BEAUTY FROM THE ASHES – I had an amazing childhood. I grew up in a small town in Alberta with my parents and two siblings. Money was tight, but I didn’t know it at the time. We would go swimming every Saturday evening, then walk home in our pajamas and eat apples before going to bed. I remember playing princess with my sister and arguing over who would have the privilege of being the slave. We have countless pictures of us sitting inside dresser drawers, paddling our ships with spatulas; pretending to be chefs while wearing our underwear on our heads; flying kites at Buffalo Jump; wrestling with my dad on the lawn. I was raised on Hockey Night in Canada and caragana blossoms.
There is very little I remember about May of 1990 or the months that followed. I was four at the time. I used to sit on the top of the toilet while brushing my teeth, but on this particular evening I didn’t notice the lit candle. I leaned back into it, and the flames found a footing in my cotton pajamas and long hair. My six-year-old sister started screaming, but I didn’t notice the flames until they snaked along the underside of my upraised arm, resulting in third-degree burns that left angry scars on two-thirds of my back and my right arm. Panic. Screaming. Running around the house looking for my parents. Strange as it may seem, the décor of my parent’s bathroom remains seared in my memory when the rest of my experience is a blur. The rest comes in snatches: eating orange Popsicles, watching Bambi and Cinderella, the sting after the skin grafts surgery, listening to my dad read to me for hours on end, making butterfly magnets in the hospital playroom, screaming and scrambling to get out of the tub during the debriding process, the large aquarium in the doctor’s waiting room, the smell of the moisturizing cream.
In the years following my burn, I recall camping out on the lawn in massive cardboard boxes. I remember my dad bringing home a Barbie that he had found on the side of the road – the only one I ever owned. My sister and I cut off all her hair, dyed her blue with what was supposedly washable marker, and affectionately dubbed her “Welfare Barbie”. There were still days of skating in our frozen backyard, playing hockey in the driveway, and catching caterpillars in the tree house.
In many ways, my burn was the beginning, but it was also the middle.
When speaking to my dad the other day, I mentioned that if I could redo my life over again and specifically choose each of the moments I would like to include, my burn would be one of them. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and commented, “I’m not sure you would. There are hundreds of hours you don’t remember.” Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I still believe I would. My burn acted as a catalyst for so many experiences that have shaped my goals, my dreams, and my character.
Like so many others have mentioned before me, my burn made me more mature than my age would dictate. With the understanding of pain comes a greater sense of compassion. Somewhere along the line I realized that just as I can conceal my scars if I choose to, other people have hidden hurts as well, which means that I need to listen and know the whole story before I pass judgment. Furthermore, I’ve had the privilege of watching my parents’ relationship thrive over the years. They had three children between the ages of three and six, financial concerns, and an injured child – each serious stressors to any marriage. My parents fought to let these difficulties draw them closer together, and their commitment and integrity is a model of how I desire my own relationships to be.
I’ve always believed in a God who gives beauty for ashes, and I’ve always felt like there was some special reason why I was burned. I think I’ve found it. This is my fourth year counseling at burn camp, and I feel like I was burned nineteen years ago for the campers I have worked with, that include Maggie and Julia and Amanda. I’ve had the incredible blessing of being a part of their healing as they also are a part of mine. I don’t know how to explain it, but I believe my burn experience has played a role in my desire to serve through Habitat for Humanity and Hurricane Katrina relief, as well as in homeless shelters in Chicago and orphanages in Guatemala. It’s one of the reasons I chose to become a teacher. It’s my life and I’m learning to live it the best I know how.