County Jail there was always a seat waiting for him at the “don’t mess with us table” in the chow hall.
We walked out of Loews Theater on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica after watching “Walk the Line” for the second time.
We rarely watched movies in theaters. We were broke. This was high living, and to pay for a movie twice, well, that was downright profligate.
Noah turned on our cell phone. We had three messages.
“I’ll check them in a sec,” he said. “Let’s walk around a bit.”
During the movie both of us had unsettling thoughts, pre-monitions we were trying to ignore, though neither of us shared these thoughts with the other. We’d been thinking about our dad, reflecting on his situation, how to help him.
About a month earlier we were going to take him to see Cash on the big screen. We had come home to Northern California for the week of Thanksgiving and made plans to spend a day with him. It had been a long time since we’d all hung out. We were going to treat him to a nice restaurant or his favorite burger joint, eat a good steak or greasy cheeseburger, maybe both, and then go see Walk the Line, stuffing our faces with buttered popcorn and Milk Duds, tapping our feet to Cash.
Our dad had been homeless for the last fifteen years, mostly living in his truck, until it was confiscated by the courts ten months earlier. He’d been battling alcoholism his entire adult life and was now sleeping in a thicket of scotch broom, his “hideout” on a wooded hillside in Fairfax, a small town twenty miles north of San Francisco. We had given him a pager for Christmas years earlier so we could stay in touch. If we paged him and he didn’t call back within a couple hours he was either on a drinking binge or in jail. Otherwise, he was more reliable than Swiss time. He knew every pay phone in the area.
It was cold that week in November, the temperature dipping into the twenties. Early Monday morning we found our dad walking down the road, hands in his pockets, hunched over, brittle after a night in the woods. He was wearing a thick down jacket and backpack, incoherent, muttering to himself. We were supposed to meet him in town at 11 a.m. It was now 7 a.m., and we were happy to see him early, make a longer day out of it.
“Hey, Dad-o!” Logan yelled out the window as we pulled alongside him and stopped. “How you doing?”
He was shivering. It took him a moment to recognize us.
“Get in,” Logan said. “We’re gonna have a great day.”
He got in our car. The skin under his eyes was swollen from the cold, leaves in his hair. There was no energy to him, no happiness, no warmth of life. He usually lit up when he saw us. But there was no light today.
Tomorrow, he was going to start serving a thirty-day sentence in the Sonoma County Jail. He’d never been to the Sonoma County Jail before and didn’t know how he’d be treated, didn’t know if some young punk would mess with him or any of the other bullshit that can hit you in jail.
He didn’t know anybody in Sonoma County, and he was uneasy about it.
No worries, Dad-o, we told him.
Today was his day. We were going to spend some money on him, treat him to all the good stuff, whatever he wanted. But he said he couldn’t spend the day with us, wasn’t in the right state of mind to be around people, couldn’t sit inside a dark movie theater. He was in a bad way, the worst we’d ever seen him, like an abandoned dog on a lonely street. We just wanted to hug him and tell him everything was going to be all right.
He’d been a roofer for thirty-five years. But no one would hire him anymore. He said he was practically begging for a job. “It doesn’t feel good, you know . . .”
He’d lost his pride. And that’s what was most painful to see.
“We’re going to start making movies, Dad. You just gotta hang on for a few more years and then we’ll take care of you.”
“I can’t keep starting over . . .”
“Don’t worry,” we told him. “We’ll get through this.”
“You can let me out here,” he said.
We pulled over, sad, frustrated. We’d been watching our dad slowly kill himself for more than twenty-five years. A once vital and robust man, with limitless endurance and strength, was now weak and exhausted. His teeth were rotting. His body was so dependent on alcohol now that he started having seizures when he didn’t drink. He had his first seizure alone in the woods and said it scared him pretty bad, didn’t know what it was. He woke up on his back, staring up at the trees, couldn’t remember how he got there but knew he hadn’t been drinking. Then he had a seizure in jail, and they diagnosed him and started giving him meds. The meds sedated him. It was disturbing to see him that way, a man so far behind his eyes. But when he got out, the only medication he had to prevent the seizures was alcohol. The poison had become the cure.
Alcoholism steals the soul. Perhaps the most painful aspect is that it’s a gradual theft.
“I don’t want you boys to be angry with me,” he said, about to open the door, staring out.
“We’re not, Dad. We love you. We’ll get through this ... We’re proud of you.”
He shrugged, frowned, as though he didn’t believe us. And that killed. We felt like failures. We weren’t where we wanted to be in life and neither was he. None of us could help the other, and we all felt ashamed about it.
We dropped him off in town and gave him money for a meal and a cup of coffee. It was the last time we saw him alive.
We were farther down the Promenade now, on the crowded corner of Santa Monica Boulevard, when Noah decided to check the messages on our cell phone.The first and third messages were from our mom, the second from Coach Gough. Neither said why they called, something like “Call me when you get this message.” But the tone in their voices said everything. There was terrible news awaiting us.
We called our mother. It was as though she didn’t need to tell us, we already knew.
“Noah, is your brother with you?”
“He’s right here.”
“Your father passed away this morning ... I’m so sorry ...”
“No ... Poor Dad ... Poor Dad . . .”
We leaned against the side of a building and cried. People stared.
“He deserved better ... I wish he’d had a better life.”
We loved our father as much as any sons can love. We prayed for him every day and we prayed for him now.
