A friend of mine had the idea of collecting some short stories from his author friends that all centered around a single theme: Pain. Here was my submission.
I’ve never been shot. Nor have I ever shot anybody. These are facts. I say them with neither pride nor shame. It’s just the way that it is. It is what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I have WANTED to shoot a few people in my time, and I think that there are a few people in this world that don’t know how lucky they are that at the time of some interaction with me that I did not have access to a weapon, but, again, it is what it is.
I’ve wondered what it feels like to be shot. In the arm or leg. Never hitting a bone or major artery or organ. Nothing serious, just wonder does it hurt more than the pain of say stepping on a nail (awful) , or passing a Kidney Stone (worse)? When I was a kid I cut off the very tip of my right thumb with a tablesaw. Just the fleshy end – maybe 1/8 of an inch and a good bit of the thumb nail, and that hurt like hell on earth. Does a bullet make that same kind of pain? They had to take a skin graft from the inside/underside of my bicep. That didn’t hurt because of the drugs they gave me in the hospital. But, it is what it is.
Everybody’s seen Hollywood’s take on it. Adrenaline pumps through the main character, he gets amped up and time seems to slow to a virtual stand-still. The bullet tears through his rippling muscles, and there is no reaction other than the gritted teeth set inside the invariable square jaw and a low guttural “UNGH” I just don’t by that. I don’t think that happens as often as it is portrayed. Eh, it is what it is.
But what about those of us who are not owners of rippling muscles and square jawlines. Does a bullet to the shoulder hurt us any more?
They say that you go into shock when something like this happens. You get a sense of numbness, and become detached from some sensory input when your body goes into shock over an acute stress response. I guess I never went into shock with that table saw. I never got numb and the only thing I got detached from was the end of my thumb. It is what it is.
Amelia said the worst pain she ever experienced was childbirth. I couldn’t really know about that. But she said it was all worth it, even during her labor she said she knew, because she knew at the end of it she would be able to lay her eyes on our son Fred for the very first time. I remember we were driving up to her family’s cabin in Vermont when she told me that. We were told that there was a wildfire in the state forest that bordered the property and we were going up to check to see how much damage the cabin had received. She was driving as I had been there only once before. She sneaked a glance in the rear view mirror to see Fred when she said it. I remember the lingering haze in the air from the fire that had been finally extinguished 4 days earlier. And I remember the intense burning pain in my eyes, and I thinking that it was right that I should feel this pain. I refused to rub my eyes. I felt guilty. More guilty every time we passed another burned out shell of a cabin. More guilty every time I breathed in and enjoyed the smell that so reminded me of a campfire. Most guilty when I thought of how happy I was now, when so much had been lost by so many. I felt guilty that I was so happy. Here I was, a wife beside me with whom I was totally and completely in love, the product of that love, our beautiful 2 year old boy with us. All of us born healthy to middle class families at the most prosperous time in the most prosperous nation the world has ever known. In comparison to what it could be, the pain was nothing.
Freddy did not share this view with me. He rubbed his eyes and fussed about in his car seat. Babies have a unique perspective on pain, based on their lack of understanding of the transient nature of the world. They have no way of knowing that the agonizing ache that comes with teething or the burning itching of the eyes is not a forever thing. To them this is now how life is going to be. There is no reason to think that this is ever going to change. Just suffering day in and day out.
So is pain more bearable if you know if will end soon enough with the hope of reward at its end (as was the case with Amelia) or if you believe that it will never end and there is nothing to be done about it but bitching, which seemed to be Freddy’s opinion at that time?
Sure we didn’t know what we would be facing in 15 minutes when we got to the cabin. Maybe it would be just like some of the others we had already passed, destroyed down to the ground and anything still standing over six inches tall burned black and surrounded by rubble and covered with ash. Or like a smaller number of other houses on the outskirts of the forest, maybe we would find that the cabin stood up to the fire and somehow won. 65 years of summer memories and the possessions of many members of my wife’s family unharmed by the maelstrom outside. But those are just possessions. Things. Whatever the outcome, wouldn’t we still have that which matters most?
