Chance Encounters

May is a uniquely busy month for parents with school-age children.  As the school year ends, there are celebrations galore – from the athletic banquet to the spring concert, the father-daughter dance, the girl scout bridging ceremony and the end of the basketball travel team league.  At a certain point, any sane adult simply starts going through the motions.  My mental state was precisely there as I joined the line cascading around the corner for entry to the Spring Show, the annual song-fest where each of eight grades and kindergarten sings a couple of numbers.

Directly behind me in line stood R and her daughter M, the teenage girl burned in a home accident just weeks before.  Thick white burn tape provided a necklace around her neck and her arm was tightly bandaged in the same special tape.  Before I knew it, I had re-introduced myself to R and told them I too was burned as a child.  As I said it, I like itching myself.  It seemed to come from my stomach, which turned itself slightly at the thought.  As we talked, M shared, “I itch all the time.  It’s constant.”  I remembered the feeling well.  Insatiable itching that seemed to crawl inside with no good way to relieve it.  M also said that her burns were second degree, which immediately relieved me and I told her how well she would heal.  It’s the 3rd degree burns that leave the nasty scars — 2nd degree can heal with nary a reminder.

When they asked what happened to me, I told them about my burn accident, then gently rolled up my pant leg to show them a little of the scars.  “Yours seems so much worse than mine,” M said and I immediately felt bad that she focused on my injury when hers was so recent and raw, itching as it healed.  Her mother R looked and me, her eyes brimming with wet and said, “See M, look at Anne.  She’s successful and pretty.  We can make it through this.  It didn’t stop her.”

Like me, M didn’t like it when people stared at her.  We talked about “to tell” or not to tell strategies, to make eye contact or not to.  M seemed remarkably mature for a teenager.  She had a presence.

“M, it may not feel like it right now, but your burns are a gift.  Look how they help you teach other people.”  I believed it as I said it.  It would not have been the gift I’d chosen for myself, but I always felt right with it.

The line began to disperse as we entered the school gym for the Spring Show.  R hugged me tightly whispering, “thank you” as they wandered off to their places.

As the 4th graders began “Getting to Know You,” from the Lion King, I wondered:  How much more difficult are these burns for a parent? R was there when M’s leaned over the gas stove and her scarf caught fire.  She choked up as she told me about it.  They are replacing the stove with a smooth-topped electric model.  I understand.

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Making Sense of Stories

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why ...

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“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou. http://www.mayaangelou.com 

If you’ve ever read any of Maya Angelou’s books, you gain an incredible perspective into the courage of telling a life story.  “A bird doesn’t tell a story because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song,” she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her autobiographical series.  Her books captivate with their beautiful prose and at the same time made me squirm with the honesty in which she recounts her life, particularly her days as a prostitute.  I’ve heard her speak live and it’s amazing — she brings her books to life with her spoken voice.

I thought of her courage this week as I heard two burn stories.  My friend Renee’s aunt, on an oxygen machine, lit a cigarette and suffered second degree burns over her face.  Within days, I heard the story of a teenager from the kid’s school, who bent over a stove and her scarf caught fire torching her chest and neck.  Both are in the hospital.

It’s hard not to think of their searing pain.  It’s harder not to think about how they and their families handle both the emotions and the re-telling of the stories.  I know from my own experiences that until I can put the emotional framework in place, I can’t tell a story.  It always takes time for the “shock factor” to process and events to become clear before a story unfolds.  I wonder if it was the same for Maya Angelou — that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.

Maybe this is just the way we tell stories.  Even this week we saw a glimpse of it with the Osama bin Laden storyline.  Quickly we learn the news – bin Laden is dead.  Then, the next day we receive a new update, a revision as the true facts become clearer – yes dead, but he had no human shield as previously reported.  Then, each of the next days of the week, we find out a little bit more – he has been hiding in plain sight, there are the makings of another terror plot, this time using the US rail road system.

