The Most Unlikely Discovery

Anyone who has ever moved from here to there understands the challenges of upending a life or otherwise turning it upside down for a defined and usually unpleasant period of time.  The longer you are in one place, the greater the likelihood that your stuff outplays, outweighs and overwhelms.  Paring down and packing it up is not for the faint of heart. Reinforcements are often required.

My move from a house of 20+ years was months in the making.  More trips to Goodwill than I cared to count, dusty disposals in droves.  And yet there always seemed to be another room to prune or box to plunder.  That’s when I called Gloria, the undisputed master of the discard.  I had reached my limit.  To her credit, she knew this.  “Gallagher, I got you,” she’d say before shoo-ing me from my home and, like a modern-day samurai, then ruthlessly used her weapons to jettison the clutter.

When she was ready, she would call me back to the house allowing me to see with wonder how she had magically eliminated whole rooms of stuff.  I didn’t ask what she did or where it went.  She’d then instruct me to review the contents of certain places or boxes and I always did as instructed.  “Those boxes over there Gallagher,” she said as she pointed to an area in the basement.  “Those you need to go through before we throw them out.”

It was a tedious chore, sorting through pictures or clothes that no longer fit or papers you’d just “hold-on-to-because” or reminders of life-gone-by.  Gloria had the unique ability to only present me with the pertinent things; which along the way eased the emotions of letting go of things and taking only the necessary parts for a new life.

And, then, there it was.  A yellowed paper in a nondescript folder among mismatched things.  “Attending Physician’s Statement,” it read in simple typeface, dated 3-9-1965. My hand shook ever so slightly.  This was impossible.  I had searched for documents related to my burns for years.  St. Vincent Hospital told me they had destroyed the original records related from 1964-1965.  Dr. Lynn and Dr. von Heimburg’s offices had long since closed and disposed of the old records.  It was only from the office of Dr. Hoops, who took over my care around 1966 after Dr. Lynn’s death, that I received any sort medical records.  But never, never anything from the original incident.

I was looking at a document that shouldn’t have existed.  One that in all these years, and throughout this search, I had never seen much less known was in my possession.  Could it be that when my brothers and sisters and I cleaned out my parents’ home in 1997 after their deaths that this document was simply put in a box assigned to me?

I was dumbfounded and spellbound at the same time.

“Third degree burn of the right leg and buttock, involving 12% of the body surface area,” it read and then listed nine various procedures from December 2, 1964 through January 12, 1965, and six more office visits through March 9, 1965, conveniently offered at “no charge”.

“Patient is still under Dr.’s care,” it concluded.

This was Dr. von Heimburg’s invoice to the insurance company, Sun life Assurance Company of Canada.

Sometimes when you are not looking, you find the very thing you need.

This yellowed document confirmed the stories I’d heard and the memories I’d had.  It’s one thing to believe something is true because you are told that, even when you can touch your own scars. It’s another to see and touch the documentation of it.

A blurry baby’s memory is true.

“Gloria,” I called out.  “You are not going to believe what you found for me…….”.

Imagine if my modern-day samurai of disposal had thrown it out?  Instead, she saved something-I-didn’t-know-I-had for me.  God bless Gloria.

Next up:  Dr. Lehman tells me my pediatric burn survival rate.

 

 

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Healing Hurts

“You’re a tight ass!” Sarah shrieked with a laugh as she dug her elbow into the middle of my fanny.

Lying face down on a massageknee table, the face port paper crinkled in my ears though I could hear Sarah quite clearly.  The first of my physical therapy sessions had begun.  It was akin to torture.  Therapy sounds happy and pleasant.  Add the “physical” into it and it quickly became a series of muscle manipulations that well, hurt.  Sarah, the physical therapist, tried to allay my concerns, telling me that many clients with extraordinarily tight muscles had come before me.  “You’ve had this injury for a year and a half.  Your muscles have completely tightened around the injury to stop the pain.  It’s not that unusual,” she said.

Unusual or not, it hurt.  Plus, I hated being one of many.

“Every week, I’d like to see you and work these muscles out,” she said.  “It’s something you really cannot do yourself because you are so tight.”   Did she really have to mention that “tight” stuff again?

That said, she consulted my file and gave me several instruction sheets with exercises to do everyday.

It was like I was three years old all over, learning to walk again as I had when I burned my leg.

“It’s going to take some time, bear with it.”

I’d hear this before many, many years ago.

It was like coming full circle.

I glanced at the file she held in her hand.

“Could you do me a favor and update my name.  It’s no longer hyphenated.   Just Gallagher, “I paused.

“Actually, it’s always been Gallagher.  I never changed it.”

Sarah laughed.  “You’ve been a client since 2004,” she said as she peeled off the hyphenated name.

“2004?  That’s when my now-ex began stealing from me,” I said quietly, as much under my breath as I could.  It was hard to even admit.  “Or at least when I think he began stealing from me.”  I had to breathe now.  Deeply.

This healing thing was a little more complicated than I anticipated.  It was as much emotional as it was physical.

That’s when I remembered the conversation I had with my mentor, Mr. B.

“Annie,” he said in his gruff voice, as he picked me up at 5:45 am for a trip to Detroit.  “I think your blog has played out this burned leg thing.

“You should really start writing about what’s going on with you now.  There’s anger, there’s challenge….there’s good stuff,” he said, letting the “f’s” in stuff linger for emphasis.  Mr. B. knew.  Duplicity as we say in the trade is good stuff.  It’s interesting and creates a good story line.

