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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Only God…

As I dressed, I realized I’d not taken even one of the pain pills since the day before yesterday. The nurse had fixed the mess I’d made of my bulky burn bandage but scolded me for putting myself in a position where I couldn’t come to the hospital immediately. The deep scratching hadn’t soothed the itch, but it did shred my badly injured arm.

Making my way to the car, I wondered if the fact that my arm no longer hurt would influence the tongue-lashing the nurse promised Dr. Wong* was sure to inflict upon me this morning. I probably shouldn’t have gone to the out-of-town meeting, but hopefully, he’d not find any permanent damage from the middle-of-the-night assault I’d managed in my sleep. Boy, did my arm hurt then.

Fifteen minutes later, I sat on Dr. Wong’s exam table, waiting for the worst and praying for the best. Please, God, whatever he says to me, help me not cry.

The exam door opened, interrupting my Heavenly pleading. Dr. Wong strolled over to the desk and dropped my medical file. Turning toward the table, he took a moment to look at me before speaking.

“The nurse tells me you’ve experienced significant itching on your injured arm?”

“Just that one night. Not anymore.” I wanted to smile, but my racing heart seemed to hold a lock on my lips.

“Uh-huh. She said you’d managed to tear your damaged tissue enough that it bled?”

“Yes, that’s true but not a lot. The bandage soaked most of the blood before I woke up and stopped scratching.”

“I imagine at that point, the pain superseded the itch, didn’t it?”

“Yes sir, it surely did.”

“But, it never even occurred to you to go to the hospital?”

“No sir. The thought never entered my mind. You see, I used to run an ambulance service, and I trained EMT-A’s. Well, the jump box is always in the trunk of my car—in case I come upon an accident out here, you know—so my only thought was to bandage it myself.”

“Uh-huh. And, did you consider any possible infection from your negligence?”

“I did, but I’d already been on antibiotics you gave me two days earlier. I reckoned you’d give me more if I needed it when you saw me the following morning.”

“Do you recall the only reason I let you talk me out of admitting you to the hospital the night you got burned was because you had to take care of three little kids? I trusted you would do as I asked.”

I struggled with the tears pushing to spill over at the mention of the kids. “I do. The County took the kids back to their abusive mother. They didn’t think I could care for the children with one arm out of commission.”

“Oh, no. I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard. That must be hard for you, but honestly, with the extensive damage to your arm, you’ll be in and out of the hospital once the wound has healed enough for skin grafting. It’ll take a number of surgeries to put it as right as possible. Can you still move your fingers?”

I held out my hand as he moved to the table. “Yes. They’re fine.” I wiggled them all inside the bandage. “In fact, I think my whole arm is okay now. It doesn’t hurt at all.”

“Are you still taking the pain pills?” He began to pull back the thick wrap and slid the scissors between the layers of gauze.

“No. I haven’t had anything since your nurse gave me a new bandage. Not so much as an aspirin.” I saw his eyebrows raise. “I mean it, Dr. Wong. My arm doesn’t hurt at all.”

“That’s not necessarily a good sign. I’m about finished here. We’ll know in a moment.”

Taking the sterile forceps, Dr. Wong lifted the square compresses from the worst areas on my arm and hand. One-by-one, he added them to the pile of used bandaging materials. Slowly, carefully, the doctor worked without saying a word.

What I saw shocked me; I couldn’t say anything. Finally, the arm had been fully exposed to the air, and it didn’t hurt at all then either.

Dr. Wong stood, staring at my arm. “Humph! You heal very, very fast.” The arm had completely healed. All the way to my fingertips, the arm had the pink color of brand-new skin. Not a millimeter of scarring anywhere.

“The kids prayed for me the day of the fire. Our church folks kept praying, too.”

The doctor just shook his head, repeating his declaration. “You heal very, very fast.”

The kind doctor refused to accept my belief that prayer had ushered in the miracle our eyes now witnessed. I had no doubt why my arm healed “very, very fast.” I’d seen many such miracles in our home as the children prayed for their sick or injured little friends.

Prayer, not skin grafts, affected the full recovery of my severely burned arm—in days, not months or years.

