July is often a month for celebration in the United States with fireworks on the 4th. For me, July never passes quietly as my memories take me back to 1991, which holds the darkest and lowest time in my life.
On the 8th of July, 1991, after I clocked out at work and headed home, I was supposed to pack up my belongings and move out. My first wife had demanded the night before that I leave. This was the third time during our short marriage that she insisted we divorce. The reason this time? I had decided to go back to college while still working full-time at the hosiery mill to earn my teaching degree. Her reasoning seems preposterous, but it is true. Many years later I learned she suffered a type of mental disorder that prevented her from keeping any type of steady relationship.
When I pulled into the driveway to start packing my stuff into my pickup truck, she came outside of the back door and told me that my eight-year-old brother had been shot and was in surgery at the hospital. I don’t remember putting the truck into gear. Everything for the next few minutes remains a blur, but when I had come out of the shock, I found myself driving down Airport Road in Fort Payne, Alabama at nearly 70 mph. This was after speeding down the hairpin turn of Sylvania Gap.
I found my mother seated in the emergency room and sat beside her. She was in shock, praying. She had cried until no more tears could come. A few minutes after I had arrived, the surgeon came out in tears. She said that they had tried everything they could, but the bullet had struck dead center of his abdominal aorta. Had the bullet gone an inch either direction, she said that he might have survived.
This happened the day after our mother’s birthday while she was working one mile away from the house. He and our twin sisters (age 9) were home alone and walked to my stepfather’s house less than a quarter mile away. No one was at home.
The day before, their father had been teaching them how to shoot a .22 rifle. Alone, they heard a sound outside and grabbed the loaded rifle from behind the pantry door. My stepfather’s philosophy was “an unloaded gun is more dangerous than a loaded gun,” which has no logic at all and no doubt haunts him to this day. So not only did he keep his guns loaded, they weren’t locked up.
They took the rifle, went outside, and fired a few rounds. Back inside, my brother argued and tried to take the gun from one of my sisters. While struggling over the gun, it fired and shot Bubba in the stomach. He bled to death within a matter of minutes. He died before my mother arrived and well before paramedics came to the scene.
Oddly, Bubba’s death occurred one day after my mother’s birthday and on my oldest brother’s birthday. Even though they weren’t blood related and had never met, my oldest brother came to the funeral and was one of the pallbearers with me for the burial, which touched me deeply.
After the funeral, my mother and I were at my house. I had held to the hope that perhaps my first wife and I could work things out, but at the end of the week, she insisted I move out. A week later, we signed the divorce papers. Although it had been devastating for me at the time, once the fog of my misery vanished, I was able to see her true self. I discovered that keeping my sanity was far more valuable than suffering constant verbal and mental abuse. This didn’t come quickly, but over time.
To heal also meant I had to move away from Alabama. For weeks after my brother had died, the house didn’t seem the same. We kept expecting him to come through the door, as though it had all been one bad dream. The afternoon and evening skies during those weeks were odd. The sky was an odd yellow haze, never blue, and no puffy clouds. I recall that depressive haze clearly, even now, and it clearly reflected our household in response to our mood of painful loss. Death isn’t easy, and the loss of a child makes that even more devastating. My mother never recovered from Bubba’s death. Instead, she used painkillers and other drugs to try to numb the ache inside. Eventually, after fifteen years of prescription drug addiction, she died from an accidental overdose.
If you own guns, please lock them up where children cannot get to them. Never leave a loaded gun where a child has access to them. Guns aren’t toys, and if you own them, be a responsible person. If you cannot, you don’t deserve to possess them. This isn’t a political statement. Just common sense.