When the Person Shot Is Your Uncle

Steven and his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Martha. This was just months after he was shot in the head.

In 1978, when I was less than two years old, my uncle Steven was shot in the head.

The details of the night are unclear, but according to the article that ran the next day in the Austin American-Statesman, it started with a confrontation in the parking lot of a bar. Words were exchanged. There might have been a scuffle. My uncle got into a car with his friends and chased after the vehicle driven by the guy with whom they had been arguing. The two cars pulled alongside each other as they sped down Ben White Boulevard in Austin, and the man in the other car pulled out a 9mm Luger and shot into the vehicle Steven was in. One bullet went through the cheek of my uncle’s friend; the other hit Steven in the forehead and passed through his brain.

“One second [the gun] was there, and a second later it was over,” one of my uncle’s friends said in the article.

Just like that, nothing was ever the same. Doctors told my family to expect that he would be a “vegetable” — the callous term used to describe someone with an active brain stem, but not much else. He was 21 years old.

While his brain healed over the days and weeks, the Steven that emerged was profoundly changed. He was far from a “vegetable,” but the bullet that ripped through his brain left him unable to communicate in a conventional manner — after years of speech therapy, he can only utter phrases, never complete sentences, making conversation a challenge. His short-term memory is affected, fine-motor movement is difficult, hearing is gone in one ear and he can’t smell at all.  It’s difficult to learn new things, and he can’t work a regular job. He is prone to seizures and takes a slew of medications that have various side effects. And those are just the changes that are easy to quantify.

“What is your beef with us?”– quoted in the article as the words my uncle said to the gunman in the moments before he was shot –may have been the last full sentence he spoke. That was 32 years ago.

Don’t Count the Days, Make the Days Count

A bullet in the head isn’t always deadly, but it will take away any number of things so many of us take for granted. Not surprisingly, Steven grapples with daily frustrations. Who wouldn’t if they couldn’t fully communicate? Couldn’t smell an apple pie? Couldn’t write or type? It’s impossible to know what else he lost that we can’t reliably measure.

The same will be true for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Her gunshot wound and Steven’s are strikingly similar. They were both hit at close range, in the front of the head, and the trajectory of the bullets followed similar paths. The biggest differences in their prognoses is 32 years in medical advances.

While I’m not very optimistic about a full and complete recovery for Giffords, I am hopeful that she, like my uncle, will find a new way of living life to the fullest. Despite the setbacks caused by his brain injury, Steven has made the most of things. He married my aunt, traveled to Europe and Mexico, joined the Texas Brain Injury Foundation, and assembled a kick-ass music collection that continues to expand. When it became clear that he would never learn sign language to communicate, he and my aunt developed their own workaround: Using his forefinger, he spells out words in the air to her, and she says them out loud on his behalf. He can reply back yes or no, and say short phrases. It’s a slow way to chat, and there are limitations, but it works.

Now, as he faces recurrent colon cancer — an incurable disease that he says is far worse than the gunshot wound — he has begun to share his life mantra with the rest of us, communicated via my aunt, his interpreter: “Don’t count the days — make the days count.”

It’s a message worth repeating. Life is short. Make the most of it.

I’ve never talked to Steven about exactly what he took away from the events that night — does he regret anything, is he still angry about what happened, does it bother him that the man who shot him was never found and put on trial? I don’t know, either, where he stands on gun control or the Second Amendment. But growing up with Steven taught me that life is too short for guns. They’re killing devices, meant to permanently eliminate humans and animals. We don’t need them, we just think we do. Our gun culture comes at a high price, paid for by victims like those killed and injured in Tucson, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (we observe his 82nd birthday today) and by people like my Uncle Steven. (Update: Steven passed away in 2012.)

Martha and Steven on their wedding day, held at my parents’ house. I was the flower girl.

When I started thinking about writing this post, I asked my brother, Erik, to contribute something, too, as he’s got an entirely different writing voice than me, and I knew his perspective would be compelling. I was right. Here’s his take, an especially poignant one to ponder on Martin Luther King Day, when we take time to pause and celebrate the life of the remarkable peaceful Civil Rights Leader, who was slain by a gunshot to the head.

‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’

It’s less than three weeks into 2011 and we’ve already been inaugurated into a new year of brutal and preposterous All-American violence with what is, at this point, a depressingly typical contemporary motif:  A young, schizophrenic shut-in, after having spent his young adult life vomiting an unending word salad of weird, narcissistic, and vaguely anti-government/authority bile over various niche internet forums, discovers that those very same scattered, angry delusions have become neatly congealed, even legitimized, by the loudmouth, bullshitting right-wing charlatans who’ve all been in dyspeptic overdrive since Barack Hussein Obama was elected president.  Jared Lee Loughner, though clearly obsessed with Representative Giffords, wasn’t exactly a Republican ideologue, to be sure. His entire psychological profile is indeed strikingly similar to apolitical Virginia Tech slaughtering screw-loose Seung-Hui Cho. But unlike Cho, Loughner’s disturbed mind was demonstrably honed by the toxic political climate that also motivated James Von Brunn, John Troy David, James Patock, Raymond Peake, and Gregory Lee Giusti (I could name more; there are literally dozens of others since 2008) to carry out their disgusting acts of Anti-Lib’ral, Country Preservin’ violence.

Loughner’s choice of target was so obviously motivated by modern right-wing bloviating violence fetishists that as soon as the attacks were reported, Arizona sheriff Dupnik could only reflexively state the obvious when the mic was put in front of him. What’s ironic is that the hate-spewing media mountebanks implicitly referenced in Dupnik’s “controversial” statement—Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, paranoia-monger Alex Jones, along with a bunch of others —all constantly do their best to disassociate themselves from any ideology at all, insisting that they are merely god-fearing patriots horrified by what their country is turning into. They are, after all, the few brazen enough to stand up to the Anti-American onslaught simultaneously posed by socialists, health care, Mexicans, welfare, Muslims, atheism, gay marriage, and all that other stuff that Joe Q. Disconnected and his peer group can blame when the growing monstrosity of American inequality has become too abstract and complex to fit onto the metaphorical shooting-range target.

The shared beliefs of all of these airwave-inundating media figures are not particularly fringe, and they certainly aren’t new. When it comes to the big issues like gun rights, war, taxation, and social spending, American attitudes have fluctuated very little for the past 30 or so years.  What’s different now is the noxious conflation of dumbed-down political rhetoric and the kind of gun-brandishing bozo paranoia that really is a singularly American phenomenon. The modern-day Patriotic American is now no longer encumbered by the kind of social reprobation that used to accompany the act of publically brandishing a firearm. Instead, as demonstrated by these Tea Party Rally goofballs, Patrioticus Americanus now proudly marches on in public parades, beaming with empowerment as a pair of huge-ass guns, somewhat awkwardly strapped to his or her typically less-than-combat-ready physique, let the cameras know that these patriots really are gun-toting revolutionaries, and they mean business.

All of this has gone a long way toward cementing a reputation that, frankly, was already established a long time ago: America is a violent, gun-crazy country. We’ve all heard the stats a million times: The U.S. leads in homicide rates and, for that matter, violent crimes of every kind; the U.S. leads, beyond all compare, in incarceration rates; the U.S. leads in all conceivable types of crimes involving a firearm; the U.S. is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest exporter of firearms, and so on. On that last one: a lot of Americans have become aware of the conflagration of drug cartel-related violence that’s been spreading through Mexico for the last decade. What they’re not as interested in is the fact that the U.S. is Mexico’s #1 gun exporter (Yes!—we’re still #1 at something!), with The Tombstone State of Arizona, of all places, providing the most guns per capita. The drugs come north; the guns go south – which society is sicker?

It’s regrettable that many Americans still react to this kind of a disaster with auto-detachment: This Loughner massacre, they argue, is just a statistical inevitability; there will always be violent crazies about and there’s nothing we can do about it. This has unfortunately become the default Suburban-American reaction. It’s long-been passé to take a potentially polarizing stance on an issue; unless, that is, you’re right-of-center — then you can freely have all the public indignation you want, with the only consequence being that you will accumulate the majority of soul-searching schizos like Loughner along the way.