Now, I began praying for the miracles I’d need to raise a convalescence center from barren ground to a functioning facility in six months. With God, nothing is impossible, I reminded myself frequently.

*Name changed.

Note to Readers: Now’s the time to catch up on any blog posts you missed. I’ll suspend the weekly posts for a time while I concentrate on finishing another, long writing project. Thank you for your understanding. See you again soon!

For more snippets of my life story, you can click on the website: under the category: Memoir Bits. I add a new post each Thursday.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Destructive Dream?

Had it even been a full month since I’d turned down the job offer from the Hospital Board? Now, here I am, halfway to the town, driving back to officially accept the challenge of turning that flat piece of ground into a fully functioning convalescent center in just over six months.

Shifting in my seat caused me to bump my bandaged left arm. “Yeow! Pay attention, lady.” I’d always been one to talk to myself, sometimes even when another person was in range to hear. “Try to focus on the road, not the meeting, okay?”

I agreed with my saner self, but the pain in my burned arm reminded me of an even worse ache in my heart. How long would it be before I saw the kids again? What should I have done differently so I didn’t end up with this melted limb, and the kids yanked away and returned to the mother who neglected and abused them? One accident can so drastically change things.

Thirty minutes later, I looked into the smiling faces of the men seated around the conference table. When the Chairman spoke, I stared down at my notebook, not up at Mr. Jacobs*. “Gentlemen, I’m delighted to inform you that we now have an administrator for the convalescence center.”

“Getting ahead of yourself a bit, aren’t you, Hank? It’s just a hunk of ground right now.” The men laughed at the rancher’s retort. I felt my face flush.

“Won’t be like that much longer. Want to say anything?” Mr. Jacobs squeezed my shoulder as he spoke.

“As you can see, things have changed since our last meeting.” I lifted the sling, glad not to feel any pain. “I burned my arm two days ago when the coal furnace door blew open and shot flames out to melt my arm some. I’ll be able to work on this project full-time until I need to go for skin grafting. Then, we’ll see how I can work—“

Dr. Holloway* interrupted me. “Now, you men don’t go worrying about her not doing the job on account of that arm there. This gal managed the business of the other hospital from her own hospital bed two hundred miles away when her brain swelled so much she couldn’t see.”

The gasps of the men and low murmurs brought back the heat in my cheeks. “C’mon, Doc. Don’t interrupt me.” A few men across from me chuckled. “Doc’s just trying to let you know I’ll get the job done.”

The secretary began passing around a document with several sheets stapled together. As I reached for mine, a subtle shudder of fear rippled through my nervous system. What in the world had I agreed to do here? I didn’t know anything about building a medical facility. On the other hand, they’d lose the millions if I didn’t try. I’d learn, and I’d learn fast.

As I’d suspected, the meeting ran late, ending after eleven o’clock. The pain in my arm had been severe enough that I’d taken a pain pill during the break. I knew my mental fogginess prohibited me from driving the hour back home over the two-lane country road, so I took a room in a motel I’d often passed when in town.

I lost no time falling asleep. The combination of extreme fatigue and the effects of the Demerol put me down like a whiff of ether. Did I even get to the Amen of my prayers?

In the middle of the night, the sensation of warm liquid on my cheek brought me out of my deep slumber. Reflexively, my fingertip touched the liquid.  I felt the stickiness, recognizing   the coppery scent. Blood? Why would I have blood on my face?

Next, I registered incredible pain. From fingertips to over the elbow, my injured arm burned as though the flames engulfed it again.

I rolled over and flipped the lamp switch. The shocking sight jerked me out of my drowsiness and into being fully alert in a nanosecond. The long three-inch wide strip of the bulky burn dressing hung loosely from several points on my arm, the fingers almost fully exposed. Large and small squares of medicated compresses hung precariously from points on my damaged skin.

As I reached over to straighten a compress, I saw drops of blood on the fingertips of my right hand. “What in the world happened here?” The moment I’d voiced my confusion, I remembered. My left arm had begun to itch. I didn’t really wake up but did scratch the itch. By the look of that bandage, I’d scratched more than one itch.

