Perhaps the Strangest Night of My Life

Well, friends, I was thinking I’d be journalling about something completely different this morning. Last night, I went to the last stop of the tour of Denver religious sites hosts by the Center for Religion in Public Life. It was a visit I had been looking forward to for months and it did not disappoint. On the hour’s drive home, I was thinking about what I would most like to write about here to convey the essence of it. I don’t remember much of what I had come up with now ….

For the rest of this story, I’m going to write it down pretty much as I did in the police report. It never had occurred to me before that the police interrogation process (in particular, being repeatedly asked details of what I witnessed) could be so therapeutic . But at the time I really needed to tell this story over and over again. Warning: if you are squickish about gory stuff, you probably do not want to read this.

To help you visualize this story I’m about to tell, you should know that I live in a two-story townhouse. That means a lot of people living in the same physical space, sharing vertical walls and a long courtyard about 30 feet across, bounded on each side by our domiciles. We each have first floor patios and second floor bedroom balconies directly above. On the courtyard side (where the balconies are), it’s easy to hear everything that goes on there on nights when the air is cool and my window is open.

The drive home from my evening put me in my courtyard-side, second floor bedroom at about 10:40 PM. The weather had just started to mimic Colorado summers (hot during the day and cool at night) and I had my windows open to help cool the house down. Outside, I heard a distraught female crying. She was very emotional but not out of control by my standards. (Personally, I can be one helluva a good wailer when I need a good cry but it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost control of my faculties.) In fact, it was that kind of emotional that I wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying. At first, I got annoyed, assuming that rude neighbors were going to kick off this college town’s party season early (a yearly problem in my complex). My next feeling as a natural born counselor (when I figured out what the sound was) was to go and see if I could help. (In fact, the way I met one of my neighbors about a year and a half ago was at 4 in the morning when his girlfriend was crying hysterically in the parking lot and then screeched off in her car. I went down to see if I could help and they had just broken up and she took it very hard and he was scared that she might take her own life. I talked to him for a while and set him up with the Emergency Psychiatric Services hotline number so that he could get someone to go out and find her and keep her safe). But on this night, I was feeling tired. I had a big meeting in the morning. I wanted to sleep. I wasn’t feeling particularly empathetic and didn’t want to go out and get started in somebody else’s crisis at that particular point in my night. I’ve seen plenty of emotional displays in my life, especially in my training as a counselor, and I know that where there is smoke there is not necessarily fire.

So, I sat down on my bed to check my email and googled a couple of things that the night’s talk had gotten me curious about. I easily lose track of time when I am reading and writing. And I got jolted out of my inner world by a loud, sharp bang. It so surprised me and was so unlike anything I had heard out there before that I couldn’t imagine what had made it. Especially since it wasn’t followed by footsteps or a conversation or anything. There was just total silence. It kinda freaked me out. Not because I suspected what it was, but exactly because my mind couldn’t figure it out at all. I turned off all of the lights (so I could see out into the dark easily without drawing a lot of attention to myself) and went to my balcony door to peek out. My cat, braver than me, rushed out to the balcony to investigate in plain view. I took a deep breath and looked at the clock just in case anyone would ask me later about the strange noise: it was 11:15. I crouched down and moved the curtains and looked out through the openings in the balcony wall. But I didn’t see or (more importantly since it was dark) didn’t hear anything unusual. The courtyard and porch lights are bright globes that intensely light up what is in the immediate vicinity but are so assaulting on the eyes that everything else looks shadowy. It’s not uncommon to be able to see my dog perfectly clearly in the light and miss the pile of poop right next to him. Plus, my view of things is obscured by two large pine trees. They are great for privacy in such close living quarters and for keeping the sun from shining directly into my window and baking my house, but not so good for snooping around.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went and brushed my teeth. After my toothbrush motor had noisily massaged my gums for its requisite two minutes, I listened and looked outside again and nothing. So, I started in on giving myself a little mini-facial and heading towards bed. I don’t know how much time passed between the bang and the next thing I heard. Could have been 10 minutes. Could have been 25. But then I heard a crash of glass and the same female voice scared and crying repeatedly, “Oh, baby. Oh, baby. Oh, baby.” I went back out on the balcony and this time I could see through the trees about 35 feet away: the porch light was on on one of my opposite neighbor’s balcony and there was movement over there. Then I heard her say, “His jaw is clenched!” And I knew I needed to go help.

