Insights & Revelations By Fire
By: Michele Neil
The cook stove was full of garbage. Mother and my grandmother had been cleaning the house all morning and debris collected was put into the stove.
Coals that remained from cooking breakfast would not burn the accumulation. Grama tried to light the damp refuse with
matches. The little flame kept going out.
It was my sister's third birthday on that hot summer day. I was four years old. We had tried to help Grampa and Dad collect freshly dug potatoes in the potato patch but we became very hungry and hot from the sun. We went back to the farmhouse to get a drink and to wait for lunch.
In the kitchen mom was writing a letter and Grama was preparing lunch.
Marilyn and I scooped out cold water to drink from a bucket just drawn from the well. Dad appeared at the kitchen entrance. Dad could see Grama trying to light the stove. She said she couldn't get it started. Dad said that he would fix that. He left and returned moments later with a tin honey can full of petrol. Grama argued with Dad and begged him not to use the liquid in the tin. Grama's voice was shaking and rose. Dad was loud, determined and he ignored her. My stomach felt sick. My Aunt Ann had come down from upstairs, alarmed by the loud angry voices.
I watched with apprehension as Dad poured fuel into the round hole in the top of the stove. He peered into it looking for signs of success. Unsatisfied, he poured more into the stove. The air above the stove exploded into a roaring ball of flame. I let out a scream and charged for the front door behind my Aunt. Grama and Marilyn, my sister had fled out a side door. Dad turned and with hand and tin ablaze he headed for the front door, dropping melted tin and
burning fuel as he went. Mom followed him, stamping out the puddles of flames left on the floor.
The spring on the front screen door snapped the door shut behind me as I ran free of the house. When I heard Dad yelling at the door for someone to open it I wheeled around. Hearing Dad's raised voice terrified me as it usually meant I was in trouble. I could barely make out his head through the raging flames
towering in front of him, the honey tin still in his hands.
The flames horrified me but I was more afraid of my Dad. He needed help to get out of the house and I had let the door shut. Weak with fear I went back to the front door and unlatched the latch. Through the open door he stepped, dropping flames on my head. As I ran screaming from the house Dad threw the burning can at me. Suddenly I could feel and see red and orange tongues of flame reaching up my back and above my shoulders. The tongues seared and hissed. I ran as fast as I could to escape the fiery monster that was clutching me. My entire back and the backs of my legs and arms became engulfed with flames.
Dad ran after me as I darted like a scared rabbit. I avoided him because I thought he was punishing me for allowing the screen door to shut in his face. Dad had thrown the can at me with the kind of anger that people act on and later regret. I had to take the punishment but soon the punishment became too much. I tired of running. My legs and arms moved in slow motion. I had no strength left to run. Maybe Dad would have mercy now, I thought. I needed help
and no one else was around. I heard him calling to me. He told me to go to the side of the ditch. He stood in the ditch so that he was eye level with me. He reached towards me to pat out the flames on my body but his hands burst into flames. He smothered the flames using the long grass in the ditch. I could see him wince with pain. He reached out to me again and his hands reignited. I then realized that my father couldn't help me.
Grampa had been in the barn. He had heard my screams, which alarmed him and he came out, saw me, reached for a work shirt from inside the barn, picked me up in his arms and smothered the flames with the shirt. Mom had been putting out the flames that had dropped from the can as Dad ran out of the house. When she heard my screams she knew what had happened and she phoned for an ambulance. She was coming out of the house as I was walking back to the front
Aunt Ann watched Grampa slump over the milk stand near where I left him. His face paled as he grasped his chest. He struggled for breath. Ann feared her father was having a heart attack and that he would die. Mom screamed out an order to Anne and she snapped to attention.
"Get blankets and sheets from the East bedroom, Mom ordered." Mom wrapped my shivering body with the sheets as I stood out on the front lawn. My socks had melted down around my ankles. My skin was ash grey and charred black. The panic and desperation in my mother's voice and seeing the condition of my body made me realize that something irreversible and utterly devastating had happened to me. I felt the deep ache of loss. Nothing could ever make it right. I had one vague hope and I whispered, "Jesus can help me."