My fingers must have clawed through the strip of thick gauze by the way it hung in spots up and down my arm. Fortunately, the blood had soaked into the bandage, not the motel sheets. I carefully flipped loose sections of the long strip back over my arm, so I could get out of bed without snagging the bandage. I didn’t want it to come completely off.

After rinsing the blood off the fingers of my right hand, I pulled some clothing over my nightgown. I should’ve gone to the hospital, but the thought never occurred to me. I left the room to retrieve my ambulance jump box.

Back inside the motel room, I took out the sterile packages of thick rolls of three-inch gauze strips. I knew if I could occlude the air, my arm would feel a lot better. I didn’t have everything I needed to try to re-dress the wound, but I figured if I could just wrap the clean rolls over the dangling portions, it’d be okay until I got home. I’d go to the doctor then.

Mission accomplished, I stretched out on the bed. If one didn’t know better, one might even think the arm had been freshly bandaged. Until the nurse exposed the ugly wreck of a dressing underneath, only I’d know the real story.

Covering the seriously burned areas reduced the pain, but when I couldn’t return to sleep, I took a one-half piece of my pain pill. That should take the edge off. I had enough time before hitting the road that my reflexes should be okay by then. I slept deeply until the alarm beeped.

Once back in town, I drove right to the hospital. “Sorry, the doctor’s not here this morning. Anything I can do for you?” The nurse stared at my bandage when she spoke. I wondered if she realized the bandage wasn’t the one she’d applied.

“I hope so. Uhh, in the middle of the night my arm began to itch like crazy. I didn’t really wake up until I’d pretty much massacred the poor thing. You’ll see when you take this cover off your bandage.”

“And, why didn’t you just come back here right then?” The nurse had already begun removing the gauze strips. “You know the doctor’s not going to be happy that you did this. You might have set up an infection.” The audible gasp drew my gaze back to the nurse’s face. “Just look at this! You’ve all but shredded your poor arm.”

“It itched. I couldn’t help it, since being asleep I had no idea I was scratching it. Maybe it’s healing--”

“Healing! You know better than that. In three days? You were probably itching in some dream you didn’t want to leave,” she said as she patted the treatment table. “Lay back here and let me get this cleaned up and covered properly.” The nurse stepped away but then turned toward me again. “Sorry, I was a bit harsh. T’was just such a shock. Do you need something for pain before I get to work on your arm?”

Stuffing my right hand into my front pocket, I pulled out the little plastic container. “If you can give me a little water, I brought my own.”

By the time she put the final strips of tape on the bandage, I felt the relief kick in. I looked forward to crawling into bed as soon as I got home.

“That’ll do it for today. Don’t you go messin’ with my work now, you hear me?”

“I’ll do my best not to get even one spot on it. Okay if I just keep my scheduled appointment, or do I need to come back tomorrow?”

“I’d think day after tomorrow is soon enough. I’ll ask the doctor and call if he wants you tomorrow.”

I slipped off the table and grabbed my jacket. As the nurse assisted me, she had one last word. “That’ll give you a bit more time to prepare for the tongue-lashing he’s going to give you for what you did to that arm of yours.”

True, I didn’t do the wisest thing to leave town so soon after the burn. The meeting had been the Board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, so it made sense to me to go. I had no allusions that the doctor would agree, but his reaction more than shocked me. I had not seen that coming.

*Name changed

The story began with From Ice to Fire

Saturday, February 27, 2016

From Burn Pain to Unexpected Grief

Sipping the steaming coffee in the early morning chill, I pondered the previous day’s crisis. How grateful I was that none of the children had been hurt and gave thanks for friends who’d come to my rescue.

“How’s the arm?” Doug asked, pulling a chair from the table. “Kids still sleeping?”

“Yeah, they had a hard time settling down last night. New place and all. I reckon they’ll come up when they hear us stirring,” I said, repositioning my arm in the sling. “My arm’s more of a hassle than a pain, really. The bulky burn bandage will take some getting used to. I took a pain pill when I tucked the girls in again around midnight; it hasn’t worn off yet.”

“I can check your place on my way to work if you like. It sounded like there’s a mess of coal dust to clean up where the furnace pipe disconnected in the kitchen, but if we can secure the pipe, I think the furnace should be okay.”

