“It was just before Thanksgiving when my son put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. He survived but the blast obliterated his face.” Judith Casey, author of the book, Face to Face, wrote the unimaginable.
As a native New Yorker, I have practically zero attention span, yet I read Face to Face in one sitting. The opening line grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Casey’s book tells the harrowing tale with no self-pity or whining. It is straightforward storytelling. When I spoke with Casey she said, “I wanted to tell what happened and how people can survive and even thrive after a thing like that.”
In November it will be 16 years since the incident. Chris is now a happy and likeable wisenheimer. During our interview, when I asked how he felt about his mother’s book, Chris said, “I told her if it didn’t do well I wasn’t going to shoot myself again.” Involuntarily, I burst out laughing. “It hurt too much the first time,” he said. “Anyway, the doctor told me I was too hard-headed to die.”
Humor and willfulness is what got him through his long, painful recovery. On that fateful night Chris had gone to his soon-to-be ex wife’s house and they’d had a fight. She’d yelled, “I could care less whether you live or die.”
“I thought, I’ll show her.” Chris said. He and his wife had a two-year-old son at the time, and he had a three-month-old daughter with his girlfriend, Megan.
“I grew up without a father,” Chris told me. “If I had only thought it through I wouldn’t have done it. I would’ve realized that I’d be leaving my kids—who I loved so much—without a father. But that night I felt like I was no good to anybody and they’d all be better off without me. I went to my Step-Dad’s gun cabinet and grabbed a 12-gauge hunting rifle. I was a big guy, hard to control, so when my Mom tried to stop me, I pushed her to the floor.”
Chris said he then drove to a store, bought shotgun shells, went to his estranged wife’s backyard and shot himself. He said the blast went in a vertical line through his chin and missed his brain. His eyes and hearing were spared but his face was gone. The chin, jaw, mouth, teeth, nose, and part of his tongue were all destroyed and he’d lost three quarters of his blood by the time the paramedics arrived. He was assumed dead until one paramedic saw he was still breathing.
“I found out later,” Chris said, “that the shotgun never should have gone off. The round I bought was too big for that gun. Ballistically speaking, it can’t happen. But it did. And my face collapsed.”
Chris had a total of 17 painful surgeries over a five-year period. His mom and girlfriend, Megan (who is now his wife of 15 years) were there through the entire odyssey.
In the book, Casey described her arrival at the scene. The police wouldn’t let her go near him. “I knew from the way everyone was acting, the situation must be grave.” My heart broke for her all over again every time we spoke.
One thing about the story made no sense to me. I couldn’t understand how his girlfriend, Megan, had made the choice to stay with him. When I asked her she said, “I had no idea until that night that he still wanted to be with his wife. At the time, we had a three-month-old daughter and we’d already planned to marry. After he shot himself I was full of disdain. Lots of anger. I felt like he’d killed my boyfriend,” Megan said. “But I stayed for the sake of our daughter. It took a couple of years before I was healed enough to love and trust again. But after those first few years, I fell in love with this ‘other’ man, who looked nothing like the man I’d fallen in love with.”
Chris still has prominent scars on his face. After studying old photos, I commented on how handsome he’d been. “I’m still damn handsome!” he said.
“You’d be surprised how common these types of injuries are,” said Upper East Side plastic surgeon, Dr. Thomas Romo, III. “In the past, a patient with devastating damage to the midface would go through 15–20 operations, then endure enormous pain for long periods of time.”
That was Chris’s route. His first surgery lasted thirty hours. Then he had 16 more. I wondered how his mother could have afforded all of the medical bills. Chris told me that the first six weeks were covered by his insurance. After that he received disability from the State. Insurance paid to build him a mouth but then refused to put teeth in it—they said dentures were cosmetic. Casey was saddled with the bills that weren’t covered.
After waking up in the hospital, Chris said, “I felt embarrassed but learned to deal with it. The nurses wouldn’t let me have fingernail clippers or anything. I wanted to go home and had no idea why I couldn’t. I was on so many painkillers I didn’t understand what was happening. After six weeks in the hospital, they let me see what I had done.”
Chris said, “I never felt as bad as I did that night.” Being constantly laid up and recovering he had a lot of time to think. “I saw how many people really loved me. It was then I made up my mind to stop living a selfish life.” The self-will that nearly destroyed him was transformed into a determination to help others.
“It’s been a rewarding life, maybe not financially but emotionally. I’m happily married, my wife and I laugh all the time. I love my kids and I coach wrestling and baseball. I’m more than just coach, I’m part Dad to all the kids. I make sure they keep their grades up and they know I’m there when they need me. I never focus on the past, only the future.”
Because the shooting didn’t affect his ears and eyes he said, “I hear and see better than most people. But I’ll be 40 this year so I need reading glasses.”
The memoir left me with the feeling that there is almost nothing a person cannot rise above. It made my daily “problems” of short deadlines, inflation, lousy subway service and bad cab drivers seem frivolous.
This story appeared in the New York Resident magazine, August 2011.