But, to those who believe differently but outwardly only present a jaded stance, I ask you to take a minute and mull over whether or not any of your close friends or family members have been directly affected by gun violence (I will answer this for you: Yes, of course you know someone who has.) I myself can think of several, above all my Uncle Steven.

Steven and Martha, nearly 30 years after he was shot, visited the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

Way back when, as my family was gathering for Steven’s 22nd birthday, it is almost certain that everyone felt what would probably be best described as an exhausted sense of gratitude, as Steven had survived a bullet to the brain just months ago. It was 1979, and one of Steven’s favorite artists, Bob Dylan, made a career move more puzzling and vastly more unpopular than having gone electric: He went Christian. Dylan’s 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, was full of rock/country canticles containing ecumenical messages of hope, humility, and perseverance. Steven, an obsessive pop music fanatic—a trait I’ve inherited—was certainly listening to this album when it was released. Steven knows the album well (he knows Dylan’s entire oeuvre, of course) and he loves it, which surprises me, because his taste in music is great, but…a Christian album, really?

One of the album’s tracks, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, which is somehow buried deep within my labyrinthine playlist of pirated Dylan songs, happened to come on the other day. The opening lyric: “Gonna change my way of thinking/ make myself a different set of rules” sets up a song that probes the mind of a young man who is forced to change the way he thinks due to a profound, personal, possibly traumatic revelation. Sure, it’s kind of vague, but when you listen to it, it sounds considerably more genuine than a lot of other Dylan stuff. And I’m sure in 1979 it sounded genuine to Steven, who, now surrounded by a grateful and almost disbelieving family, was months before grasping for his life, having been shot between the eyes, merely a few feet away, by some dude he got into a silly argument with.  This is really what the gun-obsessed, violent, and atomized American culture frequently leads to. It’s not the statistically-rare rampage shooter; it’s the everyday act of callous, stupid, impulsive violence that follows from a culture that fetishizes the perfect impulse weapon like no other culture on Earth does.

So, my fellow jaded, not-right-wing-fence-post-sitting post-Gen X’ers, I give you this clarion call: Start finally fucking caring about this stuff.

— Erik Victory

9 thoughts on “When the Person Shot Is Your Uncle

  1. doranyc says:

    I’ve often thought about what life will be like for Giffords from now on and I, too, can only hope that, like Steven, she finds a way to truck on.

    And right on, Erik.

  2. Betty Victory says:

    Joy and Erik, thank you so much for writing this wonderful tribute to Steven. I am sure it was very difficult to write about a subject so near and dear to you. It is a story of a much beloved uncle that you have both shared many years of knowing. You have both witnessed the way Steven has bravely overcome so many obstacles in his life. Thank you both for pointing out how dangerous and prevalent violent rhetoric has become in this country and how callous we all have become to it. It is a dangerous and abhorant atmosphere created in a country that is suppose to be peace loving. We can only hope that Rep. Giffords has a chance for a good recovery with the advances in medicine. Oh, how I wish that the American Public would have a change in thinking about how we need to stop the proliferation of guns and hateful rhetoric. Freedom of speech should also mean responsible speech.

  3. Martha says:

    Thank you so much for your eloquent and heartfelt essays, Joy and Erik. I read them to Steven today and we were both very moved. I know that writing this must have been emotionally draining and difficult. Sometimes, I think Steven drew the short straw in life, but one thing he is not lacking is the love and support of his family and many friends. For this we are very grateful.

  4. elmer says:

    Reading this piece brought me back when my brother and his friend were stabbed by a group of thugs inside their campus. Bro sustained 8 stab wounds while his buddy got 9. Fortunately they were both powerfully built and so they made it alive. But nevertheless it was horrible. When beastly stuff steps in the family, its horrible and you want to bring out the beast in you.

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