“Do you think it’ll be safe to light the coal? Or, is there some time we should wait for the fumes that blew the pipe? I can’t remember if I shut the furnace door after I put out the flames melting my arm.”

“Don’t know. I’ll check with George at the garage. He’ll probably know someone who can answer that. For now, just rest that arm.”

When Doug returned two hours later, the news that brought him home from his law office mid-morning brushed all thought of the furnace out of my mind. I had not seen this coming.

“I tried to tell Martha* that you’re a better Mom with one arm than Mary* ever was with two. I said I had complete confidence in your ability to care for the three kids while your arm is healing.”

I said nothing. My friend, a man whose hair and beard I’d trimmed in my dorm room when he and Cathy were just dating, must have noticed the trickle of tears moistening my cheeks. He added, “I’m so sorry. I tried to make her understand that the accident made no difference. I urged her to reconsider, recommending my opinion as the County Attorney, not just your friend.”

“When’s she coming? My voice sounded as strangled as my shattered heart felt. “I’ll need to tell the kids. And, their things. I need to gather their things. Do you think this’s permanent, so I should give them their Christmas presents now, or should I wait to see if they’ll be back? I’ve already wrapped them. Mom helped me over Thanksgiving.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. If they’re new things, Mary— “

“Yeah. I thought of that. The girls might not get them anyway. Guess I’ll wait. I’ll pray they’re back by Christmas. Mom and Dad are expecting us.”

I forced myself to take deep breaths, restraining the massive pressure to wail away the pain of my sudden grief.

“The social worker’ll be here later this afternoon.”

“Today! What’s the rush? It’s not like they’re in any danger because I burned my arm. Today?”

Talk about a shock. The news ripped apart the pieces of my crumbling heart. Had I not been responsible for taking care of the kids right then, I’d have thrown myself on the bed and cried for a few days. That would have to wait.

Deni* and Jamie* finished eating their lunch while I rocked Susie*. I watched her, holding her own bottle and smiling up at me with the nipple still between her lips. “You better keep your lips closed, little lady, or you’ll be wearing that milk.”

Before long, Susie fell asleep.  The usual routine was to lay her down at this point. Not today. I didn’t want to let her go. I remained in the rocking chair, watching the girls at the nearby dinner table.

I slowly rocked, feeling the warmth of her small body against mine. My thoughts dropped back to the first bottle I’d handed her long months ago—picked up off the floor in the motel room. Fortunately, I’d opened and smelled it before trying to comfort her with curdled milk.

That day, the Sheriff had let me coaxed Jamie from under the bed, while Deni sat opposite her, tears streaming down her freckled face. With one phone call, our lives had been knitted together; mine changed forever.

That day, I knew the small children left that motel room for a warm, stable home. They’d have plenty to eat, and the preschooler could stop struggling to care for her younger siblings.

But, this day? They’d be leaving as unexpectedly as they’d come. What would their lives be after today? My heart refused to let me think about it.

When Deni began taking plates to the kitchen, I laid Susie in the playpen to finish her nap.

“Read to us, Mama Dar,” Deni said, handing me the last plate. “I can hold the book.”

“Okay, but just one story today. I need to talk to you, girls.” My voice cracked, as I silently asked the Lord to strengthen me.

Closing the book and laying it on the end table, I stood. “Okay, girls, let’s rock.”

Little giggles erupted from Deni and Jamie as they leapt from the sofa and ran to the wooden chair. I sat down, holding out both arms.

“Who first?” Almost-three-year-old Jamie said, bouncing from one leg to the other.

“Both of you are first,” I said grabbing almost-five-year-old Deni to sit on my right leg. “Here you go,” I said to Jamie while patting my left knee.

The children laughed as the three of us snuggled, holding on to one another. “You know that Mama Dar loves you, don’t you?” Little heads nodded, followed by squeezes and affirmations of feelings being mutual. Well, Doug told me today that your mother wants you to come live with her.” I felt the little bodies tense and then relax under my arms.

“How long?” I couldn’t be sure if Deni meant how long until Mary came to take them, or how long they would stay with her.

