A Mother's Wounds
Content warning: gun violence
"But soon my companions were lost to my sight beyond the mountain ridge in my rear, which still seemed ever retreating before me, and I climbed alone over huge rocks, loosely poised, a mile or more, still edging toward the clouds; for though the day was clear elsewhere, the summit was concealed by mist."
~Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods
As I look back over my human journey, there are certain days that stand out as exceptional. They are the kind of days when you are grateful beyond words to be alive, where you are so caught up in the experience that the past or future is far removed from your mind. On such days you make a mental note to savor every second of it because you know it's turning out to be one of the best days of your human journey. You just feel it in every part of your being. Those moments are often referred to as "mountaintop experiences" because you are so uplifted that you can't imagine being any higher emotionally or mentally than where you find yourself.
When I experienced such a day I was actually standing on the top of a mountain, not only was it a figurative experience but also a literal one. My second climb up Maine's highest mountain, in September of 2014, will go down as one of the best days of my life. It is only to be surpassed by my wedding day, the days that my children and grandchildren were born, and the moment when I met each of my birth parents and all of my biological siblings for the first time when I was twenty-five years old and learned that I was from the Passamaquoddy Tribe
Standing on the summit of Katahdin after traversing the notorious Knife Edge, I felt so small in the larger scheme of things. To get to the summit is no easy task. It is not for the weak in body and it takes some degree of mental fortitude to plan and carry out such an endeavor. It is difficult to describe what that climb up Katahdin meant to me. It was not just a physical feat but also a deeply moving, spiritual endeavor that brought healing to my mind and the cleansing of my spirit. The path that brought me to the mountain was a very long and difficult one filled with many obstacles to maneuver, and various literal and figurative hills to climb. It was a journey that took me from a deep valley of despair and anguish to a place where I felt as if I were standing on the top of the world.
Just two years before that sacred climb, I had received the phone call that every parent fears. It was the kind of call that informs you that your child has been injured. One where the caller cannot tell you if your offspring is alive or dead, but that you need to get there as quickly as possible. When I received such a call, I was in the curtain section of Wal-Mart in Ellsworth, Maine, getting needed supplies for the small garage apartment that I was about to move into in order to provide end of life care for my elderly adoptive parents. One had Alzheimer's and the other vascular dementia. I was returning to the home where I had been raised in order to care for my adoptive father who was still at home, and to be able to visit my adoptive mother every day at the nearby nursing home where she lived.
That morning in September I left my coastal home in Maine intending to put the finishing touches on my new abode. I had planned to move my belongings there the next day but needed to finish up a few cosmetic things. In the blink of an eye my day took an abrupt turn toward the unimaginable. It had started out as just an ordinary day, but by day's end I found myself standing in the trauma unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, Tennessee with my oldest son Jason unconscious and hooked up to a respirator.
From the moment that I received the call that morning from my son's boss telling me that Jason had been shot, my immediate questions were if he was still alive, if he was paralyzed, and what hospital he had been taken to. None of those questions would be answered for several hours because, as I would soon find out, often times after an assault or shooting, information is not given out freely on the victim's location or condition. It is a precaution that must be taken because there have been times when perpetrators of such heinous acts have tried to track down their victims to finish what they had started. In an attempt to keep victims safe, information cannot be given out unless there is clear proof that the one inquiring is a close family member and not the assailant.
The only thing that Jason's boss knew when he called me was that my son had been airlifted from Blanchfield Army Hospital at Fort Campbell, KY, and had been taken to a hospital in Nashville. Beyond that we had no idea where he was or even if he had survived the shooting. The news was so shocking that after I hung up with Jason's boss, I immediately called him back to see if I had really just been given news from him that Jason had been shot. I didn't believe it for a few seconds. Unfortunately he confirmed that he had indeed just spoken to me, and that he had given me the news of my son's attack. For the next two hours I sat in a car in the Wal-Mart parking lot while my sister and I called hospitals in Nashville and law enforcement agencies in Maine, Tennessee, and Kentucky trying desperately to locate the whereabouts of my son and to find out if he was still alive. Each call we found that no one who would tell us where Jason had been taken or give us information about his condition until I was finally able to speak with the detective in Oak Grove, KY, who had been assigned to his case.
