Last week I went to my 25th high school reunion. Spending time with all my childhood friends taught me a great deal and, once again, got my wheels turning. One of the deepest realizations I had was the extent to which my reality was so distorted back then. It seems like almost everything I thought about the people around me (and about myself) at 16 was either incorrect or off kilter. If only I’d known then … what might have been different?
Coincidentally, on the flight down to Shreveport, I read American Pastoral by Philip Roth (one of my favorite writers). A particular passage resonated as I mingled with my past and all that it represented to me for years:
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that–well, lucky you.
So what does this have to do with being stabbed 39 times? Nothing and everything. Reading Roth’s passage and talking to my old teenage friends as adults reminded me how intricately each of us exists in our own reality. Some of us envision everyone else as having all the qualities, belongings, relationships–lives–we wish we had. Yet we’re all just trying to recover from our own unique 39 stabs. As Roth noted, everything we know about each other is wrong, and yet it’s still right because life is about constant recovery.
In the novel I just finished writing, there’s a passage on how the plight of the mentally sound can sometimes be worse than that of the mentally ill. The ill can submerge beneath it all while those lucky enough to have our wits about us must trudge on, day after day, knowing what we know and seeing what we see, all the while having to keep on keeping on. It can be exhausting. It can squelch the soul and use up the clock.
With all this on my mind, I read Fredric Almond’s beautiful story about surviving the death of his mother, and all the stabs he endured as a child. The physical stabs he experienced and survived are about as close as one can find to a representation of hope for us all, despite the type of wound we carry. As I sit here at my computer, facing some new challenges of my own, Fredric’s story reminds me of just how resilient, courageous, and beautiful the human spirit truly is. We cannot change the past, whether rooted in reality, fantasy, misconception, ignorance, or despair, but we can certainly refuse to let it hold us back from living, feeling, breathing in today for all we know it to be.
I’ll be thrilled one day to look in the face of my maker and finally understand it all, but until then I’ll keep getting it wrong over and over again. But according to Roth, that’s okay. That’s how I’ll know I’m still alive.
As a child, you were stabbed 39 times during a burglary. Can you tell us exactly what happened?
I was eleven years old when it happened. While I was sleep, I heard my mother screaming. Immediately, I ran in her room and what I never expected happened. It was an intruder in our house with a knife stabbing my mother. I screamed out and he charged at me while swinging the knife. My mother jumped him from behind and he left me alone. Spontaneously, I ran in my closet and began to pray, “Lord I don’t want to die, I want to live!” over and over again I prayed the same thing. After a few minutes, I decided to try and get help. So I snuck down the hallway and seen the phone on the floor off the receiver. I picked it up and tried to get a dial tone but couldn’t. By the third try of attempting to reset and get a dial tone, the perpetrator noticed me and started stabbing me over and over again until I couldn’t move. I was being stabbed like a butcher chopping up meat. I was stabbed about thirty-nine times in the face, back, neck, arm, and foot. He left me there in a pool of my own blood thinking I was dead. The perpetrator went back to my mother and continued to wrestle her down and eventually stabbed her to death. I watched him take my mother’s life. She was twice her size after he got finished with her. I could only lay there and watch as if I were dead with my eyes open. He then left the house with the valuables and drove off in my mother’s car.
I know it was God. I only believed that I would live and I held on to my belief with all that was in me. I refused to allow this situation to win. Yet others may have thought and said that it was impossible for me to recover, I reversed those words as strength; trials are testimonies that give us fuel to move forward. My emotional and physical recovery came in steps. The more I continued to believe I would survive, the more the physical and mental aspect of my injuries healed. At the beginning it was very challenging on me because I had to look in the mirror at the bandages wrapped around my face and the staples on the side of my face to pull my skin back together. I had a tube running down my nose to my stomach to feed and a trachea in order to breathe. At that time I couldn’t walk or talk either. While this was happening, my family would visit holding back their tears and pain to be support and strength for me. In return I also felt like I had to encourage them that I was going to be okay. The situation seemed hopeless but deep down inside I was determined to beat all the odds.
Did you fully recover? What was the long-term recovery process like for you?
Yes, but it took a long time. Even when I was released to go home I still couldn’t breathe out of my mouth. The trachea remained for approximately six months before it was taken out. I had to believe I would breathe, talk, and walk again. Overall, it took about a year. However, my mental recovery was a drooling process that had many ups and downs. It was very tough on me. I lived about two to three blocks away from the tragedy. I use to panic late at night constantly looking through the blinds of the windows to see if someone was outside. Sometimes it would be so intense I would imagine people outside ready to do me harm. I was a nervous wreck when I was alone. Kids at junior high school would ridicule me because of the scars. I began to think I was the ugliest person in the world. If I ever got married, I didn’t want kids because I thought my kids would be birthed with scars and I didn’t want them to go through what I had gone through.
