LONGER THAT EXPECTED: ADULTHOOD AFTER LIFE-THREATENING CHILDHOOD ILLNESS
A Wising Up Anthology
II. ON THE CUSP: MORTALITY AND ADULTHOOD
BARBIE AND THE BURNS SCARS
I can’t talk about my burns. There’s a door in my mind I seldom open: too many memories crowding —like Bluebeard’s wives in a darkened upstairs room, resigned but still somehow seeking to escape, to scream out into the light. People see my scars, especially my twisted left arm, my half pinky with a tough remnant of nail on the end, and they think they want to know what happened, but they don’t because when the words rush out, they want to get away from me. They offer some platitude like, “Well, but look at you now, so vibrant and beautiful…” I stop my story—like stopping the earth from turning—and I stuff the crying wives back into their room, as small and dark as a closet.
I should consider, I suppose, what my high school students think when they notice my hand, and their eyes travel up my arm, which hangs at an odd angle, the skin knotted and corded like bark with webs at my elbows and armpits. I imagine their conflicted minds must pause; their thoughts stutter and contradict as they seek to comprehend my confused appearance. But still, they’re teenagers, so they talk. My own children attend where I teach, and they’ve heard their classmates talking about my scars.
“Have you seen her arms? Gross. Weird”
All in all, I figure it’s good for them. Besides, I have Shakespeare to teach, and Herman Hesse, and Homer, so I assume they’ll learn to focus on formulating a thesis and passing my class. That’s hard enough. Ferejohn and I teach the most rigorous freshman program in the school. The parents appreciate it. They show up after school and talk to Ferejohn and me about how much their kids are learning. Last year Barbie showed up. Barbie has round eyes, a little, clipped nose and huge breasts. She wears tight tee shirts and jean skirts. Her daughter Kelli is unnervingly silent. She never laughs, she never smiles. That’s hard for me because I consider myself hilarious. For better or worse, student laughter is a kind of gauge by which I measure my own teaching, so Kelli’s silence and stoicism is a silent, subtle irritation.
That night, Barbie followed me from my final meeting of the day into my classroom. It was five o’clock, and I had been working since 6:30 that morning. She was smiling up at me, her face as open as the full moon, smiling as if she had a secret for me. Her eyes never left my face, her smile never faltered as she spoke.
“Kelli talks so much about you. She wants to know what happened to you. I think you should tell them.”
The air around me felt thinner. The wives in the unlit room started scratching on the door. I had a night class to teach, so I had only a few minutes to tell Barbie that I prefered not to talk about my scars, and it would be too much for 9th graders to hear. Confused and agitated, I managed to end the conversation. Still smiling, Barbie departed, leaving a faint scent of apple perfume in her wake. I herded my books and binders together, jammed them into several large book bags, and scrambled to my next job.
Later that night, by the time I fell into bed and lay staring at the the inky blackness, Barbie and her silent daughter had acquired long, Mormon skirts and silent open mouths like black, round stones. They joined the faceless murmuring mob of wives behind Bluebeard’s door. I waited for the housewives to subside, give up, and tire into compliance. Then I deliciously surrendered to memories of my childhood before I was burned, the farm where I grew up, full of ancient, sentient oak trees, watchful guardian angels, and sap-green dreams of spring.
Months had passed since Barbie ambushed me. I grumbled about the incident to Ferejohn and a few of my colleagues. I was offended, and my teacher buddies stoked my indignation with their silent sympathy. Meanwhile, I had enough to keep my mind busy and the unhappy wives of Bluebeard were hibernating. Ferejohn and I reviewed applications for next year’s Academy. Kelli’s sister, Teri, applied and her name was slashed from the list. She narrowly missed meeting our criteria. I growled a little when I saw her name, and Ferejohn glanced at me in empathetic amusement. I heard some mild pounding in my head as I remembered the incident with Barbie. I rejected Teri with pleasant, self-righteousness, and the door remained implacably and comfortingly slammed closed.
