Three years ago, my then-girlfriend Susan and I were taking a walk in her neighborhood, the prosperous Elmwood District in Berkeley, Calif. Like now, it was the time of year where it was already dark before dinner time, though it was still a surprise. We could see the cheery glow of the friendly College Avenue commercial district a block and a half ahead, with its newly installed holiday lights and decorations.
We'd deviated a bit from Susan's standard, complicated route. An elementary-school teacher, she'd suggested a game to test my memory -- I would try to lead. I had made a mistake which she didn't correct, as it would take us only a block out of our way. I was focused on telling her that I realized we weren't on the usual street, so I missed what she heard: the footsteps of someone, whom she assumed to be a jogger, running up behind us.
The first thing I heard was a low, husky voice, almost a stage whisper, practically in my ear: "Give me all your money." For a moment I didn't know what was happening, but Susan turned to him, exclaiming in a voice higher-pitched than usual, "I don't have any money!" I felt a tug on the strap of my little shoulder bag. Normally mild-mannered to a fault, I sensed that this was a kid who had no idea what he was doing -- what kind of robber wouldn't approach his victims from the front, so they would know what was happening, and give them some reason to comply with his demand? -- and I instinctively turned, pulled back on the bag, and said, "Get the fuck out of here." I thought chasing him away would be doing him a favor.
Well, it worked. He turned and ran. But first I saw a flash of fire and felt as if I'd been punched in my lower pelvis. No pain, just impact. No sound, either, though people a block away heard a crack. Neighbors also heard Susan scream, which I didn't. But I did know what had happened, and I told Susan: "He shot me!"
"Are you sure?" asked my skeptical partner. Always ready to let Susan's confidence in her take on reality overcome mine, I answered, "Maybe he was using blanks and I just felt the muzzle blast." I was bent over a little but had no trouble walking, and we continued a half-block to a streetlight, where I could sit on the step at the entry to someone's yard and lean my back against a pillar. "I don't think he shot you," Susan opined. (It wasn't too many days before we learned that we were both traumatized, but we were each calm at the time.) I unbuttoned my Levis, and half-inch circle of blood on my underwear vindicated me.
Meanwhile, our fleeing karma-mate had passed a jogger headed in our direction and told him, "I think a man back there needs help." The jogger stopped by us briefly, then continued a block to where a patrol car was parked. The officer approached (I now know him as Stan, and we still happily greet each other in our rare encounters on the street), and a woman whose step we were on came out with her cell phone. At the time, though, I thought the cop was more interested in law enforcement than in getting me help, and, as the minutes ticked by, and finally a distant siren sounded, and receded, we got more concerned and impatient.
Who Cares What He Looks Like, Where's the Ambulance?
I was getting scared. A bullet had gone into my abdomen, and I was half-sitting, half-lying there, and it seemed like no help was coming. I knew I could be bleeding internally and lose consciousness at any moment, so I started orienting Susan to the family members on my cell-phone contact list. The officer finally made another call. In a few minutes the massive garage door on the fire station across the street lumbered open, and a full-sized fire truck drove over to us.
Paramedics unceremoniously cut off my old leather jacket, belt and jeans. (Susan later admitted being happy to see the jacket ruined.) They, like the people in the ambulance that did come, the emergency-room crew, and the CT scan tech, asked me a lot of questions. I mentioned that something felt sticky under my buttock. It was a little more blood, and there was a bullet inside my underwear. It had entered just above my pubic bone and come out of my right buttock, slightly lower than the place of entry and well off to the side.
Staring at the ceiling of the ambulance, and wishing that Susan were in a part of the vehicle where I could see and talk to her, I remembered the last line of my morning Native American-inspired prayer ceremony: "It's a good day to die." I had said it that morning. The paramedic with me had reassured me that it didn't seem like I was suffering from serious internal bleeding, and I wasn't so scared anymore. But I did reflect on how, when I said those words, I never took seriously that today could be the day.
I also thought about the others -- anonymous to me but certainly a good-sized contingent -- who, like me, had awakened that morning expecting a normal day, but who now, for one reason or another, were on their way to a hospital or were dead. And I thought of those who got hurt but don't have ambulance service where they live.
'This is the Unluckiest and Luckiest Day of Your Life'
That's what the doctor said after the tests were done and the CT scan was read. The emergency-room crew, large, ready and competent, had catheterized me immediately because it looked like a bullet entering where it did would pierce my bladder. Somehow there was no internal damage at all. Eight hours after coming to the emergency room, after tests and then long waiting and observation, I hobbled out under my own power. The medical treatment: a little gauze pad taped over the entry wound, a bandaid for the exit wound. The worst part was the removal of the catheter. Four days later I chaired a meeting as planned, and I got to tell my story.
I wasn't unscathed. My energy was sapped for weeks. I went to a followup medical appointment, then had to rest in my car for an hour, then got some breakfast, then rested again before driving home. A therapist specializing in EMDR for trauma helped me release the greater part of what I was holding. (Susan needed as many sessions as I did.) For awhile, when I was dancing again, crashing drumbeats would send me cowering in tears. Even now, an unexpected expression used in conversation by someone else ("It's not like someone put a gun to you and made you do it") often produces a visible jolt in my body and a short-lived but intense emotional shock.
And often it doesn't. But if my being is so impacted by the experience -- lightweight compared to what our soldiers, their targets and "collateral" victims, the victims of those whom we arm, and so many others in the world endure -- I have to wonder what we are unleashing into the world, while our crime and combat shows and movies portray shootings as not such a big deal.
I took a ritual "reclaim-the-street" walk in the Elmwood last night. I was surprised how many times I suddenly turned around to look behind me, even when I had heard nothing. But I was grateful that I could do it, and for the cool, not-quite-foggy Bay Area night air. And I missed Susan.