“I don’t know. Mrs. Martha will come today to drive you to your mother’s house. I’m asking Jesus to bring you back as soon as He can, but I don’t know how long that is.”

Jamie patted my bandaged arm, which hurt like crazy with the pressure of a child’s body against it. “Cuz you hurt your arm?”

“Yes. I don’t want you to leave. I’m sure we could still do okay until my arm is all better, but Mrs. Martha said she can’t be sure I could do it alone. Your mother wants you to come live with her, so Mrs. Martha said this is a good time to take you back to her. I’m sad to see you go, but it’ll be nice to see your mother again, won’t it? I’ll be praying for you.”

“We pway for you, too, Mama Dar,” Jamie said, adding a squeeze around my neck.

“Me ‘n’ Jamie’ll pray for you every day,” Deni said. “Mama don’t know nothin’ about prayin’, but we do it.”

“Remember to pray for your mother, too. Maybe she’ll learn how from you girls. Let’s pray together now, before Mrs. Martha gets here, okay?”

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I prayed for each of the kids. Jamie gently wiped away each tear as it dropped from my eye. I heard her one-word prayer that God always heard and answered, “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.”

After Deni had said her “Amen,” she put her head on my shoulder. “Mama Dar, don’t worry about us. Jesus’ll take care of us. I know He will.”

Seconds later, I heard the crunch of tires on the snow-packed driveway. “Okay, girls, Mrs. Martha is here. One more squeeze and we’ll answer the door.” The three of us pressed into one another, finishing with a little groan that caused a simultaneous giggle.

I stood, staring out the glass door long after the departure of my little family. The pain in my heart numbed my body. I never felt the sub-zero cold hitting the glass so near my tear-soaked face. I sobbed, remembering only their waving arms and gentle smiles. Deni’s words echoed in my ears, soothing my heart. “Mama Dar, don’t worry about us. Jesus’ll take care of us. I know He will.”

Many times throughout that night and the days and nights that followed, I replayed Deni’s confident words, usually adding something like, “I know He will, Punkin, but what’ll Mama Dar do without you?”

*Names changed.

Story thread begins with this link: With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Plan B

Sitting at Cathy’s dinette table, I cradled my bandaged limb; even my fingertips had been burned. I wore the prescribed cotton sling, but the pull of the cloth support created too much pain in my charred forearm. Using my good hand, I relieved the pressure by lifting slightly on the injured arm’s elbow. The shot the nurse gave me eased the searing agony but clouded my reasoning. I fought to bring my mind out of the Demerol-induced fog.

“—you think?” Cathy turned to look at me, holding the dishtowel against the plate.

“Sorry. My mind is wandering. What did you ask me?”

“That’s okay. Pain medicine can do that. I asked you if you wanted to phone the kids to let them know you’re here?”

“I’m sure Carroll explained about the furnace exploding and burning my arm, but maybe I should let them know I’m okay. Carroll planned to bathe them right after supper, so I’ll give her just a little more time.”

“So, they know they’ll spend the night at Carroll’s, and you’ll be here?”

“That’s the plan. They enjoy playing with her kids. I think they’ll see it as a treat.” I spoke to Cathy’s back, as she busied herself putting the clean dishes away.

Without thinking, I leaned forward and rested my arm on the edge of the table. Fiery rockets of white-hot pain launched at the moment of contact. I immediately retracted my arm but too late.  Clenching my jaws hard, I fought to restrain the scream pushing to be released. Burning tears poured over and streaked my cheeks. I swiped the back of my good hand to clear the tears just as Cathy hung the dishtowel. I turned my face towards the window. Like I could actually see anything in the night’s darkness.

As my friend grasped the back of her chair, the phone rang. She let go and moved to answer.

I continued staring into the night, forcing my breathing to slow so my heart rate would follow suit. Did my eyes still reflect that new burst of pain?

I heard Cathy respond to Carroll’s greeting and thought I’d speak to the kids as soon as my friends finished. Instead, Cathy hung up.

She pulled her chair back and sat down. I tensed as I glimpsed her furrowed brow and pursed lips. “What? What’s wrong? You didn’t let me talk to the kids.”