I didn’t see Barbie again until orientation for the Academy. Parents and expectant eighth graders arrived in the school library full of terror and anticipation. I was surprised to see Barbie and Kelli, and a flush of respect thrilled through me as I appreciated how classy they were to come and welcome new students to a program their own family member was not accepted into. Barbie and Kelli were mingling among the crowds of timorous neophytes answering questions. Barbie had her ingenuous smile turned on high, and her full, limpid eyes held the gaze of jumpy parents as she explained how her oldest daughter had grown, learned, matured, and challenged herself.
Barbie pulled me aside later and nailed me with her round eyes. Teri, she explained, had been reticent to apply to the program and almost didn’t, but Kelli told her she should, so Teri applied, thoroughly awed and ambivalent, but with a growing sense of optimism. Then she failed, and felt defeated. Somehow, as Barbie held me in her gaze, I caught the crashing disappointment, the rollercoaster ride of plunging self-respect, and the dawning realization that, like a missed bus with all your friends on it, an opportunity had passed.
“That’s traumatic,” I lamely commented.
Later, after explaining at the orientation the number of essays students would write, several parents called the counselors and requested their children be removed from the program. Ferejohn and I pulled out our application list and plowed through the piles of essays and recommendations. Teri made it on the second round. I was elected to call Barbie and tell her.
“We need some good news,” she whispered in a feathery voice. "My husband has a kidney disease, been urinating blood for days. The doctor took blood samples, Then left for China without telling us the results. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to try to get medical care nowadays. . . . My husband’s in pain . . . no one will give us answers . . . we needed some good news.”
I felt sickeningly powerful.
Days later, I told the story of Barbie, Kelli, and Teri to my sixteen-year-old daughter. She made an offhand comment, her words dropping like a small stone into an unsuspecting sea. Hardly a splash, but somehow they swelled, traveling in a matter of seconds over many years and miles until they crashed (but gently and with some relief) and I considered that perhaps I am a bit attached to my precious, captured wives.
“I guess they needed to hear how you nearly died and now you’re OK. They want you to teach them about it,” she said.
The doors flew open. Bluebeard’s wives ran out and dispersed into the rolling countryside, back to their farms and the loving embrace of their families. And a window opened, full of sunlight scrubbing the black walls with brilliance. An empty, quiet room full of possibility.
(First appeared in Dark Sky Magazine, 2007)
LEAVING THE BURN WARD
It’s strenuous to be vertical, to be outside again in the glare of the parking lot reaching for my mother’s elbow, crooked like a cane.
The seats of the Lincoln Continental are warm from the sun, but I forget how to climb in,
so she bends my body to fit, and I touch the blue leather, aware that it’s skin, my tightly-wrapped
forearms stretching on the rests, while my legs, bound in pressure garments, reach across the carpeted floor.
Highway 17 terrifies me, twisting through the coastal range, the maples molting their yellow leaves,
and when I speak my muted words are nearly lost in the hum of the V8: Slow down, I say. Turn off the radio.
My mother complies, silent. What can you say to a person shocked by being alive?
Steep above the road, nets of heavy chain constrain the crumbling cliffs, and as I pass, the trees lean over me and tremble.
(First appeared in Spillway, July 2017)
From playing barefoot all summer, running up trees, the bud of a new branch, piercing the arch of my sole, leaving a pale trace of stitchery over the closed lips of the wound, and buried now under the hoofy remains of a burn, which swept up my legs like a prairie blaze
when a spark from the fireplace hit my robe, and they re-tilled the earth of my foot, grafted it in a pattern of nets, the older, more innocent spidery line gone forever, one pain subsumed by another
like the scraped knees of childhood were lost under the first sweet boy who ran his hand along my inner knees, who softened my thighs into saying yes, who broke my heart.
And years later, the twins-- toxemia, edema, high blood pressure-- all that trouble, obscured by the gripping clamp of childbirth the improbable distortion
when those heads split through, and even that erased by the burning eyes of sleeplessness, as the hours blended in a long dirging song of crying, colic, plugged breasts.
Are there lacerations that cannot hope for greater pain? When a girl alone in her room cutting her fleshy arm is a begging for more hurt, and it can’t be found.
I walked alone at Pleasure Point through a grove of eucalyptus. In the distance, the sound of waves, and above, a leafy rustle. I looked up.
The branches were fat arms, heavy and pulsing with monarchs. They launched into the clearing air, a matrix of spinning gold. As the air warmed, they slowed their circling, settling on the trees in wide slabs, opening and closing.
The retreat of clouds unveiled a field of nasturtiums, huge sap-green leaves, round like lily pads, and blossoms flaring orange all around, the air still thinly fluttering.
That afternoon in my living room, a spark from the fireplace hit me. My robe caught fire. I couldn’t unwrap it. The belt was knotted. The thick air spun brown and gold, then black as I passed out.
The doctors stripped what skin remained and laid it on the plains of exposed muscle, which made new skin over my limbs that had flailed beneath my burning gown.
My breasts and back were bandaged in thin parchment made of a corpse’s skin, and I healed within and sloughed it off. Four months later, nineteen years old, too young to feel how near death I’d been, my face untouched and bland, eyes glazed with the grace of morphine, I stood on thin legs before the mirror.
People still ask about my body: my bent left arm creviced like bark, the whorls of rigid skin, the rough remains of fingernails. My mouth opens. Fog. A blaze of wild beach flowers, Swirling butterflies.
BURNS AND BLANKETS
After making love, he likes to throw a blanket over me—a blanket he has warmed in the dryer. Then he takes a shower. Last Sunday, as I lay there, my skin exposed and flushed from lovemaking, I stared at the sap green leaves of the sycamore shimmering outside. Everything was still somehow and almost perversely three dimensional with the leaves reaching out to me from their leafy tangles. And the warm sheet dropped over my skin, the sheet fresh from the dryer.
“Here Sweetie,” said Michael, or some such wondrous, loving murmur, and I was so warm.
I’m crying now. He doesn’t know. He’s in the shower. He doesn’t know what weight this light act of love carries. So I want to know. And I want to know if you can listen as I relate what no one can hear, but perhaps with the blanket around me, I can tell the story, and you, knowing how safe I am, will listen without changing the subject or worrying about me.
In a burn ward, I learned about love: the two orderlies, their eyes linked with mine, would take my body each day, sometimes twice a day, and gently un-peel me from the sheets where my skinless body had adhered and lift me, crying, from the bed and place me on a gurney which they pushed into the tub room. The gurney was vinyl, or perhaps canvas, but in any case, it had holes in it for water to flow, for I was to be lowered into a tub. In the tub room, hooks and pulleys were attached to the gurney, and I was lifted, turning, naked, in front of a large window—high up— many stories above Santa Clara.
This is a hard story, and you are probably thinking you don’t want to hear it. I don’t like to tell it even as I yearn to because I know it upsets you, but there is always the silliness that makes you laugh. I would always think, through the blur of pain, how funny it would be if a helicopter came by the window, and the pilot, in his goggles and pilot cap, saw me as I turned in the air. I imagined our eyes would meet somehow through his thick goggles, and he would be shocked at the sight of me. I looked a wreck. Just 100 pounds, my hair cut like a scarecrow to keep off my burns, naked as a jaybird, eyes wide from Demerol and Morphine, screaming like a banshee, flying through the air. And can you believe it? Did I ever tell you how one of those orderlies actually asked me out one day, when I was nearly better and lay in the tub, not screaming but rather complacent from a recent shot? He asked me to the movies, and the other orderly looked at him like he was crazy. I’d never before been asked out by a fully dressed man as I lay naked in a tub, but I was only nineteen. I hadn’t lived much.
So as I was hoisted into the air above the tub, my spongy, exposed tissues stuck to the gurney through the holes. And I would be crying as my body pulled through the holes. The orderlies would be gritting their teeth and murmuring words of comfort. And I heard them. I heard them through the excruciating static; it was good to know that as long as I cried, they would keep comforting me. It was like throwing a ball, knowing someone would catch and throw back.
I was lowered into the tub. I think I have forgotten a lot of what happened in the water, so you will be spared the details. I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway for fear you would leave me. But I have to tell you some of it because I have to get to the warm sheets after and why I love Michael: The tub was full of some caustic antibacterial—chlorine maybe, sometimes betadine— and my entire body, or the 80% of it that was skinless, was once again on fire. And the poor orderlies with grim, tight, turned down lips scrubbed the yellow, mushy scabs off my burns. It seemed to take a long time, and they would apologize, but they had to be thorough for, as they explained to me, infection was my enemy. And I, imagining what it would be like if the surface of my body became infected, would try to acquiesce, although I really didn’t care anymore and just yearned to escape like an enraged animal, but I couldn’t move.
Then I was finally lifted out again, and the cold air, which was actually not cold at all, would hit me with another kind of burning as if my teeth and bones were flash freezing. At the point where cold and pain meet in the senses, where the mind ceases to determine a difference, they met in my bones, and air clamped down on my unprotected tissues. My eyes would roll up in my head, and my teeth would chatter with such force that I would pull my tongue back for fear I’d bite myself.
But they had heated sheets for me when I was finally lifted from gurney to bed. And the nurses were angels slow motion flying toward me with warm blankets, like white wings across the long, crowded burn ward full of people like me, crying, dying, hoping, waiting for respite. And the warm blankets saved me. The warm blankets here and there have comforted me, cared for me, loved me.
So Sunday night between a walk in the hills (where the light was golden) and a wedding party, we made love quickly, like experts, and we were both quite pleased with ourselves and each other, and Michael draped a warm blanket over me, one small act of love, a small bead in a long necklace of pearls and lapis he drapes around me. And, for the first time in many years, I cried.
Michael, in the shower, doesn’t know how love keeps saving me, but you do. You listened. And eventually he and I will both know all there is to know in this long life, this short life, about burns and blankets, bliss, golden light.
(First appeared in Antithesis Common, 2007)
DION O’REILLY has lived much of her life on a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She has waitressed, managed theaters, pulled espresso, worked as a graphic designer, and taught art, English, and Spanish in the public schools. Now she is retired and likes to Zumba. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Bellingham Review, Spillway, Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis, Caesura, The Atlanta Review, and a variety of other journals and anthologies. Her work can be found at dionoreilly.wordpress.com
What kinds of misperceptions do people have about the kind of illness you had?
At the time of the event, it was difficult for people to talk with me about the severity of my experience. What happened to me—losing eighty percent of my skin, the tips of my fingers, and the bottom of my right foot—was unthinkable. People would sometimes ask me what it was like to burn and recover, what happened in the burn ward, but when I began to answer, they would be too shocked to listen. I soon stopped wanting to talk about it. Misperceptions are one thing, but in my case, people could not absorb or face the extent of my trauma. This was especially true because I was a teenager; my friends were self-absorbed and wanted to party. Since my face was not burned, they expected me to wear long sleeves and pants, cover my scars, and go on as if nothing happened. I found the only people I could talk to were Vietnam vets. There were a lot of them around at that time. They were at loose ends like I was, trying to digest the magnitude of the experience.
What is an important source of strength you have found through this experience of childhood illness that has helped you as an adult?
Knowing I lived after being close to death, suffering so much pain is like a badge of honor—a kind of armor. I used to work as a public school teacher. It was a tough assignment in a tough school with uncaring administrators. I often felt people there had no idea whom they were dealing with when they attacked me. They didn't know what I already survived.
What is a question that you would like people to ask you about your experience that they rarely do?
People rarely directly ask how my experience as a burn survivor might apply to any difficult issues in their own lives. However, I have found that, regardless of how extreme someone's pain might be, how they might be reeling from a tragedy, I can find some aspect of my experience that is helpful. If they come to me suffering, I can understand on some level. I can listen without changing the subject or minimizing. I'm happy to do that. It's like there's a deep well within me waiting for someone in need to draw from.