Life comes at us in pieces and parcels.  It’s our job to make sense of it all.  It’s a big job.  Story telling might just bring it all together.

Ash Wednesday Penance

Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

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Arriving back to the office after receiving my ashes at 8:15 a.m. mass at my children’s school, the dark oily cross on my forehead reminded my colleague G that she too needed to get her Ash Wednesday ashes as the Lenten season started.  “How was mass?” she asked as we began our workday.  “Fine.  It’s always good to go to the all-school mass when my kids have their all-school mass,” I said, then lamented, “Well, except that I didn’t get my regular pew this morning.”  “You mean, you sit in a particular pew at church?” G inquired.

I laughed.  Of course I did.  But once again, what seemed intuitive to me for so many years was a revelation to someone else.  “Oh, you have to blog about this one,” G said when I explained my usual practice.

The truth is that I don’t like to kneel.  More pointedly, it hurts to kneel after a certain amount of time.  It’s something about the skin on my burned knee, which may be too thin, too physically addled or just too banged up from all the surgeries.  It’s another area where I need to make do and in the case of going to church, it means avoiding the pews with  in the front of the seating bench .  I’ve been doing this so long it doesn’t seem novel  anymore, just routine coping.  To get along, go along.

At St. Josaphat, the church is dark and cavernous, never falling prey to the 1970s “modern” church movement that carpeted so many structures and took away their original details.  Here, the original, beautiful tile floors are intact, as are the original wooden pews with pull-down kneelers in the front of the seating bench in almost all the rows.  As you enter, the church has a wide vertical wide aisle all the way to the altar.  Mid-way through the church another wide aisle cuts horizontally across.  It is here at this intersection that there is a row of pews with no kneelers.  When I go to church, that row becomes my usual spot.  No kneeler, no problem, no attention drawn to me because the people sitting in these rows cannot kneel.

On Ash Wednesday, the all-school mass meant there were 200 some children taking up the first rows of the church; adults found there spots in the back.  With a kneeler to contend with and people on either side of me, I simply did the modified kneel at the appropriate times in the mass — kneeling with the left knee while half-sitting on the edge of the pew so my right knee did not have to bear the weight.

My colleague G found this church practice of mine somewhere between amusing and awkward and odd.  “I wonder how many things you do like that,” she said, “Where you just adapt and don’t think about it anymore.”

I didn’t know the answer.  It’s something I think about now as I try to compile all the pieces of my story.

Happy Burn-iversary!

Today is the anniversary of my ill-fated climb up the kitchen stove, according to the best research source I currently have — my blue baby book. Without evidence-based confirmation from a verified medical record, which I may or may not ever find, I rely on my mother’s elegant script in the baby book, where she marks this date in an eerily understated entry, “My oh my. Another big scare with Anne……”. This is the first year in the more than 40 since that I’ve even known the date — the first time I’ve looked in that ole baby book to check it.

Parents Notes- Mom's description of accident

Putting on my detective hat and with the not-so-clever use of the Internet, I see that November 24th way-back-when was a Tuesday just two days before Thanksgiving. I wonder so many things — what were their Thanksgiving plans that week? Who was cooking? Did their plans change when I went into the hospital for a 2 1/2 month stay? Did they visit that day? Was I in surgery on Thanksgiving? Did they cry when it happened?

To date, I’ve interviewed a number of my parents’ friends and relatives and no one remembers that specific week, those specific activities. In the end and in the big picture, I know it doesn’t matter so much but it is still a nagging curiosity even though I feel more like a voyeur to my own story than its main character. Is that how I cope? I’ve always been expert at compartmentalizing and I wonder if this is why.

In all of this, the most important piece is that I’ve found resolution and peace. In the most fortunate of ways, I heard my parents own words many years later. That they wished they had spoken of this earlier. That they loved me. That it changed their lives far more than mine. I’m lucky this way. Many people for many reasons don’t open this door. Have you?

What’s Your Fire?

