There’s Really No Easy Way to Say ‘I Was Stabbed’
Notes on near-death
The first thing people usually want to know is what getting stabbed feels like. The answer is that it feels like getting punched really hard. Or at least, I assume it’s what getting hit feels like. I’ve never been punched. I have been stabbed six times.
I’ll back up. And I’ll try not to make this too writerly, but I’m fighting my instincts. I wanted to add a quote from an Auden poem about suffering, but I desisted. Please admire my restraint.
You have to understand, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Wellington. It doesn’t happen in most places, but it especially doesn’t happen in a small city in New Zealand, in a park, at 11:30 a.m.
I was just trying to take my dog for a walk. On windy days, we like to go to the park that’s below street level, sheltered by trees. We were maybe 10 minutes into the walk, and I was checking my phone to see if anyone had liked something dumb I tweeted. I didn’t hear the man run up to me; I just suddenly felt someone grab me from behind.
My first irrational thought was that it was a friend trying to surprise me with a bear hug. Which doesn’t make any sense; all my friends have real jobs, and no one knew where I was. And then I felt the hit to my back, right between my shoulder blades. Like a punch. And then another, next to the first, and then I was turning. My dog was barking; for a 20-pound creature, her bark is shockingly loud. He got my right shoulder twice, then I was facing him, and he stabbed me in the chest. I fell back, and he kept coming.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t think about my life; I thought about dying.
I was yelling; not screaming, but yelling words. I just kept saying, “Stop it, stop it.” And my dog kept barking.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t think about my life; I thought about dying. I thought that this could be it, that this could be how I die. And it didn’t make me sad or regretful. It made me fucking angry. I didn’t want to die in the dirt like this; I didn’t want people to find my body in my torn-up sneakers and a sweatshirt from Kmart. It was the indignity, of all things, that bothered me. Not the tragedy but the mess. This wasn’t the end I wanted for myself.
I think that’s when I started kicking. He hit my other arm, and I was on my back on the ground but I kicked out my right leg, trying to keep him back. He came in again and slammed his fist onto the top of my head. I think I finally managed to nail him with my foot, but it was hard to see with blood running down my face. He backed away and looked at me for a moment. I want to pretend kicking him helped, or my dog barking scared him off, but the truth is I don’t know why he stopped. He could have killed me, I think, if he had really wanted to. He could have slit my throat, or gone for my chest again. But he stopped, and stepped back, and then ran off. He never said a word to me.
I could feel blood soaking into my sweatshirt. I rolled until I could sit, and I found my phone in the dirt where I dropped it. He didn’t take it; he didn’t take anything.
I was in shock, and I knew I was in shock. I’m proud that I remembered the emergency number here is 111. It was hard to move my arms, but adrenaline got me to my feet. I grabbed my dog’s leash and started walking. I wasn’t thinking clearly; I should have followed where he went, which would lead to the exit, but I went the other way, just wanting to get distance.
The operator answered and asked what the emergency was. “I was stabbed,” I said, and my voice sounded breathy. I told her where I was, and then I couldn’t walk anymore. I sank down where I stopped, half-slumped on the ground. The woman on the phone kept talking, but I was starting to get tired. And then I saw someone walking toward me, a woman on her phone.
“Please help me,” I said. I know I scared her. You don’t expect to see someone with blood dripping down their face on your lunch break. I barely remember the woman’s face, but she stayed with me. I was breathing hard, going in and out of focus. I pulled my dog onto my lap; she’s not good with people. I think at that point I realized I wasn’t going to die, but I was in too much pain to really concentrate.
I kept apologizing, and everyone rightly ignored me. I tried to thank them, but I don’t know if I was making much sense.
I gave the woman my phone, and she talked to the operator. I tried every now and then to sit up. I couldn’t; it hurt too much. We heard the sirens coming near, but we were pretty far down the hiking trail. Two more people came down the path, a young man and woman with a bird in a cage. That’s when I thought I might be dreaming, but they stayed with me, too. They all stayed with me until the police officer finally made it to us.
