What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Sure, Nicholas and I filled the living room with a giant, muddy tree. But that pales in comparison to the trouble our dad and his brother Ted caused over the holidays when they were kids.

Now, I don’t know what Christmas in the 1950s was like exactly. I’m assuming it involved things like fighting off woolly mammoths and walking uphill both ways to attend a four-hour Midnight Mass. But what I do know is that one glorious December 25th, Dad and Uncle Ted finally got the BB gun they had been begging for.

Like Ralphie Parker with his air rifle in A Christmas Story, Dad and Ted’s excitement was through the roof. And like Ralphie, they should have heeded the prophetic warning from the film — “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

Leaving Grandma and Grandpa Martin to their sober second thoughts about their gift-giving choices, the boys scampered off to the barn to play with their new “toy.” 

So what is the best way to test out a new BB gun? Target practice with tin cans? Painting a bullseye on the barnboards? Both sensible ideas. But both a bit … dull. No, Dad and Ted had a different idea in mind. (I won’t say a “better” idea, because Lord knows it wasn’t.)

They decided that the most appropriate way to spend Christmas morning was to take turns shooting each other. 

Dad handed the gun to Ted and began racing around the barn while his big brother tried to pick him off. Diving inside a pigpen, Dad crouched behind the low wall for cover. The seconds ticked by as he waited for just the right moment to make a run for it.

He chose the wrong moment.

The second Dad popped his head out, Ted took the shot. And Ted’s always been a good shot. 

The BB tore through the cold barn air, lodging itself in Dad’s face, mere millimetres below his eye. Blood and tears flowed from Dad’s face in equal measure.

The thought of Dad losing an eye certainly scared the baby bejeezus out of them. But the thought of losing their brand-new BB gun the same day they got it? That scared them more. So rather than rush Dad into the house so their parents could get him to a hospital, Ted decided to roll up his sleeves and try his hand at ocular surgery.

How difficult could it be?

Quite, as it turned out. With Dad writhing in pain, Ted attempted to dislodge the pellet from his brother’s bloody face in the filthy, dimly lit barn. Unable to pop the BB out of Dad’s eye (which was now completely swollen shut), they eventually conceded defeat. 

Perhaps Mom wouldn’t notice, they reasoned as they sneaked back inside the house, hoping for a Christmas miracle. Thankfully, a boy who’s been shot in the face is hard to miss, and Grandma rushed Dad to the ER immediately. The surgeon told him that an eighth of an inch higher and he’d have lost the eye.

Dad spent five days in the hospital. While his peers filled their holidays with tobogganing and other merrymaking, Dad spent his getting daily needles in the butt to ward off infections. I guess a dusty barn filled with pig manure isn’t the most sanitary of places to get shot in the face with a BB gun. Who knew?

Naturally, they never saw the gun again. (Although Uncle Ted did go on to become an avid hunter.)

Facing the consequences of your decisions can be scary and unpleasant. But trying to cover something up can turn little problems into big ones. Indeed, things could have ended a whole lot worse if Dad and Uncle Ted had succeeded in hiding the bloody incident from Grandma. 

Don’t let pride, embarrassment or fear prevent you from getting the help you need when you’re in over your head. In addition to keeping molehills from becoming mountains, taking ownership of your mistakes shows good character and leadership qualities. 

Because everybody makes mistakes. But being upfront about yours when they happen can help build trust and respect with the people around you, as it demonstrates honesty and a willingness to take responsibility for your actions.

Finally, acknowledging that you’ve made a mistake in the first place is the only way you’ll learn from them. It sucks being responsible for something gone awry, and it’s easy to slip into blaming others or rationalizing your choices. But by accepting the role you played in a problem, you’re able to grow as a person and ensure you don’t make the same mistakes again.

I made my fair share of mistakes when I had leukemia. And admitting to them was always the right call. Sometimes that meant telling my nurses that I forgot to take a certain drug so they could course-correct my treatment. Other times it meant confessing that I had foolishly ate a pile of junk food so they could identify the source of my nausea.

Because nine times out of ten, owning up to your mistakes is the best way to go — whether you’ve dropped the ball at work, you’ve forgotten your partner’s birthday, or you’re lying in a pigpen on Christmas morning with a BB lodged in your eye.


Next: Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience