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Up Close and Personal 

A portrait of the author taken before a wall of ancient symbols of protection from the Berber tribe in Morocco. Survivors of gun violence often take many years to recover from PTSD and can struggle coping with something known as, ‘survivors guilt’. Photo taken by Jesse Leake

I am a gun violence survivor. It is egregious that anyone should have to identify in this way. The day of the shooting I survived, I was at home and my husband had gone for provisions. In a few days we would depart for several months, backpacking throughout the coast of Ireland, Nepal and Southeast Asia. The unknowing irony is that our families expressed deep concern for our safety abroad.. As I tidied up a bit and packed I heard an unfamiliar rumble of an engine slowly making its way around our bungalow. Every chirp and hum becomes uniquely distinct to us in our homes. Seconds later shots began firing. 

I have worked on film sets with blanks fired, I have been to shooting ranges with friends, and impressed my future father in law when we first met by hitting several targets he had put out for me in a field, first try. I was 19, and a self proclaimed pacifist who had never held a gun. In all fairness, I enjoyed those afternoons and felt a sense of deep pride in being a good shot, as they say. That sunny afternoon at our home in Venice, CA I heard the ineffable difference between the sounds of bullets hitting practice targets, drywall, ricocheting off metal and ones that hit flesh.  It is a sound no child and no person should ever know.

When the first bullet came flying through the gate it splayed the wood, and a piece of plywood barely grazed my skin. I had always known that plywood fence to be flimsy and I felt more exposed than I had known possible. Any hopes, fantasies, or rather delusions, of heroic bravery evaporated. I ran inside and dropped to the ground, only to realize shots were being fired at chest level outside, and our home was several feet off the ground.

The young men I knew as solemn yet kind, howled. It had been eerily quiet for a few seconds. I thought it safe to take a look through the yard. I shook uncontrollably as one of them glanced through the gate, explained the obvious, apologetic and stunned, that he was shot and that the gunman in a vehicle was coming back around the block one more time. I panicked further, opted to get off the ground, ran in different directions around our home in what can only be described as utter chaos and confusion. Several more shots were fired followed by the sound of an engine revving and tires screeching out. Am I shot? No. I found my cell phone and called 911. As I waited I met the hollow feeling that nowhere inside was safe. I ran out towards the gate of my home to try to flee towards a mirage of safety, but before I reached our gate a cry stopped me in my tracks. A gutting cry for Momma. 

I wasn’t ready for what was happening beyond the gate to the street. I watched a man I had never seen before, even living several years next door to him, emerge in a beautiful suit. He seemed to float in calm as he approached the wounded victims and applied pressure to one of their necks with his hands. I felt betrayed by my own nature, a helper, now shuddering and frozen, unable to act. One young man who wasn’t moving, got dragged away by people he knew and taken out of sight. Two were left on the floor bleeding. “We need an ambulance NOW,” I cried into the receiver of my phone. The neighbor directed me to go inside. “You don’t want them to see your face. The shooter may get away and recognize you later.” The incident, like many others occuring daily in the United States, was hardly reported.

Many years later, I still shudder and reaffirm to myself, “you don’t have to run,” with every loud bang of a trash bin or sound of a muffler. I have calming techniques, like tracing the outline of my hand with my index finger, ‘up breathe in, down breathe out’. Somedays I repeat over and over again, “you are safe in your skin” when I’m out in public and looking for the exit signs, searching for my way out, just in case.

I didn’t know it then, but my husband Eddie kept a bullet that missed me from that afternoon. I found it tucked in a drawer years after the shooting. The first time I held it in the palm of my hand, I trembled as I pulled it out of a wall in our home, no more than an inch from where my head was on the floor the day before. It was surprisingly heavy in my hand. I had lain there weeping along with the boys who had been shot as they cried for their mothers. I grapple with something psychologists call survivors guilt. 

I visit that bullet as a reminder of what I lived through, but not often. As I pick this crushed heavy metal up out of a drawer, again, I think to myself, how many days like this will there be in this country? Why is this feeling familiar? How many children does it take? What is a state of emergency if this is not? How many survivors and how much trauma will it take before American legislators put their own interests and power second? How can this not feel so wholly American?

Many Americans believe this is the safest country in the world. The Congressional Research Service defines mass shootings as multiple, firearm, homicide incidents, involving four or more victims at one or more locations close to one another. There have been over 200 mass shootings and 27 school shootings in America since January. Nineteen children were shot and killed while at school in Uvalde, Texas this week. Prayers are simply not enough for the mothers who they cried out for.


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