These days, when I am among friends at a dinner party or spending time with family members, I find myself looking at each one and thinking how blessed I am that these unique individuals are knit into my life. When I’m outside, I remember to keep an ear out for the birds singing. I was not always this present, nor was I so grateful. It took the barrel of a gun at the back of my head to bring me to life.
The day everything changed was the most ordinary of August days. I drove to my hometown to visit my mother. As I sat at the kitchen counter, watching my mom make grilled cheese sandwiches, I directed our conversation into familiar territory. I went over my unhappiness with my career and my feelings of despair and anger at where my life was currently plateaued. I was an unhappy lawyer who had no love, or even affinity, for law and its practice. I couldn’t tell you why I had gone to law school. I was single with zero dating prospects, while my friends were in one of two camps: busy having weddings and adorable children or leading exciting ex-pat lives abroad. In comparison, I was living in Pittsburgh, unable to see beyond my own self-pity. After a full hour of listening to my litany of complaints, I am sure my mother exhaled when I left to go back to my tiny apartment in the heart of Pittsburgh’s North Side.
I got back in time to sit in my small yard and watch the sun set behind the protective hills that surround my city. Despite the beauty of the fading summer day, I was still deeply preoccupied with my unhappiness. The dimming sun drew me inside my apartment where I made buttered noodles and settled into my favorite chair to wait for a friend to come and walk our dogs together. I dejectedly turned the pages of a book that I wasn’t really reading.
What I didn’t know was that I had forgotten to lock the door.
I heard the slightest of noises, nothing more than a movement in the air. I got up and looked down the hall. At the top of the stairs stood a masked man holding a handgun pointed directly at me. He walked steadily down the narrow hallway, gun leading the way.
By the time you are in your 30s, you think that you have felt every feeling and emotion on the spectrum of human experience. But the instantaneous fear and disbelief that let loose in my body upon seeing this stranger with a gun in my home was something entirely new. Total fear screamed in every part of my body.
I went into my galley kitchen, knelt down on the floor and covered my face with my hands. “Give me the cash,” he said.
“I don’t have any,” I said, and it was the truth. I rarely ever have cash, relying always on my debit card.
The gun was right behind my head.
“Give me the cash,” he repeated.
“I don’t have any,” I said to him, willing myself to turn around so he could see my eyes and see that I wasn’t lying. It took everything I had to make my eyes meet his. “I’ll go with you to an ATM, but I don’t have any cash. You can take my computer,” I pleaded. He didn’t even look at it.
One sentence kept playing in my head: You don’t have the one thing that he wants. You don’t have the one thing that he wants.
I turned back around and stared at my hands. Tension buzzed in the air between us. I realized all I could do was wait. Wait for this stranger to determine how the rest of this event was going to play out, now that he had invaded my home for money that I did not have. I seemed to feel my whole life at one time—the beauty, the love, the darkest moments. Does it sound crazy to say that I saw every sunset I had ever witnessed in one moment? Because I did.
That moment of looking back over my life was so important that I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking it. I stared at the bracelet of the Virgin Mary that I wear every day. The fear in my body quietly dissipated, replaced with a resignation. I came to terms with the idea that my life might end on the floor of my kitchen. I remember that I did not ask God to save me, but I did ask for a quick and painless death.
In a Moment
And then it hit me. The one regret, the unfinished business I had with this life of mine. My mother would always think of our conversation and believe that her only child had died a miserable person, unfulfilled and greatly at odds with life. That is what brought tears to my eyes. I realized what a beautiful life I had actually lived; I just hadn’t always appreciated it.
As I knelt on the kitchen floor and contemplated the big picture, I knew that I should have taken my mother’s advice and focused on everything that I had been given. I should have spent more time serving others and less time serving my own selfish introspection. I’m sorry, Mom, I thought.
A second later, the intruder turned and ran.
A meaningless act of violence. That’s what people say when they hear about what happened to me. I do not agree. Everything that happens to us—both the good and the bad—has meaning. The blessing is that we get to determine the meaning, as well as the story we tell about our lives to ourselves and others.
Every day, I have the option to decide: Is my story going to be one of anger, fear and unhappiness? Or can my story be about peace, forgiveness and walking a new path of gratitude and compassion? Even though it seems a clear pick between the former and the latter, it is never an effortless decision. After all, anger can be intoxicating, especially righteous anger. It is a cheap, easy emotion and as addictive as an opioid. It’s often much harder to find the love and forgiveness inside. It is only by God’s grace that I am able to locate those virtues at all; but they are there, bubbling along like an underground stream beneath the stony ground of my heart.
The clarity that I’ve received, as well as the gratefulness that I feel, is inextricably linked to a moment of violence. When I look at the night sky and marvel at the thought of the millions of miles that the light traveled through the darkness to reach me, I realize that there were months, even years, when I never took the opportunity to look up. I am alive, just in a different way than I was before. For that, I thank God.