The other night a friend, Kay, who has been reading this blog told me her own story. At 4, she was involved in an accident that left her back and neck burned with collateral damage to her ear. It had all the clear markings of a very bad burn. Yet she didn’t know the details of the accident. When she asks her dad, “What happened?”, she is referred to her mother. When she asks her mother, the story she’s told doesn’t add up. So she’s left in a quandary of sorts but has found a way to make peace with it. Being of the spiritual mindset, Kay believes everything happens for a reason and the resolution we DON’T find in this life carries with us to the next — call it karma, call it reincarnation, call it the law of cause-and-effect — we choose to let history repeat itself until we address it. That’s great motivation to explore the fires that rage within us and can counter the nagging downside risk, “What’s the worst thing I can find out?” What’s your fire?

Disfigured Dating Disclosures

My cousin Tom has become an unofficial advisor to this blog, responding to my request to him about which on topic ideas would be interesting. With characteristic aplomb, he suggested I post on dating. As you might expect for someone in my situation, dating in cold weather months was always my preference if only because my legs were covered.

Seriously, I always felt some mixture of anxiety/trepidation/vulnerability about “disclosing” my potential defect of a leg and probably spent more time than I needed to thinking about the timing of if or when to say something. At a certain point, I had to realize that either my burned leg was controlling me or I was controlling it. Like so many other things in life, secrets are powerful because they can control you. The only way to be free of a burned leg is to essentially admit that it’s there. What I found is that usually after over-analyzing when/where/how to say something about it, when I did mention it, it was — ta da — a non-event. I think most people understand that nothing is perfect. As they say, that’s why pencils have erasers. Or as William Safire put it, “Only in grammar can you be more than perfect.”

If someone thought my burned leg was so god-awfully ugly they weren’t interested in me, it wasn’t mentioned. For those who were interested in me, it was something that came with the package. Telling a potential date about my leg eventually became a routine disclosure as in, “Hey, did I mention that I was in an accident as a kid?” or some variation of that line. No matter how you try to cover up a secret, it won’t won’t stay under wraps a long time. For me, it was better and easier to say something sooner rather than later. As my mother used to say, “You get used to hanging if you hang long enough.” In the same way, I got used to providing my disclosure. I would be interested though to hear from others what they thought when they first knew of my burned leg and how it may have affected them. Thoughts anyone?

When I met my husband many years ago, I will confess I liked the fact that he had a big ole gouge on his head from a surgery. Trust me, it was a conversation starter. To my way of thinking, it made him immediately interesting because I was sure he had a relatable story. And he did. It’s easy to develop a soft spot for physical imperfection in others when it is looming large in yourself.

Over the years, I’ve taken a number of classes from Sonia Choquette (www.soniachoquette.com) and one of the things she’s said that has always stayed with me is this: “The physical is the least interesting part of a person.” This is, of course a belief that develops over a lifetime. I wish I had that thought in my arsenal years ago.

Burns and Autoimmune Crises

For the better part of the last week, I’ve been fighting a nasty cold-with-low-grade-fever-type infection funk replete with not one but now two cold sores accompanying me on my lip and nose. To my mind, I’m in an autoimmune crisis right now. I’ve been to the endocrinologist who asked, “Do you think your thyroid levels might be low?” and to which I replied, “Well, I typically do not get this many cold sores when my thyroid levels are in the right range.” As far as autoimmune strength is concerned, I generally fare much better than others with really serious issues like rheumatoid arthritis (which my sister has) or juvenile diabetes (which my brother has). But look at just about any research and you’ll see that those who have suffered serious burns (like me) tend to have compromised immune systems of varying degrees. Growing up, I had what I considered to be more than my fair share of colds, bronchitis, strep throat and of course, mono (I was quarantined for two weeks) and a little psoriasis here and there (mostly on my elbow). Thyroid came later. All of which means that when I’m run down, I tend to get sick and stay sick longer than seems fair. In fairness, I can’t blame only the burn injury however much I would like to. But it’s another area where I wonder what affect those burns actually have had on me.