A Life Worth Living

I only tried to kill one person in my life, and it was out of mercy. He was in misery. But he cried when I put the gun to his head.

My uncle was a strong man before the accident. Up until I was a teenager, I would hang from his flexed arms like a monkey from a tree. He once lifted a car off the ground when a buddy didn’t have a jack needed to change a tire. He told me several times that life was about being strong. “Strong enough to support yourself and those around you,” he’d say. “And if you can’t find that strength, you’re no better than dead.” A drunk driver paralyzed him from the waist down and trapped his mind inside his skull. He could hardly feed himself for a year afterward. He could barely speak more than in grunts and moans.

Year after year, I saw him try to build his legs enough to walk. Year after year, I knew he could never make them strong enough to replace a broken spine. He never gave up hope, but I did. Seeing him in the nursing home, unable to leave his wheelchair; hearing how his words were locked in his brain, unable to pass his lips…it all broke my heart. He deserved better. He deserved peace.

I bought the gun for petty cash from a friend. Old snub nose .38. Looked like it couldn’t kill a gopher unless it had its mouth wrapped around the muzzle. “Do you want ammo with it?” he asked. “I’ve got some stuff I can part with. No charge.”

“I’ll take some, yeah.” He gave me 50 cartridges. I didn’t protest or say that I just needed one. I didn’t need any questions about why.

I sprung my uncle from the nursing home for a day. Took him to my place out in the woods, gave him some good food and a soda. I tried to pretend like it was the old days, when he’d smoke and swear and let me sneak a beer away from my parents. But that gun burned in my brain, and my eyes kept shifting to the box where I was keeping it.

I didn’t want him to see the gun. I didn’t want him to know what was coming. I wanted it to be peaceful. But I stalled too long. Gun at the back of his skull, his tears came loud and hard. Then he shook his head and said the clearest word he’d spoken in years: “No.” I pulled the muzzle away from his head. Rounds fell from the open cylinder, rolling across the hard, uneven floor. They sounded heavy as sin and death.

He kept shaking his head as I hugged him. Forehead to forehead, I whispered to him. “You deserve better than this. You deserve so much better.” He wiped snot from his nose with a curled hand. “This could all be over. If you want.”

He shook his head more and said the word again: “No.” No further debate. He’d keep living as a shade of himself. He’d keep trying to walk, hoping against hope for his spine to heal. Until the pandemic came and took him.

The undertaker put a smile on his face. I was shocked at how familiar it looked. I had forgotten how he smiled all the time, even after the accident, even after the incident with the gun. And as we buried him, I did my best to keep that smile in mind. He smiled through pain and weakness. He smiled to say that his life was still worth living.