The officer helped me stand; I was able to walk with him and the woman helping me. I gave my dog’s leash to the boy and girl, and she barked at them the entire way back up the path. I kept apologizing, and everyone rightly ignored me. I tried to thank them, but I don’t know if I was making much sense.
The ambulance was waiting at the entrance to the park. Three paramedics came out to meet me, and I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to everyone who helped. They loaded me into the ambulance, my dog trailing after me. Once we got inside she stopped barking, like she knew things would be okay now. The paramedics unzipped my sweatshirt and peeled it off my arms; it was heavy and dark with my blood. My shirt they had to cut off. They said they were sorry, and I tried to tell them it was from Target. “These are my hiking clothes,” I think I said.
“Oh, god,” one of them said when they saw my back. They pressed thick bandages against me and put me down on the stretcher, covered me with a gown. My dog jumped up onto my lap; she had my blood on her face and she started to lick my fingers. I had to call my partner, but I didn’t know what to say. How do you tell someone you’ve been stabbed? In Wellington?
“Can you leave work?” was what I ended up saying. “I was in an accident. I’m okay, but I need you to meet me at the hospital.”
I hung up the phone and then tried to use the camera to see how bad my face was. I took a picture, stared at it. It was blurry.
They let me keep my dog with me. She rode with me on the stretcher, sitting upright on my lap, keeping an eye on everything. The doctors started laughing when they saw her. They heard there was a stabbing, they were prepared for the worst, and in comes a border terrier riding shotgun. One of the paramedics said she’d watch her until my partner arrived, and then I was in the emergency room.
You can stop reading now if you want. I lived, and that’s the end of that. This next part is mostly medical, but there are more pictures if you’re into that kind of thing.
They inserted two IV lines, but I’d lost a lot of blood and they had trouble getting the needles in. The nurses cleaned my face and gave me something for the pain. They took my bra off me. So many people saw my boobs that day. The wounds on my back and my right arm were the deepest, but the doctors were most concerned with the one in my chest. I couldn’t see it; my chin was in the way, but it didn’t feel big. I was breathing fine, but they wanted to make sure it didn’t hit my lungs. The knife wasn’t large; I think he may have used a box cutter. None of my organs were in danger, but my right arm wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Another police officer came in to ask for a description. I did my best, but already it felt fuzzy like I was remembering a time I was drunk. My blood pressure dropped too low and they ushered the cop out. They had to give me blood, and they wanted to take me into surgery to make sure an artery in my arm wasn’t cut. First, though, I needed to get the chest scan.
Doctors kept introducing themselves to me. They were kind; they told me exactly what they were going to do before they did it, but only half the information made it into my brain. It hurt to lie on my back. The nurses cleaned my glasses for me. My partner came and held my hand; he called my mother, who threatened to fly in from Texas. The woman doesn’t even have a passport. My friend came and held my hand. I was supposed to go to a party that night. I had put on nail polish.
When they got the bleeding under control, they took me to get the scan. They injected me with a dye. “It’s going to feel like you’re having a hot flash,” the technician said. I waited, and it felt like warm Dr. Pepper flooding my veins.
The scan was clear, so they wheeled me to surgery. “What happens if I have to pee?” I asked the nurse. I always have to pee. I didn’t want to pee on the surgery table. She said not to worry about it. Another doctor introduced himself, and then they gave me ketamine. I was out.
I don’t remember waking up. I got a popsicle; I only know this because there’s a picture of me, stoned as shit, eating a popsicle like a child having sugar for the first time. My artery wasn’t cut, but they had to widen the wound on my arm to check. They patched up everything while I was out; altogether, I got about 25 stitches.
They moved me into the maternity ward overnight. I made my partner go home because I was worried about the dog. You can’t explain things to animals, and she’d had a traumatic day, too. I thought I would just sleep, but I couldn’t, even with the fentanyl. My throat hurt like hell from having a tube down it. They put blood pressure cuffs on my legs to prevent clots, and the cuffs made a loud humming sound as they alternated squeezing my legs. I couldn’t find a way to lie down that didn’t hurt some part of me. Every couple hours, the nurses arrived to pump me full of antibiotics and offer me pain relief like a drink refill. I put on some music, softly; I went through every National album I have, in order of release, and listened to Matt Berninger tell me to be brave and be kind.