I’ve had seizures before, and that’s what this sounded like. Plus, just last week, I got recertified in CPR and 1st Aid. I ran downstairs and across the courtyard and yelled up to her, calling her by name. I told her my qualifications and asked if I could help. She said, crying, to come on up if the door was open. It was (plus her housemate was on a portable phone and coming down to let me in). I stepped over the shattered glass (with only a martini stem intact) on the patio and went upstairs and into the bedroom and out on to the balcony and what I saw there was not at all what I expected. I expected a person having a seizure. I expected writhing. I didn’t expect a peaceful looking man, eyes closed, mouth closed, body collapsed relaxedly in a chair with blood all over his face, chest, hand and leg. It just didn’t compute. I really was just stunned. I coached myself silently, “OK, PiF, you know what to do here. You have been trained for this. Think!”

I turned to the housemate and said “Have you called 911?” She nodded yes and pointed to the phone in her ear. She had the look of someone who was trying to stay calm and listen carefully to the voice on the other end. I remembered from my training to ignore the blood for now and check for breathing and pulse first. The neighbor was hovering over him from his right side, talking to him. She has long hair that was hanging in his face, prevented me from getting a clear view of the man. She said, “I think he has a cut on his eye. He’s breathing.” I thought the breathing part was good news, but there was way too much blood everywhere for this to be an eye cut. However, my brain was not very helpful with offering up suggestions of what actually happened here. It still wasn’t connecting the bang with the situation. But I knew there was more going on than I could see.

Trying to assess the breathing situation for myself, I leaned the side of my face to his nose and mouth and then my ear to his chest. My ear grazed him briefly and I felt the tip of it go wet and cold. I felt his chest rise and fall slightly and I pulled away. I looked at the housemate and said, “I am going to need towels and rubber gloves. Do you have rubber gloves? If not, get me some plastic bags.” It was going to be hard to work with this man and not get completely covered in his blood. Especially if we had to move him in order to do CPR. I began mentally preparing myself for the inevitable crack of his ribs breaking as I pressed on his chest and the taste of his vomit when he stomach gave up its contents. I really did not want to do this. But first things first. No need to go there yet. He was breathing. That was good. That was really good. I said it out loud.

The housemate on the phone with 911 had relayed an instruction to not move him and to not press too hard on any head wound. (Not too hard? I’ve never heard that.) Standing up, looking at him face on now, I gave him a once over visually. There was so much blood it was hard to tell where it was coming from. Nothing was gushing or spurting like in the movies. He was just soaked in it. He had streaks over his eyebrows. Hard to tell if there were cuts underneath them. If there were, they were minor. He had a streak on his left hand. I knelt down. He had a gash on his right knee and shin and blood running down his leg. But still, it was hard to tell if that wound was current and where this blood was coming from. The laws of gravity were still in effect and so there’s no way that the gash on his leg had caused his sweatshirt to get soaked.

I started talking to him. “Hang in there. You are doing good. We are getting help. Keep breathing. Keep breathing.” Not like he responded. But you hear stories of people coming around later and being able to report on what they heard when they were out. I wanted to give him a reason to stick it out. The neighbor who had been leaning over him, rocking back and forth, touching him, talking to him, asking me if he was going to be OK, crying, now stood up and I saw it: He had a sizeable sort of a cross-shaped (maybe an inch each way) gash over a hole at his right temple. I could see the flesh underneath. This was categorically Not Good.

