(song: 'Indian Summer Sky')
It’s the kind of phone call you dread.
5:00 yesterday, my work phone rang. It was my mother.
“Jenn?” she said, in that rushed ‘It’s not really a question although it sounds like one, but that’s just because I’m panicking and trying not to cry because I have to tell you something important,’ voice she has.
“Mom, what is it?”
“We’re going to the ER. Daddy and Neal were working outside and what they were doing caused a spark and it caught Dad’s oxygen hose on fire at his nose and his face is badly burned.” And then she lost it.
I heard my dad’s voice in the background, saying something with his typical calm composure. ‘He’s talking,’ I thought. ‘I’ll take that as a good sign.’
“Ok, Mom, you’ve got to calm down, it’ll be ok - - I’ll meet you at the ER, I’m leaving now,” I said, adding “You stay calm, all right? Dad needs to see you’re strong and can handle this, ok?” The words made me feel like a charlatan. I could feel my own insides tighten up and the water rush to my eyes, stomach in knots as I reached for my keys, locked my computer, and hung up the phone in one simultaneous motion I couldn’t duplicate if I tried.
I don’t even remember locking my office door, but I did.
5:00 traffic on the way to the hospital left time to think. Unfortunately.
‘Should they have called an ambulance instead? How bad is the burn? He must be in so much pain! Thank you, God, that he’s alive. What about his lungs? He has emphysema . . . did he inhale smoke? Are they damaged from it? Oh, thank GOD the portable oxygen tank didn’t catch on fire! It could have killed him. And my brother, too! Did he burn his eyes? Can he see ok? Is there permanent damage to anything??’
The thoughts were endless and traveled the spectrum of gravity.
When I reached the ER and they directed me back to his room, I nearly raced down the hall, but found myself hesitating as I approached the curtain-door to his room. I closed my eyes for a second to imagine the absolute WORST so that whatever I saw would either be that . . . or better.
I prepared myself, took a deep, quiet breath, rounded the corner into his room, and walked swiftly to him, hooked up to an IV and oxygen, but sitting up in bed.
“Hey, Firestarter!” I said. “What’re you tryin’ to do to yourself?!”
My brother piped up, “He got tired of trimming his nose hairs.”
“Dad, really, there are better ways to open your pores. We would’ve gotten you a facial for Father’s Day, all you had to do was ask!”
I could see my mother’s nervous, tense face begin to ease, her shoulders relax.
I’m not gonna pretend it was pretty.
Without getting too graphic, (but don’t read this paragraph if you have an incredibly weak stomach,) dad’s nose and face were black from both smoke and damaged skin that was peeled, with splotches missing. Parts of his face were swelled up, beginning to blister. His lip was swollen and looked charred. The outer halves of both ‘his sets of eyebrows’ and ‘his sets of eyelashes’ . . . gone. Pieces of plastic from the oxygen hose that had been in his nose, drawing the spark, causing the flame, were actually melted into the inside of his nostrils, which were entirely black, and not in the usual ‘cavernous’ way.
“That must’ve scared you to death,” I told him, imagining what a scene like that would look and feel like. “And you, too!” I said to my brother.
“We'd been talking about that tv show ‘1000 Ways to Die’ while we were working,” Neal said. “I found the thousand-and-first,” dad joked, thankfully wrong.
“The spark was drawn quickly to the oxygen flowing into his nose and BAM! everything caught on fire instantly,” Neal said. “It happened so fast.”
“Just a flash in the pan,” dad added, and we all laughed.
I appreciate his way. I know how he views these types of things . . . why fret when it doesn’t help? Why worry and stress? You deal with what comes your way, and if you can find a way to try to laugh about it, then laugh, even if what you want to do is cry. The time for that may come later, and that’s ok . . . but until you know what you’re dealing with (or crying about) for sure, don’t believe the worst.
After the giant, mobile x-ray machine was wheeled in and x-rays were taken, a nurse came in with solution and gauze to begin cleaning his face. “You’re my most interesting patient, today!” she exclaimed, apparently subscribing to dad’s brand of therapy. She apologized, saying, ‘This isn’t going to feel good, I’m sorry,’ and began cleaning his face. I watched his hand on the bedrail, waiting for him to grip it harder, but he didn’t flinch. Unbelievable.
The nurse laughed and said, “Your breath smells like fire-smoke! Seriously, I don’t think even a toothbrush is gonna take care of that!”
“We’ve been telling him for years he’s just blowing smoke,” I told her.
“I was just auditioning for the role of ‘Fire Breather’ with the circus,” he explained, and the nurse responded, “You’re hired!”
“Yeah, the swelling and blisters have started,” she said.
