After a grueling recovery -- six surgeries -- Joshua Nowlan vows to never take life for granted

'Any day can be your last,' Joshua Nowlan says

AURORA, COLO. - Joshua Nowlan was shot through the arm and the leg.

The 32-year-old father of two has battled through a grueling recovery -- six surgeries in the last year and more to come.

But if Joshua has learned anything in the last year, it's to never take life for granted.

"That was something we'd planned for a while, wanting to see the midnight matinee of the Batman movie," he told 7NEWS reporter Jaclyn Allen.

Remembering his excitement, that night seems like a long time ago.

Joshua went to "The Dark Night Rises" with friends, Brandon and Denise Axelrod.

When the gunfire erupted, Brandon Axelrod credited Joshua with helping shielding Denise with his own body. 

"Josh helped me protect my wife, and he got shot," Axelrod told 7NEWS after the shooting. "We piled on each other and kept each other safe."

A year later, it's a daily journey for Joshua to heal from the physical and emotional wounds of that night.  

"The bullet went straight through here," he said of the bullet that hit his arm. "I was extremely lucky it hit the bone, or else it would have blown off my entire right arm."

Another bullet hit his leg.

After all the surgeries, he's in constant pain -- where he isn't numb.

"I constantly massage my arm, but there is no feeling at all in here. But I constantly do it, hoping I might feel something. But I don't."

The surgeries have made a jigsaw puzzle of a colorful tattoo of a bird -- his high school nickname -- on his back.

Surgeons needed a skin graft to repair his arm wound, Joshua said, so they removed a "big chunk" of the tattoo and put it on his arm.

"It's definitely a wonderful conversation starter for a lot of first dates, though," Joshua joked.

It's clear something prepared Joshua to pushing through the punishing physical recovery of the last 12 months.

Maybe it was his previous military training, competing in marathons or climbing mountains.

Still, there were days when it was tough -- even for him.

Especially when he's had to ask for help.

"I couldn't bear lifting a fork so I could eat because to pain was too hard on my arm," he said. "I couldn't even walk down the street with my kids, because I couldn't stand up straight and I was going to fall right down."

The once active outdoorsman now needs a cane to walk.

These days, he still can't run. But when he takes long, hard rides on his bike, he feels like himself again.

"It still hurts a lot, going through that physical pain. But the pain tells me I'm still alive. That I can still push through it," Joshua said.

As part of his healing, a few months ago he walked into Theater 9 at the Aurora movie theater for the first time since the shooting.

"My legs felt completely numb. They were heavy," Joshua said. "I was putting all my weight into my cane, just to take those few steps."

"I did exactly what I planned before I got out of the hospital….to go back in that seat, stand up and say, 'I made it. You did not take my life. I survived.' And that was my biggest accomplishment emotionally to get through that."

 He's made play part of his healing journey.

"This is a little bit more fun," Joshua said as he used his repaired arm to hurl a Frisbee on a disc golf outing recently.

Recovery has been a grinding process. He still has bad days -- really bad days.

But through it all, there has been family and friends and famous visitors -- like Dark Knight star Christian Bale and Denver Broncos players who came to see him at the hospital.

"It just shows that human kindness comes out when a tragedy happens. It shows what this country is built on. That we take care of each other," Joshua said.

Joshua has learned lessons that are marking him stronger, day by day.

"Any day can be your last," he said.

After all this, he'll never take life for granted again.

"That's my goal. I hope that I can be a better person each year that I surpass that date."

"If I sit there and become afraid every single day of what has happened to me, then Holmes wins," Joshua said. "And I'm never going to let him win."

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