I pointed out the hole and the neighbor’s emotions rose, leaning over him, crying. It seemed like she might just lose track of her wits. Perhaps just out of not being able to control anything else about this crazy situation, I turned to her, called her sternly by name and said, “Breathe. Breathe. OK, I need you to stay with me right now.” She looked at me and kind of nodded. The housemate produced towels. I looked at the messy head wound and asked again for gloves. The neighbor said she would do whatever was needed. She didn’t mind his blood. I gave her the big towel and told her to press it against the head wound. The housemate produced rubber gloves (which she said she had leftover from a chem lab earlier that day). I put on a pair. Checked his pulse on his carotid artery. Still there. Still seemed reasonable. But I just still couldn’t understand where all the blood was coming from. There was sooooo much of it on him, on the balcony floor boards. Why wasn’t the head wound gushing? It was obviously open but it just didn’t look like what I expected a wound that could cause that much blood to look like. Thank God help was on the way. I was being completely ineffectual.

Feeling like an idiot, I put a towel to the wound on his leg, not knowing what else to do. That’s when the housemate noticed that there was a gun on the floor. I looked down to where she was staring. It’s amazing I hadn’t walked on it. It was in the shadows but right in front of us. That’s when my brain finally clicked into gear. All up until then, I was hardly able to piece anything together. It felt like a movie that I had walked into the middle of. I didn’t know what to make of it. But when I heard “gun” and saw it, I woke up. Suddenly, I was on task. Screw the leg wound. This guy was d-y-i-n-g. I stood up and looked at him again. Hard. This time I saw that his eyelids were turning blue. Both of them. He had major internal head injuries. At the very least, a concussion. I reported this to the housemate, indicating to her to tell it to 911. Suddenly, the man started breathing more deeply. It was the first really audible and easily visible signs of breathing. I didn’t know what that meant. But even if it was good, there was no way this man was going to get better without help pronto.

At some point, I think when I first arrived, the housemate said that she knew CPR as well. I turned to her now and said, “Do you have a breathing barrier?” She said, “No.” I said to the neighbor, again calling her by name and talking to her in my taskmaster voice, “I am going to go get mine. I will be back in 30 seconds. OK?” She said, “OK.” This guy’s heart and breathing hadn’t stopped yet. But when it did, I wanted to be ready and if having the breathing barrier was gonna keep me feeling courageous and not squickish, then that’s what I would get. The main wound we had found was being attended to and I couldn’t think of anything more urgent I needed to be doing. I ran downstairs and back out the courtyard door. The downstairs was all dark, except for two moving flashlights coming in the front door. I thought I heard one of them speak and my brain reminded me that perhaps this was the help we had called for. So, I ducked back in.

They told me to come towards them. I told them I was going to get a breathing barrier. But they were using the don’t-question-me voice and repeated the instructions. Fine. I’d rather somebody more qualified handle this anyway. I wasn’t exactly in top form. So, I went outside, bloody, gloved hands in the air (just to avoid giving them any reason to think I was a problem). That’s when I could see that they were police officers. I looked around. No ambulance? What was taking so long? The housemate was already outside, sitting on the grass. I went over and sat with her. I have known the neighbor in that sort of superficial neighborly way (we mostly talked about our pets when we saw each other out in the courtyard) but had never met her housemate before. So, we introduced ourselves. She told me that the neighbor and the man fight a lot. I asked if he was the neighbor’s boyfriend and she said yes. They had been having problems that night and the housemate and the neighbor had gone out briefly to go to the liquor store. That’s when he shot himself.

Eventually, they brought the neighbor out. The housemate and I sat with her as she cried. Another neighbor/friend came over to hold her too. It was very, very sad. She started talking. She said something about “my gun” and that “I never should have left him alone” and she explained that when they got home, the door (the bedroom door?) was locked and they had to bust it open.