Which also brings to mind an expression my brother used to say to me when we were kids, just before he would punch me in the arm. “is anticipation of death worse than death itself?” he would ask, his balled up fist about a foot away from my shoulder arm bent and drawn back to let me know without a doubt that this will hurt. I am still not sure what the answer was or what this was meant to prove, but it is what it is.
Even as little kids, my older brother Ed seemed to enjoy his hulking size and ability to inflict pain or at least the threat of pain. I never really got why, I just learned to read his moods and stay out of his way.Four years of rat like scurrying in mostly failed attempts to avoid his bullying is a long time. Does pain spread out over time minimize it like a snowshoe distributes your weight over a larger amount of snow, lessening the amount you sink? Or does it maximize it? Elongating the pain to cover more area until it completely covers your soul?. I don’t know. It is what it is.
(As it was, it turned out alright for us. Winds changed direction before the fire reached Amelia’s folks place, so it and a couple of neighbors scraped by with no damages to their cabins. Sometimes some people get lucky.)
As I said, I have never shot anybody. I have, however shot before. Compound, Recurve, and Long bows, Crossbow, Pistols, Rifles, shotguns. Many guns. As a kid, after we moved from Chicago to Pennsylvania, and before he met all of his new meathead friends, my brother would take me down to the shooting range near the train tracks. The basement fiiring range under the ground level Taxidermy shop which always creeped me out a bit, with the stuffed bear in the corner by the door , the pelt of which looked dirty and possibly moldy, the hides original owner now long dead by a bullet to the head, which the owner of the taxidermy shop would tell you, left a scar you could see if you looked at the head closely enough. The bear’s mouth showed yellowing teeth and his face was mounted in perpetual rage. I chose not to take that closer look.
I recognize that going to a shooting range with someone that has habitually abused you was not the greatest idea, even if it is your brother, but we were kids, both friendless and lonely. And despite what you may hear, television is neither the companion, nor the anesthesia that some people claim i t is. Besides, at the range in our own individual lanes he wasn’t bothering or bothered by me. He would even praise me on a well placed grouping or advise me on how to correct when I made poor shots.
In a way, moving when we did to where we did was a good thing for Ed. And mee too I guess. After our father killed himself, our mother thought the house in which we lived was no longer a good environment for their sons. Too many memories. So we packed everything we didn’t sell and moved 550 miles away. Blank slate. New starts. Do overs. Except that slate wasn’t completely blank. It was just kind of erased a bit. Like a blackboard that had been casually swiped down the middle of a vast and epic poem or complex formula; the chalk dust moved around and what is left mostly indiscernible but it was evident that something was there once that can’t be discerned but will likely never go away forever. The majority of the information necessary was gone leaving no answers.
Ultimately, I guess Pennsylvania was good for me too. I hated leaving Chicago – for many reasons. My friends, My School, my entire routine. But I think even bigger than all of these was the feeling that we were running away. Dad had done something terrible, and now we were leaving- tucking our tails between our legs and skulking away so that people wouldn’t know our shame. Mind you – I never felt shame. Not even as a kid. Whatever he did, even if I don’t like it or agree with him, he did it because he felt he had too. It was too much for him. I sure as hell didn’t walk in his shoes, so who am I to judge what he could endure? I only have to think of how much he had to have hurt to think that the only solution left was plunging a butcher knife into his chest. Twice.
Mother did not agree. She rarely spoke of him in front of us after he did it. Ignoring something is a way of judging it too. I think she felt alone and afraid, and she probably resented him quite a bit. So she sold the house, got a job in a state she had never been to,, crammed her kids and meager belongings into a car she was unsure would be able to make the trip and headed out. As I said, I hated leaving Chicago. But if I hadn’t I never would have met Amelia. At 14, before I met Amelia, I would have traded my life to have my father back. I would trade anything now to have her back.
We met in the Third period of our sophomore year of high school. English Class. September 23. We had just moved to town and had already missed the first two weeks of school. Amelia sat in front of me, her Pixie haircut only feet from me. The only thing better than the way her hair looked was the way it smelled. I of course didn’t know that at the time. But years later, after we were married, I was always most relaxed cuddled in behind her , wrapping my arms around her waist and burying my nose in her hair.
