“Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me,” by Ed Gavagan

You wake up in the morning, get dressed, put on your shoes, and you head out into the world. And you assume you’re going to come back home at night, go to sleep, and get up to do it again. That rhythm creates a framework that you use to form a life, and you make plans, and you count on continuity.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I woke up one morning, and I wasn’t wearing any of my own clothes. I had two chest tubes, a hose going up my nose to drain my stomach, a catheter, and a morphine drip. And I woke into this fog of pain that felt like I had broken through the ice into a lake of frozen hurt. At the end of my bed I could see the surgeon who had spent all night saving my life, and he was holding my foot. He had given me about a two percent chance of living. Next to him were two homicide detectives. The homicide detectives had gotten the case because they didn’t think I was going to make it, and they didn’t want to have to do the paperwork swap when I died.

And let me tell you, when you start your day with two homicide detectives explaining what happened the night before, it’s downhill from there. They told me they had five young men in custody, and they wanted me to identify them from the mug shots before I died. They just wanted me to make an “X” next to the pictures.

What had happened is that these young men had come in from Brooklyn, and they  were part of a gang. The initiation for them to move up into the upper echelons of their gang was to come into Manhattan and kill somebody. And they had set up this little ambush where they had one lookout at either end of the block, and then three guys would sit on a stoop in between with their hidden knives. And they would wait.

It was late at night, the night before Thanksgiving, so the city was really empty. The kids had told the detectives that some other guy walked around the corner and headed down the block. The two lookouts gave the go-ahead, and the three guys stood up and started walking towards him. But he had his key out, and he put his key in the door and went in the lobby, and the door closed behind the guy, and the gang initiates were locked out. The guy pushed the elevator button, and he went upstairs, got undressed, and went to bed. And he never knew what just didn’t hit him.

And I was the next guy to turn down the street.

I came down the block, and one of the very lucky things from that night was that when I was in college at Notre Dame I was on the boxing team. So I got one good punch and knocked the middle guy out. They caught him, and he gave up everybody  else, which is how they had these i ve guys in custody.

So nobody expects me to make it, but I do. I live. They take with the clipboard, and she wants to talk to me about my insurance. I was self-employed at the time, so I like to say I was insurance-free.

And when they found that out, the nurse who came in the next morning said, “It’s amazing how well you’re doing, and we think you ought to go home.” And they gave me a bottle of Percocet and a cane, and a bag to put my stuff in, and sent me on my way.

The flowers hadn’t even wilted yet.

So I ended up in my apartment, at home, in very bad shape. The nightmares  were unbelievable. I couldn’t eat. They had removed about a third of my intestines, I had two collapsed lungs, I was missing organs that I hadn’t known I had. Things were very difficult.

In New York, if you can’t go to work, make money, and pay your rent, you don’t get to stay in your apartment. So I would try to do my job -— I had a little business building custom furniture. But whenever I saw a young man that had any hint of menace, this feeling would hit me, and the feeling was like this:

You know when you’re driving late at night in the winter on a snowy road, and you’re going a little fast, and you come into a turn, and you feel all four wheels slip, and you see the guardrail, and you know there’s nothing you can do? And then all of a sudden, you hit the dry pavement, and the wheels grip, and you’re back in control and nothing happened.

And then you get hit with this adrenaline. It’s a feeling in the back of your knees and in your palms, and you taste it in your mouth. But you’re driving, and you’re like, Nothing happened. I would have that feeling seeing teenage kids on the street six, seven, eight times a day, and it wore me out.

I was having post-traumatic stress symptoms.

I ended up losing my apartment, and essentially then becoming homeless, and losing my business. I went to the district attorney’s office for an appointment, where I had five attempted murder trials that I had to handle. And I broke down crying.

I was like, “I’m so lucky to be alive, but now I’m homeless.” And he gave me a number—-a little late I thought—-for the Victim Assistance people.

And so I go, and this girl comes out, and she’s like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. She’s got the turtleneck, and the ponytail, and she leads me back to her cubicle. And I’m in a really dark place, and I have this feeling that we’re not going to connect. I get to her cubicle and pinned up on the wall next to her monitor is that poster—-I know you know it—-of the kitten with the branch saying, “Hang in there, baby.” And I just don’t feel like she’s going to be able to help me.

She gives me this paperwork to fill out for Medicaid, and she gives me some more paperwork on how to get on a list for subsidized housing. (“It’s an eighteen-month wait but, you know, at least you’re on the list.”) And another sheet with some addresses in the Bronx where I can go for free group counseling.

I feel like a drowning man who’s just been thrown a kit to build a boat.

I walk out of there, and I go to my favorite bartender, who’s this cute Lebanese-Canadian girl. She’s a poet. And she lets me move in and stay on her couch. She’s rocking this Simone de Beauvoir look, and she’s smart and funny.

But the biggest thing is she listened, which was amazing. Because most people—-and they  were all very well-meaning—-had one of three responses.

The first response was, when I tried to talk about my feelings, and my fear, and this turmoil in my head, they would say, “Well, everything happens for a reason.” And that made me want to punch them in the face, and ask them if they knew what the reason for that was.

