This is what I was told after the accident that left my little sister burned on over 50% of her 22 month old body.
It was 1977 and I was a sassy almost four year old with a curiously sweet and shy little baby sister. We were living in a place that has survived only as pieces in my mind’s eye. I don’t remember much of my childhood at all. I don’t remember much of anything unless it’s a story that’s been told over and over again OR if it was something that was documented in a photograph…but this, I have held onto this memory for 35 years.
The accident happened when Jammie and I were in a kitchen and trying desperately to find a way to some chocolate donuts on top of a counter. In the midst of our endeavor, a crockpot was knocked off the counter top. The contents poured down the left side of my sister’s head and face, down her left arm, and completely covered her back. I have no recollection of this catastrophic event. All I know of this moment is what I was told. Little Jammie was whisked away and taken to Hillcrest Burn Unit. She wasn’t expected to live and what happened to her from that point, we only know from medical records. I am certain that the quick response of our mother is what saved her life. Sometimes we think, that in moments like these, we’ll remember all of our training, all of our senses, all of our “know how” and for some, it’s true. Regardless of what choices were made in that moment, I will never know how my mom was able to do what she did. Through shock and panic, she saved Jammie that day.
I don’t know what happened to me in the moments after the accident. I don’t remember anything but the feeling of suffocation. All I do know is that after absorbing the words, “you killed your sister”, my mind shut off. They tell me that I quit talking and walking. My mom, who never left the hospital (except for when the orderlies dragged her out so she could “get some rest”) didn’t know what was going on with me until my aunt told her. Once again, it was my mom that came to the rescue. She took me to a therapist who, at that point said that the only way I would recover is if I knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Jammie was in fact, alive. The ONLY memory I have of any of this tragedy is the moment that I saw Jammie’s face. They brought her frail little body to the doors of the burn unit. It was a typical hospital double door with the long and thin rectangular windows. I remember seeing her face through one of those windows and at that moment, a nurse opened the door so that her tiny hand could pass through the opening. They let me touch her. It’s been 35 years and I still can’t recall that instant without tears.
Adults do weird things in times of panic and mayhem. Placing the blame and guilt on my shoulders was one of those things. I need to say that my parents never made me feel guilty or made me feel the blame of the accident. They never uttered the words used to title this post, but when someone did utter those words, it changed my life forever. I walked through our school years hearing the taunts and watching bullies pick on Jammie because of her scars…I also beat the crap out of some of them. I carried the shame and guilt of this accident for a very long time. Now that we’re adults, it’s so weird to look back on that time…on all of it. She’s such a strong woman. I am learning to be.
It wasn’t until Jammie and I attended the World Burn Congress, presented by the Phoenix Society of Burn Survivors that I was able to shake free from an accident that was never my fault. Our time there was very emotional…we were forced to take a look at a very hard time of our lives…parts that had holes, stories with pieces missing. She and I were able to put the together some shattered, broken parts of ourselves. I learned that Jammie had moved past the accident way before I ever thought possible. She taught me that I am a survivor too. That it was ok that I survived. She also reminded me that we were just babies and that neither of us could possibly be held accountable for the accident. I was able to take a look at 4 year old Angel that still hid deep down inside and tell her that everything will be ok. That everything IS ok. That it was an accident. A terrible accident.
So…a chunk of my life that I carry, but that I no longer have to carry so harshly.
I don’t know why I share this story now…maybe it’s because my own little one is coming upon the age that Jammie was when all of this happened. Even now, it’s kind of hard to look at my daughter and see how little she is, knowing that Jammie had to brave such a travesty with that same tiny frame.
I am so proud of Jammie. I am proud of the woman she has become. She is a brilliant writer, a fascinating mother, a cherished part of my heart.