Somebody once wrote a poem that began: ‘April is the cruelest month”. We read that poem in sophomore English. I don’t remember his name, but I have to disagree. I feel that February is the cruelest month.
They died on the first day of February. Amelia and I had an argument the night before. About money, of course. That was all we ever fought about really. The pressure of the backlog of bills that needed to be paid combined with the almost depressing amount of household income meant that we often spent the last few nights of the month working to guess which bill could be put off another month and which was a priority. Basically trying to figure out who was going to get paid and who was going to get screwed this month.It always brought out the worst in us. In the morning on the first, I tried to apologize. I wanted her to know that any anger I spewed the night before was just frustration and not at all meant for her. I don’t think she was ready to forgive tho, as she didn’t say much of anything to me that morning as we each got ready and woke, fed,washed and readied Freddy. As we were leaving the house – me to the office and her to take Fred to day-care – I tried again to tell her I really was sorry. She looked at me funnily after she had finished buckling Fred into his carseat, gave me a quick peck on the lips and said “It is what it is.”
And that was the last thing she ever said to me. It is what it is.
I was out at lunch when my cell phone rang. Recognizing Amelia’s ring tone, I answered casually. I am not sure what exactly happened after that. Detachment from sensory input. I understand that now, I guess.
Days have blurred together. It’s been five weeks. People are now beginning to be able to speak to me without that obvious look of pity in their eyes . I wonder if this is true for all people. Is the lifespan of pity five weeks for everyone? People are still asking me How I am and I have to answer the with those same phrases in the same way every time.
“Hangin in.” “OK I guess” “best I can” or some other tripe, usually said while looking shrugging and looking down at the floor. None of it true. Fake it till you make it – Amelia used to say. I guess that is what I am doing. If I told them the truth…well, I would probably not be writing this. Hell, I wouldn’t be given anything sharper than a crayon and be so doped to the gills that people would get a contact high looking at my picture.
I have very little frame of reference to those people who have lost loved ones over a long period of time, like to cancer or some other disease that take a person from you bit by bit. But I do wonder if that loss is better or worse than the one minute there the next minute not, sudden as a soap bubble popping loss. With one, at least you get time to prepare. As if anyone could prepare for such a thing. It’s odd to me that the defining quality of the human condition, our mortality – the inevitable fact that we all must die -is the one thing that consistently surprises us and catches us unawares. It is what it is.
But when it is sudden, and you are completely unprepared, it is the small absences that are more surprising than the large ones. I had been able to deal with the fact that I was suddenly thrust out of the comfortable reverie that was my life and now forced to fly completely solo. I could plan my days and take care of the funeral arrangements, because that was expected of me. But the little things that salted the still healing wounds. Letters to Fred from his camp friends mixed amid the consolation cards and piling up bills in the mail. Discovering one of Amelia’s undergarments that had found its way amongst my laundry when I take it from the dryer. Hearing one of their favorite songs on the radio. Opening a cabinet to find a small toy soldier standing guard. These tiny reminders that those moments with them are now gone forever burn painful, bright and hot, but somehow never leave scars that can be seen. Except perhaps in the eyes. So many people have told me that my eyes look so different. Darker and guarded. I don’t know if they are any different. I don’t remember what they looked like before.
By my count, Amelia was in my life for almost 6000 days. By this Friday she will have been gone from it (including from the time I was born up until the day I met her) for 5986 days.
I know where Ed locks his ammo, and where he keeps his keys. He’s not going to like this one bit, But we all do that which we feel we have to do. I’m going to say that Anticipation being worse. He should understand that.
They say a bullet travels at about 2500 feet per second. That’s 30,000 inches per second. That’s more than two times the speed of sound. A generous estimate between the roof of the mouth and the top of the head is about 6 inches. That means that from the time that the trigger is pulled the bullet would have passed through the entire skull and brain in 1/5000 of a second. By the time the sound reaches your ears, the bullet has left the gun, been through you entirely, had a nap, and has become firmly lodged in a beam in the ceiling. Can that really be enough time to even register pain? Besides, they say the brain has no nerve endings, so how much could it really hurt? Not as much as this hurts already. It is what it is.