From here, the police took over the scene. They were very kind and respectful. Really top notch. They let me go home and scrub up. It took me a couple washings to get rid of the blood on my ear. Like a dummy, I took the gloves off before I did it. But I washed my hands and ear with soap and as hot of water as I could stand. Amazingly, there was only one small drop of blood on my dress. On the way out, I knocked on my housemate’s door. (She was down in the basement and didn’t hear any of this.) I told her what had happened and that I had to go to the police station. She asked if I wanted her to come. I was at least smart enough to know that I was not the best judge of what kind of emotional support I needed. So, I basically told her to decide for me. She took one look at me and said, “You are in shock. I’m coming.”

The officer who drove me in told me that they would keep us all separate until they could interview us so that they could get the most reliable info possible. But since my housemate wasn’t on the scene, I could keep her with me for emotional support. From the time of the shot to the time the police had the scene secured was about an hour. I spent the next 3 at the police station, writing up everything I told you here, being interviewed by the detective, and listening to my neighbor’s wails from the next room. I was glad one of us could feel something. At first, I had been proud of how calm I had stayed. But now it was really starting to bug me that I wasn’t feeling much. And, most especially, how could a man be in such distress as to shoot himself 35 feet away from me and me not intuitively sense it?

My housemate was great. She is just about one of the best friends anyone could ever have. She let me joke and laugh to help me relax, but didn’t join in (so that I’d know that she respected the gravity of the situation). She held my hand and rubbed my back, trying to help me loosen up and feel, but didn’t criticize me for being numb. They sent a Victim’s Advocate in to talk with me briefly. She gave me her card. Her name was Happy. That seemed so surreal. She told me to call her over the next few days if I had any questions or wanted to talk. Everybody seemed to recognize and respect that my housemate was probably already the best support I could be getting at the moment and they treated her well too. At one point, I heard my neighbor’s sobs amp up. The detective came in and told me that she had just told her that the hospital had reported that the man had died. Tears leaked out of my eyes and a wave of “What Ifs” came over me. What if I had gone over when I first heard my neighbor being emotional? Could I have gotten there earlier somehow? What if I had been more brave when the gun went off and went out to look for where it came from? Should I have called the police then, just to have them check it out? Kids often shoot off fire crackers at night. Depending on how dry the ground is and how close to the house they are, sometimes I call them in, sometimes I don’t. Tonight, I hadn’t called the noise in. I’ve been around guns before, but they were always fired when I knew it was coming. And there is usually a sound of the bullet hitting something. Tonight’s noise was so out of context and unlike what I had come to associate with a gun shot, that my brain knew enough to be scared but not enough to understand it. I know better now. When it is right across from the courtyard in the open air, it does not sound like a car backfiring. It does not sound like fire crackers. It was short and sharp and punctuated by silence.

Try as it might, my brain really couldn’t think of much that I should have done differently. Except for how to deal with the gun shot wound. It just didn’t look like what I thought it would look like. Now I know that too. I thought maybe I missed something. In the movies, a gun to the head usually means the other half of the head is missing. Trying to make sense of the cross-shaped cut over it, I asked the detective if it was an entry or exit wound. She said that she didn’t know for sure, but that it was probably an entry wound. Chances are that he was right handed. And, she added, an entry wound often makes the skin burst open (outward) in flaps due to the pressure. Depending on angle, caliber gun, bullet used, etc., the bullet may have not exited his head. And now that I think about it, that saved it from coming my way because my balcony was on the opposite side of the gun from his head. I just kept thinking, “I have never seen that much blood before. I have never seen that much blood before.” The images started replaying. Mostly the peaceful expression on his face, the feeling of his thick, blood-soaked sweatshirt against my ear, the red everywhere. Everywhere. All over his body. But then the floor boards too. I remember looking down at the gun and at my shoes and realizing I was standing in a sea of red.

Eventually, they let me go. The detective thanked me for being so thorough and handling myself so well. And she said something like, “We could use someone with your skills on the force.” Which is just the kind of compliment I needed right about then. I made some inappropriate, stupid joke about pay scale (since I likely have a higher paying job than they do) and as soon as I said it I wished I could stuff it back in my mouth. These people had been really professional and kind to boot. They deserved nothing but my thanks and my respect.