“You’ll get to talk to them, in person, in a few minutes. Apparently, Carroll’s husband doesn’t want the girls to spend even one night in his house. Carroll didn’t say why, but probably couldn’t with him listening to her side of the conversation. She’ll be here in a few minutes.”

I groaned for the trouble I’d brought to my friend, wondering if Cathy and Doug had room for the girls. My former university roommate responded before I asked.

“Don’t worry. There’s a double bed in the basement bedroom. It’s cold down there, but Doug can get the little heater going and I think it’ll be warm enough for the kids. Susie* can stay in the room up here with you for tonight.” As she stood, I asked if I could help her make the bed. “Thanks for the thought, but I think I can do it faster myself than with your help at the moment,” she said smiling, pointing at my bandaged arm. “Just relax.”

I walked over to a chair in the living room, trying to relax. The pain had lessened, but I couldn’t help thinking about Carroll. What would things be like for her when she returned home?

I heard the backdoor open at the same time Doug and Cathy came up from the basement. Deni* and Jamie* ran into the living room, halting just feet in front of me. The little faces stared at my bulky bandages.

“It’s okay. It looks worse than it is, kids. I missed you so much. I’m glad you’ll be here in this house with me tonight. Did you have supper at Carroll’s house?”

Silently, two heads bobbed.

“They’re good little eaters, Mama Dar,” Carroll said, coming up behind them. “I enjoy cooking for kids who like to eat. Susie* fell asleep on the way over. She’s had her bottle.”

As Cathy directed Carroll to my bed in their guest room, I lifted my good arm beckoning the girls in for a hug. Ever so tenderly, the girls took a turn inside my embrace, trying not to bump my injured arm.

“Does your owwie hurt?” Deni barely touched the bulky white bandage as she spoke.

“It hurt a lot when it happened, but the doctor gave me some medicine. It doesn’t hurt as much now.”

“Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Amen,” Jamie said as her tiny fingers lit like a butterfly on the bandages.

“Thank you for praying for me, Princess. Jesus loves to hear kids pray.” I nodded to Deni, who asked Jesus to make my arm all better. “Thank you, Sweetheart. I’m so glad my girls know how to pray for people when they get hurt.”

Seeing the little ones yawn simultaneously, I knew the time had come for all of us to leave the day’s burdens in God’s hands, and let our bodies rest. “Okay, kids, it’s time for us all to go to bed. Susie’s already sleeping. Let’s ask Jesus to watch over us for the night and bless our friends for helping us.”

After we’d prayed, I accompanied Cathy to the basement to tuck the girls in. On the way back up the stairs, I learned that Carroll had returned home as soon as she’d laid Susie on the bed.

She said she’d call you when she could tomorrow. Carroll said not to worry, just to pray.”

“Hard order when I don’t know what she might be facing right now, but I’ll try.”

“Are you tired, or would you like something to drink? What can I do for you?”

“Oh, Cath! You’ve already done everything I need. Thank you so much for helping us. I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go to bed. No tellin’ if the girls will stay asleep down there. I may need to get up in the night with one, or all, of them. Better get my rest when I can, right?”

In the middle of the night, Deni crept into my room. I felt a light tap on my hand and looked up. As I brought my eyes into focus, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Jamie stood in the doorway.

Slowly, I slipped out from under the covers, carefully replacing the blankets so Susie wouldn’t awaken.

I wrapped my good arm around Deni, and the two of us left the bedroom. Walking out to the sofa, I turned to the children. “What’s wrong, kids? Do you need something?”

Jamie nodded. “Jamie afwaid down dare.”

I looked up at Deni, arching my eyebrows. “Her can’t sleep, Mama Dar. Me not scared. Her don’t sleep so me neither.” The little red head bowed, and she shrugged her shoulders.

How I wanted to laugh. What a dramatist, this almost-five-year-old.

“Okay. Let’s ask Jesus to help you both go to sleep. I know it’s hard in a different bed. It can be scary in basements sometimes, too. Let’s ask Jesus to help you with that. He understands just what you need.”

After praying with the children, I took them back to their big bed. Planting a kiss on the forehead, I tucked the blankets tightly around each precious child.  Had I known then, what I’d know by that time the following night, I’d never have left their room.