Just as I was being told where my son had been taken, his friends from the Fort Campbell area had driven to Nashville and had gone from hospital to hospital to find him. They had located him at Vanderbilt. His boss was able to tell me that he was still alive but that he was on a ventilator. I was informed that medical staff was conducting numerous tests and procedures to determine the extent of his injuries. Jason's very best friend April was also there. She assured me that she would under no circumstance leave his side. In my mind I thought that if he were to die before I got there then at least his very best friend and his boss would be by his side. He would not have to die among strangers.
Living on the remote coast of Maine, it was 5:00 p.m. before I could get a flight out of Bangor. I had been routed through Detroit so I did not arrive in Nashville until 10 that night. I was joined on the trip by my youngest son and my sister, so at least I didn't have to make that long journey alone. It was surely one of the longest days of my life and one that I will never forget even if I tried. I clearly remember praying a great deal while I was in transit. I cried out to God and said, "You have taken my husband, please do not take my son too. Please do not take Jason."
A little more than five years before the shooting my husband had died at the age of fifty-six, after a ten and a half year, nonstop battle with prostate cancer. I had become a widow at the age of forty-two. I knew all too well the pain and sorrow of losing someone that you loved dearly. At one point I looked upward and whispered to my deceased husband that if he was listening, could he please be with our son to keep him safe so that he might survive. I told him that I didn't think that I would recover from another death in our family. I asked him to hold our son in his arms until I could get there and could hold him myself. I'm not sure if any of those words were heard, but I was brought some relief through my prayers and pleas as I journeyed.
As we landed in Detroit the same questions kept going over and over in my mind. Is this real? Is this some kind of a dream? This can't be real can it? Am I going to wake up? Did Jason really get shot? All I wanted to do was to be with my son so that I could see for myself if what I had been told was true. My head was pounding, my stomach ached, and there was tension throughout my entire body that made me feel as if I had a flu of some sort but I was perfectly healthy. My physical being was responding to the trauma as my mind tried to determine what was fact and what was fiction.
The mind has a way of protecting itself when it has been bombarded by devastating news that shakes you at your core. There is an internal battle to soften the jolting information that your brain is trying to process. You have some difficulty determining what is reality because that which you are confronted with is so disturbing that you don't want it to be real. Time seems to slow down and everything around you feels as if it is moving in slow motion. Little by little the information gets processed and you come to the realization that what you are experiencing is not a dream, but it is indeed reality. In my moment of realization, a wave of unfathomable fear washed over me. I was in a state of utter despair and filled with fear.
On my flight to Nashville I had tried to imagine what condition that I would find my son should he still be alive when I got there. Despite my best effort to prepare myself, nothing could have prepared me for what I found. For a mother there is nothing more frightening than to see your child in such a helpless and vulnerable state that a machine is breathing for them. It was shocking to say the least. So shocking that I made an audible gasp and covered my mouth with my hand as I said, "Oh Jason. Oh Jason." As horrific as it was to see him in such a state at the end of that day, the two hours that I had spent back in Maine trying to locate where my son had been taken and if he was still alive was equally as traumatizing, as were the eleven hours that it took for me to get to from the coast of Maine to Tennessee that day.
The first thing I noticed as I approached his bed was the hissing sound of the ventilator as it raised and lowered my son's chest. There was an IV line in his arm, along with EKG leads connected to his chest and a heart monitor beeping beside him. A catheter hung on the bed. He had an oxygen meter clamped to his finger and a blood pressure cuff affixed to his arm. I immediately noticed a large cut next to his temple and dried blood in his hair. There were approximately ten or so neatly sewn stitches at the edge of his temple. I was startled by the obvious indentation in his skull that is still noticeable today. He had not just been shot three times in the back, but he had also suffered a skull fracture from a forceful blow to his head right next to his temple that had left his skull splintered, much like if you had thrown a rock at a car windshield, or so his neurologist informed me.