Earlier that day two sheriffs had stopped by our mom’s house in Fairfax to inform us of our father’s death. At first, they wouldn’t tell our mom why they were there, only that they were looking for us. So she wouldn’t tell them anything either. If they wanted to know where her boys were, then they were going to have to tell her why, and maybe then, maybe, she’d tell them where we were.
We told our mom that we were driving home immediately. The next day there would be a story in the newspaper about an inmate dying in jail. We didn’t want Grandma to find out that way. We needed to tell Grandma in person, sit down with her. This was her son. Our dad was more than some reporter’s scoop.
We hung up our cell phone and walked crying down the busy sidewalk, around the tourists, panhandlers, and buskers. Everything was blurry.
We hugged each other when we got inside our apartment, threw some clothes into a duffel bag, and headed North on I-5. It was past midnight. We listened to memories through the dark-ness.
“Poor Dad ...” Noah kept saying, shaking his head as he cried. “I wish he’d had a better life ...”
He died alone in jail, a horrible place under any circumstances, but to die there gasping on the floor with no one who cared . . .
We drove north all night and arrived in Fairfax at dawn. We needed to go tell Grandma her son was dead. We went over to her apartment and sat down with her and held her hand. She reacted the way any mother would.
We stayed there for several hours. We did what we could for her and then it was time to go.
It was getting colder and darker and we needed to say goodbye to our father.
On December 19, he was released from the Sonoma County Jail, took the bus out of that county, found a liquor store, got drunk, and was picked up by the police and thrown back in the Marin County Jail eight hours after being released from Sonoma. He spent Christmas in jail, and we didn’t visit because we were pissed at him.
They said they needed to conduct an autopsy. We told them our father wouldn’t want that, asked them to let him be and not cut him open. He always told us he never wanted to be gutted like a fish. They said they had to.
When someone dies in jail, they’re still not free. The deceased is only free once the authorities say so. The body remains property of the state until the state is done. Various procedures need to be performed to determine if foul play or negligence was involved. Basically, the government needs to cover its ass.
The coroner called after the autopsy and told us our father was being held at a local mortuary. We drove over there. We had dreamed about making enough money to get him a little apartment where he could be warm and watch TV, eat a hot meal, away from the cold and rain, where he could sleep and not worry, where he could wake up and not shiver, where he could be proud. But the dream was over now. We had failed our father. If we had been more successful, more involved with him, been around more — if we had been more than we were maybe he’d still be alive.
We pushed through the glass doors and were greeted by the mortician. We sat in his office and discussed the financial realities of death. He started by saying that the county classified our dad as an “indigent” and as such, would pay for the services. We declined their generosity. It was our duty and we would pay for it. He wasn’t an indigent to us. He was a wartime veteran, and the government would send us a flag in honor of his service.
“We’d like to see our father now . . .”
The mortician wheeled out a cardboard coffin and removed the top. We hoped to see someone other than our father, hoped he was still alive and that the jail had made a mistake. But the man in the cardboard coffin was our father. His torso was cut open, covered with blue paper towels. There was blood smeared on his right forearm and neck where they had tried to clean him up.
Even with the blood, there was a peacefulness about him that gave him back ten years of his life. His bloated skin had smoothed away the wrinkles and rejuvenated his weathered features. His hair was combed. But there was a yellow tinge to his face and the cold of his body was death. He was gone forever. The pain swelled and was then unleashed. We held his hand, crying, told him we loved him, told him we were proud of him . . . told him we were sorry.
We thought about the last time we saw him, on that cold day in November, and what he told us in the car just before we dropped him off.
“I wish I could’ve been better to you boys growing up ... I’m sorry that I wasn’t. I’ve never been able to be there for you one hundred percent ... And I know I never will be ... Thanks for never giving up on me . . .”
We tried to cheer him up. “We’re going to start making movies, Dad. We’re really close. We’re going to do some great things together; fishing in Alaska, camping in Montana, sailing the oceans, like we’ve always dreamed. You just gotta take better care of yourself . . .”
“I know ... I know.”
Then we remembered a few months before that, the last time we visited him in jail. He lifted up his orange shirt, revealing his lean stomach, and hit his abs with his fist. “This is where you come to get fit ... When are you gonna make our movie?”
“Soon, Dad ... Soon.”
“Who’s gonna play me? He’s gotta be good-looking.”
He always reminded us of our dad.
“Yeah, he’s good. I’ll give him permission to be me ... The sheriff will negotiate on my behalf.”
We all laughed. It was a jailhouse dream, an impossible dream, something to be accomplished in another lifetime when you could start over and make all the right decisions. Ed Harris was light-years from our moment.
Our dad knew how hard we were working to break into the business. He wished he could help us and felt worthless that he could not. Years earlier, his heart was broken when we failed to realize our baseball dreams, not because he had wanted it for himself, but because he knew how much it meant to us. His heart was broken because our hearts were broken. And now ours were broken again.
We always thought we could save him. And now we had to accept that we could not.
As we continued holding his cold hand and caressing his cold head, telling him that we loved him and that we were sorry, our sadness and guilt grew into frustration and defiance.
We wanted to prove that his life was important, that he was loved, that his final chapter was not the shameful end on a jail cell floor—that his life had been worth living.
We squeezed his hand for the last time and made a vow. “When are we making our movie, Pops? ... This year ... this year …”
In death, our father gave us what he was unable to give us in life. From now on we’d be riding with the full force of his spirit. Nothing could stop us, not fear, not money, nothing. Only God could decide otherwise, and we hoped he was on our side.
From then on, either you were in, or you were in the way.