I watched President Obama tear up talking about gun violence the other day. And now I can’t stop thinking about my mother, Denise Doyle-Vawter, who died because she was shot by a stranger.
We both were. 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.
I can’t forget the around 90 people in the United States killed by guns every day, 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.
I’ve tried to forget about my hatred for guns, and I just can’t. My nightmares started the day we were shot, and they never went away.
I’ve whined, cried, sobbed and screamed in desperation. I’m sick of whining. I’m sick of feeling hopeless and helpless. I’m fighting back.
* * *
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 the 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.
The strange man asked my mother for directions. She politely said she didn’t know. Then he pulled out a handgun, saying, “I come to kill you and your baby,” as if he was hearing voices telling him to say this. I thought he was pointing a toy gun. Then 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.
Finally, it was over. He 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, and I was still upset at being called a baby by the shooter. My mama stayed calm, saying, “It’s okay, love. It’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s okay.” She didn’t cry, scream, or panic. I’ve often wondered if I’d be as strong a person today if my mother 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. Lucky 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 over their police radio and, realizing how close we were, came sprinting over. The ambulance was taking too long, so the officers drove my mother in their car. One of the nurses swooped me up into his arms and ran back to the hospital. 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.
I was discharged from the hospital quickly. I had no permanent physical damage, but I was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. My mother survived as a quadriplegic. Doctors gave her a week, but she lived 20 years, because she was determined not to leave me motherless or leave my father to pick up all the pieces.
She didn’t come home until 1986, about a year and a half after the shooting. My father and I had already moved to a small town in the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Va., to be close to my mom’s family. When she finally left the hospital, she required round-the-clock care. Nurse’s aides worked in shifts. She was a hard person to work for — understandably angry and bitter, and also a perfectionist. 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 was returning materials she’d checked out for her job, and my father and grandfather fought heroically to get her covered. They 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.
I lived with my mom even after my dad died from heart disease in 1988 (not directly related to the shooting but probably 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.
At first, her health was extremely fragile. She was in the hospital at least once a year, often more, with pneumonia. (Quadriplegics are susceptible to this.) No one expected her to survive my childhood and adolescence, and I was prepared to live with one of my aunts if my mom were to die.
Eventually, my mom got better. 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 didn’t end up addicted to heroin or pregnant in high school or involved in any scandals. 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 for her. The next day, she chose to cease life support: I think she was finally able to let go because I was all grown up. 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 almost 3-year-old son on her lap, and listen to her tell him a Sally and Sam story, the kind she told 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 Kathy and Uncle Jeff 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.
I’m terrified of the day he starts asking hard questions about where my parents are, why they died, where my scars came from or if he is also going to get shot. I wish I didn’t have to tell him how terrifying my childhood was. I wish he didn’t have to know that danger can hit so close to home. And I wish I had a better answer for how he can protect himself.
I can’t turn back time. I can’t force those bullets back into that gun. But I can find ways 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, from creating more effective gun regulations to helping the homeless, the mentally ill, etc. I support Obama’s executive actions, particularly the effort to expand background checks. I would like to see the gun industry more tightly regulated, and I’m particularly excited about the Brady Campaign’s efforts to crack down on “bad apple gun dealers” — the 5 percent of gun dealers who supply 90 percent of guns used in crimes. I also think it’s important to support the survivors of gun violence, and families of victims: the Gun Violence Survivors Foundation is doing just that.
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.
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