Michael Morales is one of the injured survivors of one of the worst shootings in U.S. history. This is his story of love and survival.
I’m a Puerto Rican nurse who survived the Pulse massacre that took place in Orlando, Florida four years ago today. When it happened, it was the worst mass shooting in the history of this country. I remember it as something else as well. June 12, 2016 was the day I lost the love of my life, Martín Benítez.
I almost died that day, too. I was shot four times, three on the left leg and one on the right tibia. The bullet on the tibia destroyed one of the main nerves to lift the foot, and I wore a foot strap for years. It’s improved, but I’m still going through a lot of difficulty to walk. I can’t move my toes. They had to operate them to straighten them, and they ended up looking very ugly, I have to say… And they straightened my leg—literally building it for me. They’ve changed the metal rod four times.
Every day my physical pain level is at 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. I started walking after six months, after being told it would take me a year. So, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” like people say. When the desire to move forward is there, one does what it takes. (Thank you, Dr. Craigs Robbins, a doctor who understands me and treats me with devotion.)
But I’m not going to lie: my life without Martín has never been the same. We met on a September 11 in Puerto Rico. I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall, and there he was, short and determined to make me stop criticizing the girl singing a very sad song on karaoke. “Let her sing whatever she wants,” he said after I yelled, “Why so sad?” to her. That was my Martín. Compassionate and loving.
We were together everyday since, until he died in my arms. We had moved to Florida seeking job opportunities for both, in 2015. The economic crisis in Puerto Rico pushed us in that direction.
The day before the Pulse shooting was my last shift as a nurse at the Florida Hospital Tampa.
I don’t know how I don’t have PTSD or how I am spared from an insane asylum. The only explanation is… God. You don’t know how much I prayed to God, how many people have been praying for me—a whole nation praying for me. So all I can tell you is that it has been God who healed my heart. His love showed me how to conquer my anger for what happened, and how Martín was taken away in such an unjust and tragic way.
It was months that I would wake up crying, go to bed crying, I cried all day, I cried while I ate, I bathed crying, and my mother who was with me for six months taking care of me, she would hear me cry, and she wouldn’t know what to do. She would say, “Don’t cry anymore.” And I would tell her, “It’s not me, it’s my heart crying.”
We were a close family to begin with, but this horror I lived made us even closer.
Thank God he gave me sisters that I wouldn’t change for anything. My oldest sister, whose phone was the only one I knew by heart, because I didn’t have a phone on me when the shooting happened.
It was 4 a.m. and I thought, “God, may the phone ring, and may she pick up the phone.” And although I was dying, because I was losing conscience, I told her, “Chillin’ (her name is Rosa but we call her that way affectionately), I was in a shooting.” I told her I was OK, so she wouldn’t fret. “But they killed my Martin. I need you to call his family. Try to find them because they killed Martin.” He took his last breath next to me after an hour and a half in agony.
Everyone tells me, “My God, everything you’ve gone through, you have a purpose in this world that is more strong and important.” And then one day I was lying down on the bed, and I said to myself: “I know my purpose.”
My purpose is to show the world that if God is going to use you for something, he is going to find you. You could be hiding under a rock in the desert, in a cave, and he’s going to find you. He found me in a discotheque lying on the floor with four bullets. For him to find you in your house, in the living room, on the porch, is nothing. And that God loves you just as you are, white, black, yellow, red, lesbian, gay, transsexual, or even a politician… He will love you just as you are.
I’m still here. Fighting for gun safety. Fighting so this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Fighting to walk again freely and to be able to practice nursing again by 2021.
Now, what I wouldn’t fight is hate. Because love is stronger. And this story is not mine. It’s also Martín’s. And anyone’s suffering from hate too.
June 12, 2020 is no different to me than yesterday. Everywhere I go I have Martín impregnated in me. In my body, in my heart, in my mind, Martín is ever-present because his dreams were truncated. He had so many goals and dreams to achieve in this world.
I feel him every day with me, and I know he’s with me every day, because he comes to my mind every day. While I’m doing anything in the kitchen, suddenly I find myself looking at his photo.
We would have been married for two years now had he not died.
Some may think my life is now empty, with no love and a pair of broken legs. What do I have left? Boxes and boxes of letters, stuffed animals, photos and sweet notes from thousands of people around the world. I also have an altar where every 12th of month, I place a bouquet for Martín, a tradition for four years and counting. I turn on a candle, and I speak with him. Every day I speak with him.
What do I dream of? I dream of a country where our leaders spread love rather than hatred. I dream of a world where no one gets killed because of the color of their skin or their sexuality. I dream of a country where all Latinos — especially my Boricuas — exercise their right to vote with dignity and compassion. So we can all make decisions out of love, never out of fear.
I also have my future. One where Martín will always be present. And a tattoo in my chest with these words “If God takes away my eyesight, it’s because God has let me see all that is beautiful in the world… You.”