Over the next few days, they continued to access his brain injury, checking for any swelling or changes in the brain through repeated scans and neurological exams and there were no changes. When he had been conscious, he had been combative and unruly. They hadn't known if it was from the brain trauma, or because he was overcome with fear, or because of intense pain that he might be feeling. Since he had not responded well when conscious, they had decided to keep him sedated until I got there in hopes that he would respond better if I was there with him when he came into consciousness. Standing there, my thoughts then went to my two beautiful grandsons who lived with their mother in California. My heart hurt for them and for my son. Since I had no idea about his long-term prognosis at that time, I began to wonder how they would be impacted or if he would recover enough to be the active and attentive parent that he had always been. I pictured his children’s faces and thought about how much that they loved their father. I almost crumbled under the weight of it all, but then I found the strength to let go of my emotion for the moment so that I could assess the situation and see what I needed to do as his advocate.
I knew that what I had learned about the medical world during my husband's losing battle with cancer would undoubtedly help me in the place that I now found myself. I thought that I had seen suffering during the latter part of my husband's life when he had lost his vision, suffered strokes, endured seizures, lost hearing in one ear, and had paralysis in the bottom of his face, but it was nothing compared to the suffering that I would see over the next few days with my son. There was not a moment when my husband wanted to die because of the pain or when I wanted him to die because he was intensely suffering, but in the first few days of my son's recovery there were several times when he wanted to die, when he asked multiple people to put him out of his misery because he said he just couldn't take it anymore.
As his mother, I hate to say, but there were a couple of times early on that I questioned if he would have been better off to have died because his suffering was unlike anything that I had ever seen. Even after everything that I had witnessed with my husband, it couldn't compare to the suffering that my son endured. Gunshot wounds, I was told, are some of the most horrific injuries to the human body. The damage that bullets and the friction that they create as they rip and tear through human flesh is extensive. Nerve endings and blood vessels are damaged, muscles are shredded and torn. Victims are left with gaping holes in their flesh that must heal from the inside out. Bones can be broken, shattered or splintered. Then depending on what type of ammunition it is, there are fragments and pieces left in the body. Some stay there forever and some move toward the surface and then have to be removed. There is often blood loss and organ damage, spinal cord injuries. Somehow, even though three bullets went into the right side of his back and passed near the spinal cord making exit wounds on the left side of his back and side, none of his organs were hit.
When they began to bring him from a sedated state to consciousness, he opened his eyes and slowly became aware of his surroundings. After a few minutes they decided that they could pull out the breathing tube as they felt he would have no trouble breathing on his own. I kept telling him that he was safe, that he was in a hospital and that no one was going to hurt him. I stroked his forehead and held his hand, all the while telling him that everything was OK and that I was there. In a semi conscious state, his first words after he came off the respirator were "Daddy, Daddy." My immediate thought was that perhaps my husband had heard my pleas and somehow he had been near our son and kept him safe, or then I wondered if Jason he had been so close to death that he had experienced the near-death phenomena of seeing loved ones who have died. He immediately felt pain in his back, torso and leg. Quite soon thereafter his leg began experiencing continual muscle spasms that would last for several days. Until surgery stopped them, he cried out in pain day and night.
On the third day he was moved from the trauma unit to a private room on the same floor. I hadn't known that spinal cord injuries caused such pain but with nerves misfiring, it can cause muscle spasms which are very painful. My son's foot felt like it was freezing to him so he wanted me to wrap and unwrap a thick blanket around his foot repeatedly. If I held his leg in a certain position then the muscle spasms would stop enough that he could sleep for a few minutes at a time. On the right side he had three huge holes in his back with two smaller ones on the left side and then one bump under the skin near his spine. His torso was swollen, discolored and filled with fluid. The skin did not look human. The holes were almost as big as quarters on the right side and you could see small pellets of lead in the holes which were blackened around the edges. He had several cracked and splintered ribs which added to his pain.
Finally, on the fourth day, his surgical team believed that they could help him after they had reviewed all of his scans. As each day had passed, he had lost more feeling and control in his leg. I feared that if nothing was done soon that he would be completely paralyzed. That was their fear as well. The surgeons felt they could help him to have a near normal life if they did this surgery but as with every surgery there were risks. If anything went wrong he could have been left paralyzed. After the bone and bullet fragments near his spinal column were removed, they stabilized his spine with rods and used bone grafts from human cadavers to repair the damage.
We all celebrated the next day when he could leave the trauma floor to go to the surgery recovery floor because it meant that his injuries had stabilized and he was moving forward in his recovery. He would spend another week there as he continued to heal. In that time he regained function of his bladder and bowels, and he was finally able to sit up on his own. A day after his surgery he walked for the first time with the help of a walker. In the early days, I didn't know if I would ever see him walk again. It was nothing short of a miracle that he was able to. Everyone in the room cheered. He remained in the hospital because they wanted to make sure that the wounds would continue to heal and not get infected. One of the wounds was so deep that they decided to use a vacuum device to help in the healing process.
He was finally given the okay to leave the hospital about three weeks after the shooting but he was told to remain in Nashville, so we got a room in a hotel that was right next to the hospital. Each day he had to go into the wound clinic. After four days we were given permission to return to the Fort Campbell area as we only had to come to the hospital every other day. A week later he graduated from the wound pump.They taught me how to pack and unpack his deepest wound which had been the most troublesome. It was very traumatic for both of us to have to do it each day, but it had to be done. We were then told that he could return to Maine with me whenever he felt strong enough to travel.
A little more than five weeks after that frightful morning at Wal-Mart, Jason and I began our drive back to Maine. The most traumatic part was behind us but the healing had just begun. For him, it would be months before he could resume normal activities. Eight weeks he had to wear a back brace to keep his spine stable as it was healing from surgery. It took him months after that to regain strength in his leg muscles and to be able to move his back and torso to bend or lift. His skull and ribs needed time to heal. It was a long process for him to recover and one that I don't think will ever fully be over. He had the physical wounds that he was healing from, while as his mother, I had emotional and mental wounds that needed time to heal.
Though my only physical suffering was from lack of sleep, I suffered immensely from mental and emotional distress caused by experiencing such a traumatic event. I remembered every little detail of those first few weeks so I frequently had flashbacks. For months, I was always looking over my shoulder as I was worried that the shooter might decide to come find us to finish we he had started with my son. On the small island where we were living, if I saw an unfamiliar car or truck, I would have a small panic attack. I avoided large crowds and didn't have much of a desire to be around people. The entire experience had turned my world upside down. How I saw the world and my place in it had been changed dramatically.
I heard many gunshots over the next month as it was deer hunting season in Maine. I would literally flinch and then cover my ears every time that I heard a gun fired. If I was watching a show that involved a shooting, I would change the channel or step into another room. All of those things triggered a response in me that took me right back to Nashville and to the trauma that I experienced there. In my moments of panic, I would have shortness of breath and my muscles would all become tight. My thoughts would race, my heart would pound, and sometimes I would begin to sweat. I was in a constant state of fear. I had lost my confidence in humanity. My mind became so bogged down with the realization that one human being could inflict so much pain and suffering on another human being. I did not know how to reconcile that in my mind.
The part about my son's injuries and suffering that hit me the most was that all of his pain could have been avoided. The injuries were inflicted on him at the hands of another human. I began to fear most humans because I had seen what they were capable of doing. I had seen the worst of humanity when I looked into my son's wounds and viewed his injuries. As I glanced around at other human beings, I was constantly wondering which one of them was going to snap and do something to me or to someone that I loved. I isolated myself for months. I didn't have the energy to interact with anyone beyond my immediate family.
Just a few months after that day that my life changed so drastically, I decided that I was going to become a runner. I thought that running could help me get stronger and give me a place to release all of the tension that was inside me. Running did a great job of that. When I ran, I felt as if I were letting go of everything that had been bottled up inside me for months. Each step that I pounded out gave me the sense that I was going to recover. I felt the best when I was running. I found that I needed to be physically active because it got my mind off all that I had seen and experienced in the south. I had fewer flashbacks if I did. The spring and summer after the shooting I found myself becoming more and more obsessed with being in the woods, so I started mountain hiking and climbing. I spent two or three days a week on the trails at Acadia National Park. The more that I hiked there, the better that I felt physically and emotionally. Being on a mountain brought me comfort because I was far removed from civilization, and depending on what trails I hiked, I could have limited interaction with other humans which is just what I wanted.
From the time that I was a small child, the woods had been my refuge. I had always had such a strong connection to the land, to the ocean and to the natural world. My life made more sense to me when I was immersed in nature. I had always found healing there. Peace rested upon me whenever I entered the woods or sat by the ocean. I didn't always fully understand why I had that connection to the land and with wildlife until I was twenty-five years old and found my birth parents. It was then that I learned that I was Passamaquoddy. Over time as I learned more about my cultural heritage, I understood many things about my personality that hadn't always made sense until I learned who I was and where I came from.