The phone ring and I watched through the screen door as Mom talked on the phone. The ambulance driver didn't know where to find us. Mom told Grampa that I would have to be driven to the hospital. He recovered enough to bring the car out of the garage and to the house.
It was too painful for me to lie down on the back seat so I was allowed to stand up and hold onto the back of the front seats as Grampa drove us down the dirt road. The ambulance met us about a kilometre from the house and I was transferred to the emergency vehicle. I stood between the attendant and my
mother who sat in the seat beside the attendant.
I remained conscious and watched doctors and nurses descend on me when I arrived at the local hospital. The burns were worse than expected and I was transported to a larger hospital about an hour away. My father arrived later in Grampa's car and was treated for his burns and then released. Dad and mom
returned to the farmhouse.
The drink my sister and I shared that day marked the last time I saw her for the next six months. (To this day my sister will not light birthday candles,
not even for her children's birthdays.)
The ferry was held for the ambulance en route to the Kingston General Hospital. Medical staff attended me. The siren screamed as it passed through towns. I felt ashamed and embarrassed for causing so much commotion. Before I reached the hospital I became unconscious.
When I awoke, the intensive care room was dark except for tiny flickering lights and strange sounds pricked my numbed senses as I stirred to consciousness. I was in pain and lying in a dark, frightening place all alone. Gowned and masked strangers tended to my intravenous tubes and replaced empty bags. The nurses overhead talked amongst themselves. For days, weeks, these strangers came and went doing things that caused me much pain. No one talked to
me about what I was experiencing or about what had happened to me.
Baths had been initiated three times a day. My nerve endings floated, exposed in the bath water and the motion of the water wracked my body with pain. My screams could be heard outside the hospital. Nurses tried to entice me to eat but the inside of my mouth had ulcers the size of quarters. Tube feedings began and when I had had enough of the nurses inserting the tubes into my nose I took the tubes and inserted them myself.
A photographer came to I.C.U. to take pictures of my body. He directed nurses to set me in front of the white curtains hanging from the ceiling. He coaxed me to look into the camera and to be still. I was naked and like a featherless chick. I couldn't stand on my feet and I trembled with weakness. I wanted to go to my crib. Then the photographer tricked me. He said that mommy was in the camera. I perked up, my eyes lit up with hope and I called for
mommy. The heat of the flash of the camera stung my raw flesh. My heart sank as I was carried away and my wounds were wrapped. The photographer lied and I believed him. I felt angry and ashamed and I cried inside for my mother. When I was an adult it was nearly impossible for me to look into a live TV camera. Eventually I saw the connection between the TV camera and the photographer in the hospital. That experience hindered opportunities for me to find employment in related fields for which I had a natural talent.
From my crib in I.C.U. through a small window in the door, I watched an unknown doctor gown and mask himself. He peered at me through the widow. I was apprehensive. Who was he and what was he going to do to me, I thought. No one accompanied him and no one told me what he was there for. He told me to lie still on my back. He opened my legs. I froze with fear. I thought of other things and tried to ignore what he was doing. I felt his fingers around my
genitalia and something inside me but was too afraid to look.
I dealt with the experience like most I was experiencing in the hospital. It was just another uncomfortable procedure, but somehow this one was different. I was angry. Why didn't a nurse come with him? Why was I left alone with this strange man, I asked myself.
Days and weeks passed and no one came to visit. A fever I had since early in the hospital stay never dropped below 103 degrees. Mega doses of iron administered to me had turned my teeth black. I could not leave I.C.U. to visit or play with other children and still no one read to me nor did I have a TV. I was left totally to my own imagination to entertain myself in the same crib that I slept in. The isolation, boredom, physical pain and the deepening emotional grief of abandonment continued relentlessly.
Prior to the accident I had learned that to be out of the sight of my parents was to be forgotten or "out of mind." I used that awareness to avoid my Dad's senseless whippings and mental abuse. Staying out of sight was crucial to my safety. Now my survival tactic was backfiring. I wanted someone to find me but I was helpless. I had been forgotten and I couldn't appear before them to let them know I was still here. No one was going to help me. I came to believe that no one would ever help me and I was not capable of helping myself. (This belief and state of mind pervaded my life for years. It was only in my mid 40s that I was finally free of the fear and anxiety of feeling helpless and without the help of others.)
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