Our Protective Memory

The human capacity for survival is stronger and shrewder than I used to give it credit for. Sometimes it is only by chance that we learn how strong and, in the example I’m about to share, how shrewd we can be, and not even know it.

Before I continue, let me say this to you. There is no difference between you and me on the courage front. The worst, or, better put, the most inaccurate thing you can take from this essay is a belief that somehow I am braver than you, made of sterner stuff. Not so. I was shot early one summer morning in 1984 and I can tell you from the time the gun appeared until the time I came out of surgery hours later I was so terrified that if terror was light I would have glowed.

It went like this. I was walking to work around five in the morning on a beautiful tree-lined street in Brooklyn flanked on either side with brick an Brownstone houses. A teenager came out of nowhere, put a gun to the side of my head, and a second person I never did see emptied my pockets. Then the teenager fired, shooting me in the head at point blank range. 

Here is my memory of what happened next.

When I came to on the ground and opened my eyes I had no vision and no feeling from the neck down. There was no pain, just this enormous outward pressure from the top of my head. It felt as if it had been blown off. I knew I’d been shot and I knew I was going to die. It was not a matter of knowing I might die, I knew I was going to. I thought of someone telling my seven-year-old daughter that her father was dead and I desperately wanted to get up and try to get to the hospital so she would know Daddy didn’t give up. At least I could leave her a courage note, so to speak. Then I thought of my father, the greatest gift life has ever given me, and how he died when I was 15, thinking if Daddy can go from here to there, from life to death, then so can I. And somehow, I am convinced, this last dropped my fear level, and that is when I got back to my feet.

I have no memory of getting up. My memory is this. Once standing I lifted my hand towards the wound and blood hit my hand before my hand reached my head. I pressed a sweatshirt against the wound and began banging on the window of a basement apartment. From down the street I heard a male voice call out. I went back to the sidewalk and a tall slender man in pajamas hurried to me and took me by the arm. “Come on back to the house, my wife’s calling the police and ambulance.” As we walked I looked at him and could see him fighting to maintain his composure. I told him not to worry I’d be okay.

We’d walked no more than a few feet when a half dozen cop cars from Brooklyn’s 84th Precinct came flying up the street. Afraid they wouldn’t see us I pulled my helper into the street, the cars came to a stop, I got into the back of the first unit and off we went to the hospital.

Now, here’s the thing. Everything I just told you is honest. However, nearly all of it is not true.  I later met the man who’d come to my aid. I told him my memory of the morning pretty much as I just told you. He looked perplexed. “You’re all wrong,” he said. “The only thing you’re right about is you were lucid, you weren’t panicking.” And then he told me what really happened. “When I saw you you couldn’t stay on your feet. You kept falling down and getting up. When the cops cars came I was laying you down on the front steps. Me and the cops pretty much threw you into the back seat.”

My memory was honest, but my mind, like yours, is shrewd, we are survivors when possible and my mind was only allowing me to recognize what it could handle. Had it allowed me to recognize the full scope of the shooting, I would not have been able to remain lucid and avoid panic, and I would not have been able to write this essay for you.

Have faith in you, there may be more reason to have faith than you think.