And Nobody Died That Day by Norah Vawter

It happened on Oct. 6, 1984, outside a public library in New Orleans. My mother threw her body on top of mine to protect me. I was lucky enough to escape with no permanent physical injury. But she was hit in the back of the neck and paralyzed. She spent 20 years in a wheelchair before finally succumbing to her injuries.

Every day in the United States, 96 people are killed and 192 people injured by gun violence, on average. That includes homicides, suicides and accidental deaths — I believe the term “violence” includes all three. Bullets are always violent, whether the person holding the gun is trying to kill himself, someone else or just playing around.

When we get caught up in the politics and the statistics of this whole mess, it’s easy to forget that victims and survivors are not statistics or talking points. We are real people. We live in the aftermath of violence. We live with the consequences of too many guns and too few regulations. And the story doesn’t end the day of the shooting. It continues for weeks, months, years, even decades. This is my story.

***

In my life, there is “before” and “after.” In the middle is a moment, suspended in time and space. The moment when the shooting happened. I was 4 ½ years old, but I remember this moment. Oct. 6, 1984 was a sunny Saturday in New Orleans, where we lived. My mother and I were outside our public library; it was broad daylight. A strange man approached as my mother was getting me out of the car.

I remember his dirty clothes, his dirty skin. The strange man asked my mother for directions. She politely said she didn’t know. He appeared to be intoxicated. Then he pulled out a handgun, saying, “I come to kill you and your baby.” My mother had never seen the man before, and it’s unlikely that he had any reason to target us. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I thought he was pointing a toy gun at us. I didn’t understand what was happening. I was about to shout that I was not a baby, that I was 4 ½ years old. I never got the words out, because he started shooting. His eyes seemed empty, almost dead.

He shot my mom in the abdomen. She managed to turn around, jumping on top of me, trying to protect me. He shot her in the back of the neck, but she protected me from the worst. He shot me two or three times, grazing my neck, puncturing my lung and my arm.

It was over quickly, maybe a minute, probably less. The shooter ran away. My mom was bleeding everywhere, already paralyzed from the neck down. Surprisingly, she stayed conscious and lucid. I’m glad she did. I hurt so, so much. I hadn’t realized that pain like this existed. I hadn’t realized fear like this existed. No one had ever told me that there were real guns that shot bullets like this. It was all very confusing, surreal though I didn’t know that word, and I was still upset at being called a baby by the shooter. My mama stayed calm, telling me, “It’s okay, love. It’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s okay.” Over and over again. She didn’t cry, scream, or panic. I’ve often wondered if I’d be as strong a person today if my mother had acted merely human in those minutes after the shooting. If she’d cried, or screamed, or passed out, or showed any weakness.

The shooter was never found or identified. Luckily for us, we were two blocks from Charity Hospital. We were rescued by two police officers, parked in their cruiser around the corner, and two ER nurses who heard the report on their police radio and, realizing how close we were, came sprinting down the street. The ambulance was taking too long, so the officers drove my mother in their car, going against protocol, a professional risk they did not have to take. But doctors said those officers saved her life. If she’d waited for the ambulance, she would have bled out and died. One of the nurses swooped me up into his arms and sprinted back to the hospital, cradling me like a baby. I continue to be grateful to these four kind individuals who went above and beyond the call of duty and showed us that human decency still existed. One man did a terrible thing, and all these other people around me were brave and strong and admirable.

Despite a collapsed lung and a nasty hole in my arm, I was discharged from the hospital a week later. My wounds healed into scars. I had no permanent physical injuries, but I was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I still have persistent nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD.

My mother stayed awake long enough for my father to join her in the emergency room. My parents had to make a choice, and each option was terrible. Should doctors perform surgery to save her life? Or should she refuse surgery and die? The problem was that even with surgery, she would remain a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of her life. Her injury was high enough that doctors did not expect her to be able to move anything but her head and neck. If the bullet had hit her spine any higher, she would have suffered brain damage. And even with surgery, doctors told my parents that they expected her to die within a week.

She chose the surgery, chose to live. She was determined not to leave me motherless, or leave my father to pick up all the pieces. A few days later she had a near-death experience. She later told me that she felt herself leave her body, floating above the bed. She felt herself being pulled towards a light. She described a feeling of tendrils pulling her up, making it easy to go up. But she heard my father, who was sitting by her bed, yelling, pleading with her not to die. He said I needed her. He said he needed her. And so she turned back, came back, and she said it was much harder to come back, like those tendrils were now fighting against her, like she was swimming against the current. I don’t know if what my mother saw was real. But I know that she chose to live. Again and again over the years, she chose to live. And that simple choice was braver than anything I’ve ever seen anybody else do.

While she did not die on October 6, 1984, you could say that she suffered a fate worse than death. She survived the week. So doctors gave her a month. She survived that month. They gave her two months. Then six months. Then a year. Then they stopped making predictions because she defied all expectations. Sometimes I think she kept herself alive by sheer force of will. For the first six months, she was unable to breathe, eat or drink on her own, and so was hooked up to a respirator and feeding tube. She couldn’t talk for those first six months either, and communicated with doctors and family members by blinking. She had to learn to breathe on her own again, to talk, to eat. Eventually she learned how to operate a power wheelchair. She used a mouth-stick to type, to turn the pages of a book, to hold a pen and sign her initials. She wasn’t able to hug me or hold me. I learned to climb into her lap or her bed, and gently wrap her stiff arm around me.

She didn’t come home until 1986, living in hospitals and a rehab center for about a year and a half after the shooting. My father and I had already moved to a small town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, to be close to my mom’s family. When she finally came home, she required round-the-clock care. Nurse’s aides would work in shifts in our house for the rest of her life.

