Many people’s lives have been saved by seat belts since these laws went into place in the late 1960s. Many people’s lives have been saved by drunk driving laws since these laws went into place in the late 1970s. Many people’s lives have been saved by smoking restrictions since these restrictions went into place in the mid 1990s. We can’t seem to get a handle on the gun thing, though.
In October 2006, I was traveling in another country. As the sun was setting on a gorgeous day, I hopped in a small van to head home. 20 minutes into the ride, a fireball about the size of a fist appeared in front of me, and half a second later, I heard a blast in my left ear — the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. The noise was so violent I literally assumed I had lost hearing forever in that ear. People started screaming and yelling to duck. Everyone crouched down. The van was being shot upon. I remember trying to make my body as small as I could, not knowing how many bullets were flying through or where they were coming from. I remember thinking, literally from second to second, “I don’t think I’ve been shot. Okay, I still don’t think I’ve been shot.”
The van stopped on the side of the road, and people screamed to the bus driver to keep driving. The van lurched forward, and we continued. The driver finally pulled into a gas station. People began to get out of the van. I didn’t freeze out of fear, but paused, not knowing who was shooting at us, how many gunmen they were, and where they were. I thought, “Is there a gunman just picking people off as they jump out of the van? If that’s happening, I’d get shot for sure.” In that moment, I saw the man in the seat in front of me, his body lurching forward and backward, his head bent down, blood dripping from his forehead like a faucet that wasn’t turned off all the way. It’s an image that remains in my brain to this day. I think it’ll be there forever.
I don’t remember this, but I was told later that the woman sitting to my left, who was about my age, pushed me towards the door of the van. I was sitting between her and the door, trying to figure out if exiting the van would get me shot or not. I suppose the physical push was what I needed to make a decision.
We both got out, and she fell into screaming hysterics. My way to cope was to focus my energy on her. I calmly but firmly put one hand on her back and my other hand on her arm, and guided her to a place near the gas station, away from the van. Still on alert like an animal being hunted, seconds of not hearing any gun shots turned into minutes, and I began to understand that we were no longer a half-second away from having a bullet rip through our bodies. My new friend told me her boyfriend, who was 30 minutes away, would pick us up and drive me back to my hotel. As we sat there waiting for him, I happened to touch the back of my neck and felt liquid. I instinctively looked at my fingers and saw blood. I knew that I could have been shot, but not felt it due to shock. The body has amazing self-preservation tactics in emergencies. Calmly and quickly, I touched the back of my neck again and kept feeling around until my fingers went from sensing skin and some blood to metal. I found the problem. I ascertained that the metal was very small, no bigger than a bug, and that it wasn’t life threatening. I asked my new friend if her boyfriend could drop me off at the hospital instead of the hotel.
Her boyfriend finally arrived. Both of these strangers had become a God-send — they were my link to safety in a country where I had one friend who was meeting me at the hospital 30 minutes from where we were. On the drive to the hospital, the car ran over a branch, it broke, we heard it snap, and my new friend and I instinctively ducked at the same time. We got to the hospital, and I met up with my friend. I told her I thought someone had died. I suppose I heard that back at the gas station. She gently said, “Don’t think about that right now.” Good advice. Later, this information got confirmed. I don’t know if the person who died was the man in front of me or someone else. If it was the man in front of me, was he dead when I was looking at him? Or did he die later?
At the hospital, the X-ray showed two small pieces of shrapnel superficially embedded in my neck. There were two options: Have surgery then and there to get them out or get on my flight home the next day and have them taken out in the States. Option number two, please. I was released from the hospital, got to the hotel, and got in the shower. A small but noticeable chunk of hair came out. “Weird,” I thought, until I realized the metal had probably cut the hair before it entered my skin.
The next day, I got on my flight, made my layover, and got back home. Dad arranged for the surgery in the hospital where he worked. Mom told me that some of the Vietnam vets she knew had shrapnel from the war that just popped out one day, months after they arrived back in the States. The body tries to expunge foreign objects when and where it can. Other Vietnam vets, she told me, walked around with shrapnel in their bodies for the rest of their lives, because it’s more dangerous to try to get it out than leave it in. Vietnam vets? She’s equating something I’m experiencing with being in ‘Nam?
12 days later, I was back in my office. While colleagues were preparing for a party in the conference room, a balloon popped. I closed the door so no one would see me melting down — The sound completely overwhelmed me, and I fell into heavy sobs. Three weeks after I lost my shit over a popped balloon, my family and I were together for Thanksgiving. During dinner, looking at my family around the table, I couldn’t move the reality from my mind that there would be an empty chair for one family this year at their holiday dinner. After minutes of trying to hold it in, I finally abruptly left the table, went to the basement of my parents’ house, and let it out. Heavy and loud sobs, gasping for air between sobs, shaking, snotting everywhere — I’ve never cried like that before or since. But the body works to expunge the trauma, just like the shrapnel.
And yet, I realized how lucky I was, even just hours after the shooting. I had a hospital to go to, a ride to the hospital, a friend to meet me at the hospital, a cell phone to call said friend, health insurance, etc.
The luckiest thing, though, I didn’t find out until two weeks after the shooting. The gunman used a rifle. He killed one person, and one person only. He could not just keep spitting out those bullets, firing more than 13 bullets per second like many automatic and semi-automatic weapons do. Nor could he use high capacity magazines to fire 30, 50, or even 100 bullets before having to reload. In the country where this happened, the guns laws do not allow for people to have such weaponry. I survived the shooting, and the lack of automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, and high capacity magazines in that country are probably why.
I think about what it would have been like for my parents and siblings to sit front row at my funeral over a decade ago. Closed casket, for sure. What would their lives have been like since? Would they do an annual memorial for me on my birthday or on the day I was killed? Or both? What would my birthday have been like for them each year? Would my Dad have died two years ago, when he got diagnosed with his second malignancy? Losing a child to gun violence surely would wear down one’s stamina to fight cancer. My niece and nephews wouldn’t know me, at all. They’d only hear about me in painful recollections, and I’m an aunt that gives a lot of love. A lot. The thing I’m probably best at in my life is being a loving aunt. I think kids need a lot of love from many places, and I think I give a unique kind of love. So they would just never have received the love I give? Okay, I’m stopping there, because thinking about my family enduring that kind of loss is way too overwhelming. What about friends who’ve become family? I think of all the love and support and comfort and joy we’ve given each other over the years. They would have just lived without it this whole time? Who would’ve done the reading at my one friend’s wedding? At other friends’ weddings, would there have been another bridesmaid or would there just have been one less? When a friend called me in tears about something difficult two weeks ago, who would she have called instead? I think about the close friendships I’ve made since that day. None of them would have known me. They wouldn’t have known I ever existed.
So thank you, politicians of that country I was shot in. You may make life very difficult and painful for those who want to own semi-automatic and automatic weapons and high capacity magazines, but cannot. But you also avoided making life very difficult and painful for my family and friends since that fateful day in October 2006. I feel confident that you made the right decision.