I build up anger, hatred, bitterness, and hopelessness. At times I wanted to rebel by getting involved in streets of gang violence, drugs, alcoholism, and crime. This was not easy at all but for some reason I never fit in and I realized it wasn’t me. As I grew up, recovery was more of a state of mind. I had to change the way that I thought through the scriptures out of the holy bible. It gave me the recovery to believe that I was capable of overcoming any trial that I faced. One of my favorite scriptures are Philippians 4:13 (AMP) “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency].
Did you miss a lot of school, and if so, how were you able to keep up or catch up?
I missed the whole seventh grade year due to the injury. The city paid for a tutor to teach me. Ms. Page was my tutor. She was wonderful and treated me special. She had a special gift that made me smile.
How did your faith keep you going? Were there any particular individuals who made a difference in your life?
Initially, after leaving the hospital and getting settled at my new home with my Aunt, it was very challenging. I hated God, the situation and myself. I was haunted by trying to figure out why God allowed this to happen to me. I allowed it to build up a wall from anyone entering in. I felt like I didn’t deserve it, I was only a child. Therefore I gave up for approximately four years on life. I couldn’t open up and refused to let anyone in to understand what I was going through. However, there were times that I knew it was God intervening. Certain family members were essential in keeping my faith. At various times each one was a vital part of my life line. My Aunt would not let me feel sorry for myself, thinking that I was handicapped or strange. She ensured I was treated like a normal child was. At times I’m sure it was hard on her dealing with me but she continued to instill perseverance to pursue after life. My Big Brother had to be my father figure while he was still young himself. He ensured I was properly taken care of. Moreover, I am grateful for all of my family because they dealt with my pains while they had their own. They never rejected me or stop showing me love. Love is what made the difference.
How did this horrific experience impact your life? Were there blessings in disguise, and if so, how did you manage to find them?
Changes for the better didn’t happen over night. It took endurance through the sadness, discouragements, pains, hurts, and frustrations. I hated having to go through it and I wished that it never happened. I preferred my mother being alive. This incident turned my life upside down and there was nothing I could do about it. I never knew it was going to turn around but I continued to live one day at a time. It was as if I were in hell and there was no way out. My life seemed ruined. It was as if I were being tortured being alive. I just couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel. When I was sixteen, I was constantly getting in trouble at home and at school. I decided to run away. While at school, many things were rushing through my mind. While in class I got into a fight. The police, fire department and ambulance came. It seemed like my life was about to get worse. However, all the charges were dropped and I was sent to visit my brother in the Army. He and his wife were heavily in church. Eventually, I gave my life back to God and my life greatly turned around. The more I learned and understood Christianity, the more my weaknesses fell off. All this time, I was missing the love that only God could give me. Because of His love I live and have a greater conviction to fulfill my purpose in life!
I believe that we all go through our challenges for a reason. Our challenge has much to offer. Initially, it may not seem like its worth the time because of the hurts it brings. However, when we face our challenge, look at it and deal with it, God turns the misery to ministry. Once we find that reason we must use it to the best of our abilities to give back to society. For this reason I live to encourage, motivate, and inspire those that can’t get past the scar that changed their life. I have been involved with prison ministry, jail ministry, juvenile detention centers, feeding the homeless, donating gifts to abused and batter women and children, coached special Olympics, etc.. Also, I’ve spoken at various churches and its seminars, Nation Crime Victims Rights week, ICAN teen summit television show, radio stations, Jr. High Schools and book events.
Most of us can’t imagine going through such a physically and emotionally traumatic experience, especially as a child. Yet our own struggles, regardless of what they are, have deep, personal significance for us. What advice can you provide based on what you’ve experienced and overcome?
I believe if we trust God anything that we are challenged to face is not so traumatic we aren’t capable of overcoming it. Life is too short for us to hold on to the hurt and pain while the person or persons have moved on with their lives and we’re still stuck in that same place of defeat. Yet it may be difficult initially, we can overcome it. Lastly, “Unless we forgive, we can not live!” In other words, we have to let it go. It’s that simple.
What ultimately inspired me to write Scarred for Life was the realization that my testimony was a tremendous victory that others needed to hear. I have told my story many times at various places and the outcome always encouraged and inspired others to not give up hope in God in their trials. I simply had a desire to encourage more people. So I wrote my story on paper. It was not easy bringing back all of those memories. There were many times I cried and walked away from the computer as I wrote. There were times I wanted to quit but I just couldn’t. I didn’t want my work to be unfinished. So I pressed and push through the tears and I completed my first book. Moreover, I’m not finished yet; I am now working on my sequel and hope it will be finished by October 2009. My ultimate goal is to make a movie out of the story.
Do you have a life motto or words that you live by? If so, why these words?
“Unless you forgive, you can not live!” I am determined to fulfill my purpose in life. Every trial that I face is a stepping stone for me to move forward. It is impossible to enjoy life while I’m holding onto hurts and pains. I refuse to let a scarred situation hold me back from living life. So instead I let it go. By doing this it takes away the sting out of it and makes it easier to deal with.