Her physical condition brought out the worst in her. Already a perfectionist, she became difficult to work for— understandably angry and bitter, but also controlling, demanding. She depended on the rest of us to do things like feed her, read the mail, move an item from one table to the next, organize the spice cabinet. We frequently got it all wrong. One year, we went through 50 nurse’s aides. But two came to work for us at the very beginning and just refused to leave. They made us part of their families. And we made them part of ours. Doris Robinson Reid and Margarett Anderson stayed by her side until she died. They were like mothers to me.

My mother was able to afford in-home health care because she received workers’ compensation for her injuries. That day at the library, she’d been returning materials she’d previously checked out for her job. That was enough for my father to fight for coverage. He succeeded. She received two-thirds of her salary along with payment for medical expenses, salaries of nurse’s aides, necessary changes to the house, etc. Without these funds, my family would have been forced to put her in a nursing home, and doctors believed she would not have lived as long without the careful, meticulous care she received at home from Doris, Margarett, and other nurse’s aides who cared enough to go above and beyond the call of duty.

I continued to live with my mom even after my dad died from heart disease in 1988 (not directly related to the shooting but possibly aggravated by the extreme stress of its aftermath). There was always someone there — a nurse’s aide or a family member — but the one constant was the two of us. Mother and daughter.

At first, her health was extremely fragile. She was in the hospital at least once a year, often more, with pneumonia. (Quadriplegics are extremely susceptible to this.) No one expected her to survive my childhood and definitely not my adolescence. I was prepared to live with one of my aunts if my mom were to die.

Eventually, my mom got healthier. In the last 10 years of her life, she was only hospitalized twice. Still, she was in a lot of pain, physically and emotionally. She was bored because she couldn’t work, so she had lots of time to meddle in my life, anybody’s life really. That was never appreciated. But she did raise me, and I ended up okay. My mother saw me graduate high school and college and become gainfully employed. When I was 24, she got pneumonia and didn’t get better. I had gotten engaged right before this, and was able to share the news with her in the ICU. My fiancé, now husband, and I even danced a wedding dance around her hospital bed. The next day, she chose to cease life support: I think she was finally able to let go because I was all grown up. I think she must have felt her work as a mother was done.

I dream about ordinary things — spending Christmas with my mom and baking Cherry Wink cookies together, driving her crazy by throwing tinsel at the tree instead of hanging it strand by strand. I’d give anything to sit my 5-year-old son on her lap, and listen to her tell him a Sally and Sam story, the kind she made up for me. (Sally and Sam stories feature adventures as of a brother and sister following their archaeologist father around the world.)

My son does have grandparents on my side of the family. My aunt and uncle have adopted both of us. He calls them Bubbie and Zayda, the Yiddish terms for grandparents. Still, I want him to know my mom and dad.

Because of one man and one gun, I don’t get to have that. And neither does my son.

He’s already started to ask hard questions about where my parents are, why they died, where my scars came from. I answer honestly, but I try to make it sound like it wasn’t as terrible as it actually was. I wish he didn’t have to know that danger can hit so close to home. I wish I had better answers for him.

I can’t turn back time. I can’t force those bullets back into that gun. But I can fight to prevent what happened to me from happening to other people. Gun violence is a complicated problem and there are many ways to try to tackle it, many ways to address the underlying causes of violence. But gun violence is not nearly as prevalent in other developed countries, where they have tighter regulations and fewer guns. The U.S. rate of gun homicides per capita is nearly 30 times that of the UK’s, and our rate of gun ownership is so high that 42% of all civilian-owned guns are owned by our citizens, though we make up only 4.4% of the world’s population. Clearly, we are doing something wrong. Clearly we have too many guns, too many deaths, too many injuries. It is too easy for somebody, like our shooter to get ahold of a gun and hurt somebody else.

I am humbled and inspired by the March for Our Lives movement, which has sprung up in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. I am in awe of these teenagers, who are doing the work I only fantasized about doing when I was in high school. Work they don’t have to do. I have seen the worst and best sides of human nature, and while I am horrified by the worst, I am humbled by that best side. Over and over again in my life, I have been surprised by people who do more than they have to do, who rise up with extraordinary strength, kindness, and dedication, showing us that we have the potential to make real changes and to fundamentally decent to one another.

I don’t think there is one specific piece of legislation that will solve everything. I think there are lots of actions we can take, big and small. I think we need to keep fighting, keep gun violence in the news, keep the attention of lawmakers. Guns kill and injure people every day. We need to fight every day. We cannot let the NRA control the narrative. We need fewer guns, more regulations. Stories like mine illustrate the real, practical, day-to-day effects of gunshot wounds. We need many more people both aware of the problem and outraged. And then we need to turn our outrage into activism.

We can prevent a lot of these deaths and maimings. We can prevent pain and heartache. We just have to try. Let’s demand action. Let’s demand hope.

* An earlier, shorter and less detailed version of this essay was published in The Washington Post, on Jan. 7, 2016.

About

Norah Vawter wishes that time travel was real so she could go back to the 1920s, party with Scott Fitzgerald, and then talk literature. Norah earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University and her B.A. in English from the College of William and Mary. Norah has done everything from driving a tractor on a farm to teaching college composition at Northern Virginia Community College. Right now she’s a freelance writer and a children’s creative writing teacher. Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Agave Magazine, Stymie, and The Nassau Review, among others. She is finishing an autobiographical novel inspired by her own experiences—growing up as a gun violence survivor and being raised by a quadriplegic mother. An excerpt of this novel was shortlisted for the Ropewalk Press Editor’s Fiction Prize. She’s also writing a YA novel about teenage aliens, because sometimes you need to write about stuff that doesn’t make you cry. Norah is obsessed with the ocean, space travel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hamilton, Harry Potter, and many different coming of age stories. She lives in the D.C. area with her husband and son.

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