“Let me think about that, Mr. B.  Let me think about that.”

“Just remember Annie, fire isn’t always the flames.  It it’s the emotions too.”

This was a whole different ball of wax.  Something that needed some thinking work.

Too Much Fire

Too Much FireMan plans, God laughs” goes the old Jewish proverb.

It’s nice to know God has a sense of humor.  We make plans.  They don’t always turn out as expected.

There are probably many reasons why I stopped writing the blog about a year ago.   What I know is that I just stopped.  I thought I’d lost the fire.  People asked from time to time.  I didn’t have a good answer.

This week, after much too long a stretch of time, I met with one of those people dearest to me.  We talked about the blog and I gave the “I lost the fire” explanation.

But she saw it differently.  “You stopped because you had too much fire going on,” she said, rolling her eyes a bit at my density.  In consideration of that perspective, I do admit, the flames have been rather high.  That’s why I was thinking in terms of an “inner lack” rather than, well, a raging fire.  She suggested that all would come back as the flames inevitably ran their course.

She made me laugh at myself.  It was laughter suggesting possibility, not mockery. Laughter in the right form — representing joy, creation, love, faith and passion.

I’m not sure of the next plan but I see the fire much more clearly.

 

Playing with Fire

Welcome to Ox-Bow

Welcome to Ox-Bow

The oven felt like it was 900 degrees but Sue let me know that the two fire “holes” on either side of the main oven were at least 2300 degrees.

We were at a glass blowing workshop at Ox-Bow, the Art Institute of Chicago‘s summer program in Michigan, and at first I thought that literally ‘playing with fire’ would not be my speed.  But much to our group of seven’s surprise, we began working the glass and hot ovens within about an hour of our instructor’s tutorial in the glass studio and were making glass.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the trade – jacks, tweezers, shears, diamond shears, wet newspaper and the blow-torch

For three days we worked almost eight-hours a day, learning the ancient art of glass blowing and skills like jacking, blocking, shearing, blowing and keeping the body relaxed as part of the craft of glass-making.  These were no small things.  Working with fire, high heat and the time pressure of cooling glass, one wrong move meant injury, burns and more significantly for our sort-of-competitive group, a broken piece.

Admittedly, Day 1 consisted mostly of making glass blobs and later, some interesting paperweights – all in the name of learning how to use the “pipes”, gather the liquified glass from the oven and begin the process of working with the material.  It also set the foundation for working in teams.  Glass work is typically not a solitary toil — a lead artist tends to direct a team, who assists with blowing the glass and other assorted tasks such as reducing the intense heat from the glass with a properly placed paddle.

When Day 2 dawned, our group felt confident despite a few minor surface burns the previous day.  I was particularly impressed with myself from Day 1 – few jitters and no burns.  Going in to the class, I worried briefly about how I’d handle the fires and my proximity to them.  Over the years, I experienced a few, mostly minor, reactions to fire ranging spontaneous heat rash to persistent sensitivity to hot and cold weather.  When I burned my leg, whatever remaining skin was left was removed through a surgical process called debridement.  New skin grafts were placed over the remaining muscle and bone, resulting in scar tissue and a fair amount of nerve damage.  It never troubled me in any meaningful way and I’ve had full and complete use of my leg all my life.  I’ve always felt that as a burn survivor, I am a lucky one.  Even with the glass blowing class, I never felt it was a challenge to overcome fire in any way — I’ve long been over that — but simply an exciting skill to learn.

And then Day 2 brought  the wadded newspaper tool.   The ” tool” consists of six to eight sheets of newspaper, literally wadded together, folded over, drenched in water and held in your hand.

The wadded newspaper tool shows the singes from use on the glass

The wadded newspaper tool shows the singes from use on the glass

As part of the glass-making process, an artisan takes a “gather” of molten glass from the main oven and begins a process called marvering on a metal table to elongate and flatten the glass.  Moving to a specially designed bench, the artisan then smooths and/or blows the glass out, using one of a variety of tools — the jack, a wooden cup or the newspaper — depending on the goals for the project.  In the day’s demonstration our instructors Jonas and MC showed up the form and approach to using the wadded newspaper.  It all seemed like a textbook approach.  I felt ready.

But when I sat in the chair, using the newspaper to guide the glass, I felt the heat sear through my hand.  My reaction was visceral.  I felt the heat not only through my hand but come up through my right foot like phantom heat.  “I can’t use the newspaper,” I blurted.  “I can’t.”  Calmly, MC the instructor responded.  “No problem.  There are always other ways to do the same thing with glass.  Let’s give it a heat in the oven and marver it again.”  I put the newspaper down and the sensation went away.  I looked at my team mates Susan and Ann and they appeared nonplussed.  Inside, my heart was racing and I felt pangs of heat shooting through my body.  I took a deep breath, walked the pipe to the oven and gave the glass a heat.

It passed.

By Day 3, I decided to pick up the newspaper tool again and used it without incident, creating two bowls, a yellow glass and a big ole, colorful  paperweight.  This was an awesome experience.  Playing with fire wasn’t so much about fire but about understanding an ancient craft, working with friends and moving behind my limits.  I am not afraid of fire in any way.  It simply ignites the work in so many dimensions.  Thank you Louise Silberman for creating this opportunity and for your support of artists and artisans at Ox-Bow.