When I started mountain climbing and hiking after my son's shooting, I spent a lot of time thinking about my Passamaquoddy ancestors. I often tried to picture them hiking and climbing in the same places I found myself. I imagined how the landscape must have looked four hundred years ago and wondered what their conversations would have been about. I thought about the hardships that they were faced with and overcame, for had they not, I would not exist. I understood that I had some of the same strength that my ancestors had because I have been able to overcome so many traumas and tragedies in my life just as they did. I felt as if I was gaining my strength from them.
I began to look at each hike and climb as a sacred endeavor. Many times I would bring an offering of tobacco to use before I started. I would sing familiar Passamaquoddy songs as I hiked. Much of my healing came from my attempt to draw closer to the teachings and traditions of my ancestors, as I understood them. I felt safe on a mountainside because there weren't many people. I didn't worry about being shot. I wasn't fearful that someone would snap and cause me harm up there. The more time that I spent climbing, the less time I spent thinking about everything that had happened in Nashville. The woods, trees, ocean, mountains and wildlife were medicine to me. The world had no answers and little help for what I had been through. I found my answers and comfort in the high places where I climbed, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Each trail that I attempted became a ceremony to me. It moved past just being a physical workout, these hikes and climbs became spiritual experiences that helped me to slowly let go of the images and memories that were keeping me trapped in a life of fear and confusion after my son's attack. The higher I climbed, the freer I felt. In a chance meeting in 2014, while on a trail at Acadia, I met a woman in her late sixties as I was coming back down from the summit of The Precipice Trail, the east coast's most difficult, non-technical climb. She and I began chatting about hiking and Katahdin came up. I told her that I was planning to do it again as soon as possible because I couldn't get the Knife Edge off my mind. I had climbed Katahdin in July that year but could not do the Knife Edge because someone in my party was too frightened. My new acquaintance April told me that for three years she had tried to climb the Knife Edge but had to abandon her hikes each time because of rain, fog or wind. She was determined to try one more time. We really connected as we climbed down that day so by the time we got to our cars in the parking lot we were exchanging phone numbers and email addresses.
Less than a week later we found ourselves sitting at the gate at Baxter State Park just before sun up, waiting for the gate to open so that we could get an early start on the day. We had been joined at the last minute by her sixty-five year old friend who had not trained for the climb as much as April and I had, so our day's hike would be at a slower pace then if April and I had hiked alone. That simple fact was what made my second trip up Katahdin so spectacular. I would often hike ahead of them for a spell and then rest on a rock until they caught up. In the time that I was resting, I was able to take in the entire scene fully. I breathed in the air and felt the sun on my skin. I became aware of all of the sounds and sights that I might have missed had I been hiking at my usual pace. I had the time to look in every direction and to study the landscape for as far as the eye could see.
Many times during my rest stops, I was moved to tears by the natural beauty that surrounded me. I knew I was experiencing one of life's sacred moments. There was not a breath of wind on the mountain that day and the sky was that beautiful blue that you often see in Maine, in September. It was so clear that you could see for miles and miles in every direction. It honestly felt like I was sitting on top of the world as I sat and waited for my friends throughout the day. Little by little I felt the weight of the previous year slowly lessening. As we inched our way up the Knife Edge toward the summit, I felt so happy to be alive, something that I had not felt since before that fateful day in September 2012. I smiled and laughed so much that day that my face hurt. I was so far removed from those horrific hospital scenes that had plagued my thoughts for two years and that I didn't think that I would ever shake.
The climb to the top had taken much longer than we had planned but none of us was willing to turn back until we reached the summit. There came a point in time when I knew that we would be hiking in the dark for part of our trip down the mountain. In the past something like that would have filled me with worry but after all that I had been through, there wasn't much that I worried about anymore. I felt confident that we would make it off the mountain safely even if we had to hike in the dark. At the top I left a small pouch of tobacco as my offering. Part of my reason for this expedition was because I wanted to symbolically leave the shooting on the mountain that day. It had controlled my life for two years and it was time for me to begin to let those memories go. I kissed the pouch, tapped my heart, looked toward the heavens and then hung it on the summit sign and then we began the trip down.