The second thing that people tended to say was “You’ve just got to get over it, man. You’re alive. You’re lucky. You’ve just got to put this in the past, and move on.” And that made me want to stab them six times and come back and talk to them in six months and go, “So how’s it working out, you got any advice for me now? Because I could really use some help from somebody who knows what I’m going through.”

And the third thing that people would say, and again, very well-meaning, but it just was absolutely no help, was that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

And I mean, I had read Nietzsche too. I had gone to college, and I was up all night in the student  union drinking coffee going, “Yeah, if it  doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, man.”

The problem with that was I had come to New York, started this little business, built a life, and I had lost everything. I felt like I was actually broken. That things could happen in life that would just break a man. And that not only wouldn’t you be stronger, but you would never ever again have what you had before. And I felt like things had slipped in a way that I would never be able to recover.

And this girl that let me move in with her was getting a little worried because I was just so sad all the time.

To try and make money, I would gather my little set of chisels and tools and go up to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where there’s always some billionaire working on his mansion. I would see a construction site, and I’d go up and knock on the door and ask if they needed anybody to work, just a daylaborer. And the foreman, you know, he’d see a guy with his own tools, who knows his way around a job site, English is his first language, and he’d be like, “All right, put him down there and see what he can do.”

And I’d go, and I’d start working. I’d be in this incredible mansion that was being renovated, and I’d look around at the unbelievable materials, and I’d think of how lucky these people were to be living there. When we were done with this work, they’d be surrounded by amazing craftsmanship.

So I’d be there working, and I’d be making a mortise for an offset pivot hinge in a rosewood door, and the beauty of everything that I was working on contrasted with my life, and I would just start to cry. And so I’d be on my hands and knees, sobbing.

And one of the laborers would go tell the foreman, “The dude you hired, man, he’s sobbing in the library.”

And the foreman, usually, you know, an Irish guy, would come and say, [in an Irish accent] “Eddie, I can go ahead and pay you for the day. Go and have a drink, man. We don’t need you anymore.” And then that would be it, I’d get fired.

I was getting fired again and again. And these people didn’t know what had happened to me, they just knew they couldn’t have some guy weeping in the basement. I couldn’t hold a job, and I was getting angry.

The Canadian poet-bartender—-she’s my girlfriend now—-and she’s worried because my attitude is becoming not so good.

One day I leave a site after being fired once again. I walk out onto Park Avenue, and I see this guy walking by. His hair is perfectly coiffed, and his tie is knotted, and his shoes are shined, and he’s in this impeccable suit with his shiny briefcase.

And I see that guy, and I just want to tackle him and kneel on his chest and punch him in his face and go, “You know, you’re not good! You’re just lucky, man. You think that everything you know and all you’re doing is keeping you where you are; but you’re just lucky, because it can all be gone, you can just lose it!” And I have this rage towards him.

I don’t do anything—-I let him keep walking—-but I’ve just wanted to hurt an innocent stranger, a passerby, to make a point about what is wrong with my life.

And in that moment I realize I’ve lost who I was before. I’ve become more like the kids who stabbed me.

It’s incredible to feel like you’re not who you used to be. I was going down a road where I was going to meet the guys who were my attackers. And I was going to be in hell, because I would go there alone, because that path was just bitterness.

And for the first time I realized I could never get back to where I was before: that guy,that business, that whole life was just gone. I had lost it. But up until that moment I had never believed that I had lost it. I had always thought I was going to get back to being that guy again.

As I sat there, I thought, I’ve got to do something new.

It felt liberating. It was like, All right, I can’t go back, because that’s gone. And I don’t want to be evil and bad. I’m going to do this new thing. I can do it!

And then I remembered, I have this girl.

And I run home, and I’m like, “OK, I’m not going to be the sad guy, and I’m not going to be the mad guy. I’m going to change, and  we’re going to work this out—-will you marry me?”

And she’s like, “No! You need a little more work here,” but she’s enthused by my enthusiasm.

And she knows I’m never going to ask her again. So after about another year and a half, she feels like we have something, and she asks me to marry her. And so we do. And we end up building this routine again, and setting up a life.

And now we have a two-year-old daughter. And I put her shoes on in the morning, and I head out to work.



In his day job, Ed Gavagan is the owner of PraxisNYC, a design/build i rm practicing across a broad spectrum but specializing in boutique residences. Ed creates homes and furniture for fancy people and humble folk the world over. He is a founder of Design Starts Here, an architects’ collaborative that offers free design services to the public from a pop-up storefront in Manhattan. Two weeks after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Design Starts Here mobilized a fund-raising effort, and Ed traveled with a  three-man team into Haiti on a relief mission, delivering tons of food, medicine, and clothing to refugees, clinics, and hospitals. In 2009, Ed began telling stories with The Moth at a StorySLAM in Manhattan. From there, he has won a Moth GrandSLAM and contributed to The Moth Mainstage events, The Moth iTunes podcast, The Moth Radio Hour on public radio, and various Moth outreach events. He designed and built The Moth offices in 2011. Ed gave a TED talk at TEDMed2012 based on one of his Moth stories. He was one of forty innovators invited by Todd Park, the chief technology officer of the United States, to participate in the Safety Data Initiative organized by President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Ed lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.