I almost passed out the first time I stood up. When I did finally get to pee, the nurse had to watch me. At a certain point, you lose all sense of modesty. The blood from my back had stained my underwear. I learned quickly that being in the hospital is extremely boring.
People sent flowers. My friends visited. And when I was discharged, I did the American thing and asked “Do I need to… pay?” I received a pitying look in exchange.
(Here’s where I get political and stump for “Medicare for All.” I cannot explain to you the profound relief of walking out of the hospital without a bill. Medical debt is not a thing that should exist.)
I slept for the better part of a week. After I got out of the hospital, the wound on my back got infected, started leaking black fluid that bled through the bandage. I had to get stronger antibiotics; they said the knife must have been dirty. A “detective constable” was assigned to my case, and I really like the way that sounds. She usually works sexual assault cases and has cool tattoos. A police photographer came to take pictures of me and my six stab wounds: two to my back, two to my right arm, one to my chest, one to my left arm. And then two smaller lacerations, the one to my head and another to my left arm. Some bruising from being grabbed, some from the needles. My body is a mess, but it’s getting better.
I paid a visit to urgent care to have an interior stitch removed from my back because it wouldn’t close properly. They had to re-stitch me. That was the first time I really cried because I was so sick of being poked at.
Every time someone reads my chart they look shocked. They’ve been so nice to me, though; I think they feel guilty that this happened here, like it doesn’t happen everywhere. Of course, only I could live in L.A. and San Francisco and end up getting attacked in Wellington, New Zealand.
I go back and forth. It wasn’t that bad, I tell myself. It could have been much worse, people have survived much worse. And then I look at my scars, still red and new, and I think: But it was pretty bad, wasn’t it? It is possible I could have died. What if I hadn’t had my phone? If I hadn’t met someone on the path? I could have bled out somewhere between the trees. But of course, it’s useless to think about what-ifs. What if he had stabbed me in the heart? What if I hadn’t gone to the park at all? What if I died in a car crash tomorrow? It’s a pointless exercise.
People keep asking how I am, and physically, I’m fine. I’m still sore, still can’t lift anything heavy, but all the wounds are closed. I can’t decide if I should leave the scars or get them tattooed over. It pisses me off that I had to stop weight training, I was getting somewhat ripped. What they mean when they ask, though, is how I am emotionally. And I’m okay. I’m jumpy. I don’t like people coming up behind me. I dropped my keys the other day, and the noise sent a surge of panic through my body. I’ve diagnosed myself with what I’m calling “a touch of shell shock.” The good people at victim services are very patient with me. I’ve been testing myself; I watched all four of the Scream movies. (Stabbed a single time? Please.) I started writing a young adult slasher; I’m setting it in Texas because it seems more realistic.
If I’m angry, it’s the kind of anger you feel toward a natural disaster, something unavoidable and impersonal that tears through your life.
I’m worried people will think I got into horror because of what happened to me, like I didn’t watch Silence of the Lambs at a formative age. And I’m playing around with a new bit where I say I’d rather get stabbed again than do something. As in, “I’d rather get stabbed again than watch the debates.” I think it’s a pretty good bit.
They caught him. I really didn’t think they would, because it was so random, because I couldn’t picture him well in my mind. And he’s young, much younger than I thought. He’s around the age of the people I write for as a young adult novelist. I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know how to feel about any of this. I’m not angry anymore. Or if I am, it’s the kind of anger you feel toward a natural disaster, something unavoidable and impersonal that tears through your life. Mostly what I feel is a kind of resignation. I know I’ll never get an answer to why it happened. If I tried to write this story, it wouldn’t make any sense. There are no motives here, no villains, no heroes. I have no satisfactory ending for you. I’m sorry; reality is disappointing that way.
Take care of one another. Hug your pets.