“We’re gonna call you Puff the Magic Dragon, Dad. Puff. The real Puff Daddy!”
The female version of Doogie Howser walked in, made a gesture like she forgot something, and left. I leaned toward mom’s ear and asked, “Is that the doctor?!” “Yes, I think so,” she replied. “Has she graduated from medical school yet??!” and before mom could respond, Doogie walked back in.
“Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Young,” she said, and I nearly fell into the floor. It took ALL I HAD not to respond with, “No kidding!”
I elbowed my mother and saw her mouth fight a smile.
“You’re beautiful!” the doctor said to dad. “How are you feeling?”
“With my hands,” he replied, and the doctor joined my mom in the battle of ‘smile fighting.’ She lost. “The x-rays showed no damage, thankfully, but you do have a bit of fluid on your lungs, unrelated to this, but because of your condition.” “I tried to evaporate it,” he said, smiling, “But at least there’s no damage, thank the good Lord.”
‘Indeed!’ I thought. ‘In-deed.’
She examined his face and told him she thought it had been a flash fire and it was good they were outside because a lot of what could have gone into his lungs probably escaped into the air instead. He has second degree burns that she thought wouldn’t scar much if at all, and said he would probably swell and blister more by the next day, so be prepared for that.
They were going to watch his breathing and oxygen rate for another 30-minutes, then release him with ointment, an Rx for pain meds, and some follow-up appointment instructions.
Thinking back to the drive over to the ER, when your mind runs wild with ‘what ifs,’ . . . when you finally hear things like ‘no permanent damage,’ ‘the lungs look ok,’ and ‘it’s all (ultimately) going to be fine,’ you realize how much those initial thoughts actually give you to be thankful for. We knew how much pain dad would feel when the numbness of the injury began to wane. We were worried for that. We also knew that, as bad as it was, it could’ve been so much worse.
Sometimes, when the immediate danger is over, humor creeps in to help cushion the fear and trauma during that interim period where ‘the waiting’ usually weighs heavy, and ‘the unknown’ attempts to discourage. Our bad puns and attempts at humor masked great anxiety and worry, but not gratitude. We feel so thankful to God for the protection He afforded dad. That he could even leave the hospital that evening, without needing hospitalization or surgery, we knew was a miracle.
Mom began to remember Neal and I had 3 other sisters she needed to call. She got the “Oh, no, what do I say to them?” look on her face. The initial panic gone, the words sounded ridiculous. “There’s really not a delicate way to tell someone, ‘Oh, hey, your father’s face caught on fire, today!’” we said, cracking up. I could feel the stress leaving my body more with each joke that was made.
Dad laughed hardest of all.
“What do I look like?” he finally wanted to know. “Like you’ve been through hell,” I told him, searching for a mirror. Neither mom nor I had one. “Two women and no mirrors?” Neal asked, shaking his head. He took out his cell phone and took a picture of Dad to show him.
Dad made absolutely no visible reaction to seeing the picture.
“Well, my dream of finishing up that job today just went up in smoke,” he said, chuckling, probably mentally planning how and when he could finish it, despite everything. “And I want to get outta here,” he announced. “I’m hungry.”
“I know a great barbeque place,” I said, prompting a 'head thrown back quiet laugh,' which was one of my favorites of his.
As the 30-minute mark neared and we anticipated getting the green light to leave, I couldn’t help but notice how tired he looked.
“Poor Dad, you look exhausted,” I told him, and without missing a beat, Neal added, “Yeah, he’s pretty burned out.” The nurse re-entered and hearing our obnoxious laughter, looked disappointed to have missed the joke. She smiled at dad, "You have an awesome family," she said, "The best therapy. You're also free to go home, now,” she announced, moving toward his IV. “Stick a fork in me, I’m done!” he said, happily positioning himself to leap from the bed as soon as she was done. Well, as well as a man with horrific arthritis and serious emphysema can ‘leap,’ I suppose it’s fair to say.
Three hours after the initial phone call, we had all settled back into a semblance of calm. Panic had turned to knowledge and acceptance. Stress relented as we focused on gratitude and recovery. My throbbing head had been a welcome distraction from the anxiety that caused it, thankfully decreasing with the passing of each hour.
With all said and done, another silent round of ‘learning from dad’s example’ had been witnessed. Dad was compassionate in spirit, always more worried about what others were going through than himself, even when he was the one injured or in pain. It was completely futile to 'fight' him on this. He’d rather laugh and joke through it all to keep those around him relaxed than respond the way he might actually feel and add to their concern.
He truly is the strongest man I’ve ever known.
He’s also given me the perfect gift idea to round out his Father’s Day packages for Sunday. He’ll soon be the proud owner of an eyebrow pencil, fake eyelashes, and a fire extinguisher.