*Name changed
For the first part of the above story, click the following link: From Ice to Fire

Story thread begins with this link: With Just One Phone Call 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

From Ice to Fire

Finally, Susie* fell asleep in my arms.  Stopping the rocker, I moved to the crib and put her down. Please, don’t wake up, I pleaded silently. Had my friends not said they’d stop by, I’d have stretched out on my double bed for a nap.

I tip-toe-ed over to the girls’ room. Deni*, nearly five now, and her almost-three-year-old sister, appeared to be sleeping. Jamie*, my little African-American princess, dropped off while reading. Her favorite book lay open on the floor, inches from her fingertips. 

On the top bunk, Deni’s book lay face-down on her tummy. The tendrils of bright-red curls framed the youngster’s freckled cuteness.

For the next few moments, I quietly repositioned things around the living room and prepared hot water for tea. As I took the kettle off the burner, I heard tires crunching the hard-pack snow.

“Come in,” I said, whispering and pressing my finger to my lips. “Kids are sleeping.”

For the next twenty minutes, the three of us maintained a low rumbling chatter, catching up on the details of our Thanksgiving holiday. Had it really been only a few days since that harrowing trip over icy roads and a house full of ice and mice? Suddenly, I noticed Janet* shudder.

“It’s getting cold in here, don’t you think, Jake*?”

“A bit, I guess. I hadn’t noticed before now.”

“Oh my, yes, it is. I’m so sorry. I meant to stoke the fire before you arrived. I just got busy getting lunch for the kids and then putting Susie down—“

“Hey, no problem,” Jake said. “Let me go down to the basement and put a shovel of coal in the furnace. I’ll just restart it if it’s gone cold.”

“I’m so sorry. Really, Jake, I can do it.”

“No need. You keep jawing there with Janet, and I’ll be back in a flash.”

Janet started another thread of conversation just as her husband turned to go. I felt torn but decided to give Janet my attention.

Fifteen minutes later, Jake emerged from the furnace room below. Washing his hands at the kitchen sink, he looked up at the clock. “Honey, we need to go. I forgot I told my cousin I’d help him at the shop this afternoon.” Jake turned to me, continuing without missing a beat. “Sorry, I couldn’t find the matches. The fire went out, but I’ve got it all set to light.”

“Thanks, Jake. I’ll take care of it from here.”

Things might have been different had the couple left at that point, and I’d lit the furnace. As often happened, the good-bye took a fair bit of time.

Once my friends left, I double-checked on the kids before descending the steps. To my amazement, all three continued sleeping deeply.

I paused a moment before unlatching the heavy metal furnace door. An odor caught me by surprise. Gasoline? Couldn’t be; I stored the little gas can in another room. It’s my imagination, born out of fatigue. I lifted the latch and swung wide the door.

Jake had made a perfect arrangement of wood over the ashes of coal. I knew he preferred a wood fire to the hassle of coal, but the coal burned hotter and longer in the old furnace. I wondered if he’d chosen wood more often than coal to keep the furnace at a low temp in our absence. I’d already noticed he’d restocked the woodpile.

“Better stop your cogitating, old girl,” I spoke out loud. “Get that furnace going before the kids wake up.”

I struck the long wooden match and threw it on the wood. As always, I shut the metal door as quickly as possible to keep any lit twigs from flying at me.

Ka-aa-boom! Before I got the latch hooked, the hot metal door exploded open. Flames of fire stretched out, engulfing my bare hand and arm. I grabbed an old gunny sack to put out the fire melting my flesh.

Surprisingly few embers fell outside the furnace. I stomped them out, trying to figure out what to do next. Should I close the door? Would the fire end up outside the monster furnace, burning the house down, if I left it open? Would it explode a second time if I tried to close the door now? “What do I do, God?”

Picturing what might happen if the kids woke up and came looking for me, I grabbed a metal rod I found along the back wall. Sidling around behind the door, I used the rod to slowly close the furnace. I held the door in place. Nothing. Carefully holding the door closed with one hand on the rod, I bunched my shirttail around my injured hand, working the lever to slip the lock in place.

Feeling the heat about to reach my burned fingers, I tried to take a breath and focus. Click. “Thanks, God!”