My housemate took me home and made a sandwich with mayo, beer mustard, turkey, and smoked gouda for me. And two glasses of gingerale and bitters for us both to calm our stomachs. We heard a noise in the house that sounded like the dog burping. But we were both so wired that we had to walk the house and check every human-sized nook and cranny just for peace of mind. Once we were back up on my balcony, we stared over at my neighbor’s house. There were two or three cops in front of it, talking quietly. I heard the phrase, “So much blood”. I saw them shining their flashlights on the ground-level patio and the surfaces flashed bright red. I said, “Let’s go look.” The cops were nice about letting us come over and talk to them. They asked me a couple questions. Turns out they had taken to referring to me as “The Nurse”, which was generous but I corrected them, especially since I didn’t give much help medically. I asked them to shine their flashlights on the porch, so I could take in details now that had just zoomed by me before. Blood had dripped down from the balcony above and now covered the porch furniture, bicycles and floor boards. It just kept going through my head: “I have never seen that much blood before.” It is amazing how much can come out of one person. And, I’ll say this, it does NOT look like ketchup.

If you are still reading, thanks. Sorry for the gore. I had to get it out of my head and on “paper”. It’s how I process things. I could use a hug today. I feel like in a small sort of quiet way that I’m a pretty good person for at least trying to help. And I feel really humble for how powerless I really was to make a difference. But I have to ask, since this is not the first time I’m the only one to show up for somebody else’s emergency, why is that? Why–once again–was I the only one to get involved? And, why couldn’t I feel what was happening only 35 feet away from me? It seems irrational, I know. But I do feel those things sometimes. Why am I not more emotionally moved right now? I think I need a good cry.

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10 thoughts on “Perhaps the Strangest Night of My Life

  1. Oh god. Wow.

    You must be floating around in some really unfamiliar and difficult spaces today, sweetheart. I bet you do need a good cry – though as you know, it will come in its own time and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it taking a while. And you certainly are a good person, and were a nurse to everyone in that situation, medical events aside.

    I am sending you all my comfort and love and support and hugs. Please let yourself be taken care of and to be wherever you are… Zero expectations or ‘should’s… The deeper levels of your consciousness will fly the plane for awhile, no need to steer.

    It’s gonna be ok.

  2. you are there for people because you care a lot. Maybe more than most. I’m shaking after reading that. Can only imagine what you’re going through! hugs!

  3. You really responded courageously and compassionately. I am sure you must be very shaken right now and I send you my love. I am so sorry that you had to experience such a horrible thing. *hugs*

  4. hey baby girl. for some reason, I wasn’t able to go to this the other day from the pacifica email link. anyway, i think you handled yourself so well in this crisis. I am painfully aware of my limitations and the first thing I’m going to do is sign up for a CPR class. I’m humbled and awed, frankly. You would totally make a good detective.

    I think processing it in the detail, all the gore, is how you avoid post traumatic stress disorder when something like this happens. I was riveted by all of it from a storytelling standpoint. But I was wondering what kind of gun it was and if that would make a difference in the size or nature of the gunshot wound.

    • Thanks for the lovin’ and the compliments. I still hope I never have to do CPR. Partly because I don’t want people to ever find themselves in a situation that warrants it, but also because the side effects I mentioned above are just downright gross for the CPR giver. Blech. Still, I’d never be able to live with myself if I let someone die just because I was squeamish.

      As for the gun, it was a semi-automatic. Yes, angle, caliber of gun, and bullet type all make a difference in the wound. Some bullets are meant to pierce, some are meant to explode widely as soon as they hit something solid. Those are the ones that cause major internal injuries. Not sure what kind of bullet this man used, but likely it wasn’t the latter since they did find an exit wound. (I had to learn all this in my gun safety class which I insisted on taking when my ex-boyfriend insisted on keeping guns in the house. Thank God I don’t have them around anymore.)

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