The day could not have been more perfect, weather-wise. Even at the summit we were in shorts and t-shirts. And as luck would have it, of all nights to have to hike down Katahdin after dark, we happened to pick the night of the full moon. I shall never forget seeing the moon shine on the mountain creating such a beautiful silhouette of its peaks. The moon was bright enough that it lighted the path most of the way down so we didn't need to get our flashlights out until we got close to the bottom where the trees were thicker. We stopped often to look back to enjoy the incredible view of the moonlit mountain. I felt like we were in some kind of epic movie about a mountain expedition.
When we finally reached the parking lot, I felt as if I was a different person then I had been that morning. I felt whole again after feeling so damaged and broken for so long. It wasn't the end of my healing but it may have been the turning point. Five and a half years after my son's attack, I am still reminded from time to time of that dark period of my life. I have done my best to move on but I have periods when everything seems so fresh in my mind. Whenever there is a mass shooting and the gun debate is reignited, my mind is filled with flashbacks of our experience.
For a few days after one of these horrific events, my thoughts are with all of the parents who have lost a child or who are having to watch the degree of suffering that I witnessed. The media never goes into much detail about the long and difficult recoveries that many of these victims must go through. We see the fifteen minute photo ops but never really see the intense suffering that victims of gun violence must endure. We get so caught up in our discussions about inanimate objects that we lose sight of the human beings who are suffering because of those objects.
I can't begin to the know the answers when it comes to gun violence in America. It is a complex and multifaceted subject. I am not sure that any of us knows all of the answers. All I can do is share my experience on this subject and describe how it has forever altered my life and my thinking. Even though I wasn't the one shot, I will never be the person that I was before that day in September when my son became a victim of gun violence. In many ways that is a good thing, but there are days when I miss my former self, days when I wish I could go back to my carefree days of innocence, before I fully understood what terrible deeds that some human beings can carry out.
My son has resumed a fairly normal lifestyle. He has turned to bodybuilding and working out as his journey toward healing. He works as a sternman on a lobster boat which is nothing short of miraculous. He still has pain and is reminded nearly everyday of his injuries, but he understands fully how truly fortunate that he was to have survived and to have a full and active life. If any of the bullets had been a fraction of an inch in any direction, he would have died or been paralyzed. If the blow to his head had been just a little closer to his temple, he would have suffered brain damage. He is a walking, breathing miracle.
Though it has been a long and often difficult journey to heal our wounds, we are the lucky ones. Life has gone on for us, for my son. So many others across this country aren't as fortunate and will succumb to their injuries. Many mothers will lose their children in this epidemic of violence that runs throughout our society. Many mothers will never get to have the mountain top experience that was my blessing because many mothers won't be as lucky as I have been to still have my son with me. For those mothers, my heart grieves.
Every day I hope and pray that as a society we can come together and figure this all out, but I am not sure that day will ever come. Violence seems to be the answer to many people. I happen to believe that love and understanding point us to the answers. I long for the day when we as a society will truly value each human life. Until then I will continue to live an authentic life as I continue to heal my wounds by climbing mountains, sitting by the ocean, and sharing my experiences with others whenever possible. It is really all that I can do. Sometimes all we have to give this world is our story, and by sharing it, we might make some small difference in this world. That is my hope anyway.
Wendy Newell Dyer
Wendy was put up for adoption at birth due to racial indifference and was raised in a non-native family on a small island on the coast of Maine. At the age of twenty-five, she located her biological parents. Her father, Wayne Newell, is a well respected member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. Her white mother, Ellen Langdon, was found in North Carolina. For the past twenty-nine years, Wendy has immersed herself in the Passamaquoddy culture. After her husband’s prostate cancer diagnosis in 1996, she went to college and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine at Machias in 2003. She then became full-time caregiver to her husband who died in 2007. Together they homeschooled their three sons. Wendy testified before the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. She helped write educational materials for the Maine Coalition to Fight Prostate Cancer and recently won a national writing contest sponsored by the Prostate Cancer Foundation for a piece on caregiving. Wendy has written for several newspapers and magazines, and is currently writing a book about her life experiences. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling to see her three grandsons, and takes long hikes with her black lab Jackson Liam.