Okay, get upstairs before the kids wake up. Wouldn’t that blast have awakened them already? I flew up the rickety steps two-at-a-time.

Swinging into the kitchen, I realized two things at the same time:

The girls had not awakened from the kaboom.
My arm felt like the skin continued to melt away with each passing second.

A smear of black caught my eye. In the corner of the kitchen, a pipe dangled from the ceiling, the connecting ring still attached to the swaying lower pipe. Big black splotches decorated both White corner walls.

Forgetting my arm, I rushed to the bedrooms. Had the kids been hurt and that’s why they didn’t come to look for me? To my relief, all three slept on, totally unaware of the unfolding crisis.

Back in the kitchen, I twisted ice cubes into the sink I’d begun to fill with cold water. The pain had crested the peak and soon would be off the charts. I had to get something to occlude the air to stop the continuing burning.

Tossing the empty ice cube trays on the counter, I let the faucet run and reached for the wall phone. I tried three times to get my fumbling fingers to work the rotary dial to call Carroll. The instant I heard a ringing, I stretched the long coil to the opposite wall.

Plunging my arm into the cold water, I bent so that my whole arm from fingertips to above my elbow had been submerged. If I’d rung a wrong number, I planned to ask the stranger for help.

“Hello,” said the familiar voice of my close friend. She heard my deep sigh. “Is that you, Dar?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Uh, are you doing anything right now, Carroll? I have a bit of a problem over here.”

“Oh, no. What’s happened? Are the kids okay? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, the kids are still sleeping. Somehow, the blast didn’t wake them up at all.”

“Blast? Dar—“

“Yeah, Carroll. I think Jake may have soaked the wood with gasoline, expecting to light the fire right away. He didn’t, and I didn’t know he’d not put coal in for me to light. I think the gasoline fumes must have built up or something. Anyway, as soon as I closed the door on the burning wood, the furnace exploded.”

“Is there a fire?”

“Not now. My arm was burning, and some pieces of wood fell to the floor. I put out the flames melting away my arm. Then, I stomped on the small flames near the furnace. Fortunately, we have a dirt floor in the basement, huh? The door is secured now, and I think everything’s okay as far as the furnace goes. The problem is my arm, Carroll.”

“Should I call the ambulance? What can I do?”

“The ambulance would scare the kids. I’m soaking my whole arm in ice water in the sink now. If you would, please, call Cathy and ask her if she’d take me to the hospital. Then, if you could take the kids over to your house until I get done at the hospital. That’s as far as I’ve figured things out so far.”

“Okay, hang up right now. I’m calling Cathy. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I know you won’t leave the kids alone, so I’m hurrying.”

As I waited, I prayed for the kids to stay asleep until Carroll got here. I also tried to assess my arm. The underwater view obscured some of the damage, but I clearly saw the separation between the two main muscles on my forearm.

Carroll and Cathy arrived at the same time. I left with Cathy while Carroll gathered up clothing for the girls to spend the night. She assumed I’d need a night without children to care for, even if I managed to talk my way out of a hospital admission. The kids slept on until Carroll woke them to go to her house.

The doctor took one look at my arm and pointed to my wrist. “That white thing there? It’s your bone. You’re going to need extensive skin grafts, once your hand and arm are healed. That’ll take months. Look there at your forearm muscles. I’m not sure, but you may lose some function in your fingers. I’m going to admit you so we can get some IV antibiotics onboard. You’ll need heavy sedation for a few days, at least.”

“Can’t do it, Doc. I got three kids to take care of. Just give me a shot of something now ‘cuz I’m hurting so much I can hardly think. I’ll stay with a friend tonight and come back for bandage changes. I can take a few days of oral medicines for pain and antibiotics for possible infection as long as you say. I just can’t stay here tonight.”

Doctor Wong* didn’t like it, but he accepted my decision. He told the nurse he expected the pain would be enough to drive me back sometime in the night, so she should be prepared.

As it turned out, another sad surprise changed my plans, but it had nothing to do with the hospital.

*Name changed.

For the first part of the above story, click the following link: Hallelujah Flight

Story thread begins with this link: With Just One Phone Call