In the intensive care unit of the burn ward in Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, I looked down at the small, still form that was my daughter Siân. Shaking my head in disbelief, I stared at this 17-year-old girl wrapped in white sheets and appearing even tinier than her 5 feet 1½ inches. The bald and bulbous pumpkin-size head bore no resemblance to hers. Had there been no name on the door, I would not have known who she was; flaming gasoline had seared the skin and flesh off her body, arms, and face and obliterated her physical identity.
With my daughter drugged into merciful unconsciousness, I did not have to talk to her. To be truthful, I wouldn't have known what to say. For the two weeks before this moment, we had hardly spoken to each other. In my mind, Siân was unreachable and deliberately rebellious; in hers, I was a control-freak father who didn't understand his own daughter. This bright, articulate student had cut all her classes in her final weeks at high school, proudly earning B's instead of A's. She regularly stayed out far later than any curfew I set, and refused to discuss what she was going to do for a future. My frustration with her had evolved into a resigned detachment with which I looked forward to her 18th birthday, when she'd be out of my hair and I wouldn't have to analyze the role I had played in molding such a mutinous child.
And now this mess. A few hours earlier, Siân had been visiting a friend who'd brought his motorcycle inside the house to fix. When she saw the unattached gas tank dangerously sitting on a chair, she quickly picked it up to take it outside. The tank must have had a leak because as she passed a space heater, she was ignited.
Siân's mother was devastated and could not face the reality of her daughter's mutilation and scarring. I had been assuring my second wife that soon we would be free of my problem daughter. But this accident changed everything. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to have to carry most of the burden of Siân's care—if she survived.
As with most men in our culture, silence had always been my response when I was faced with painful emotional moments like this one. I saw it as stoicism that made me imperturbable enough to deal with crises. Rarely did I examine, or express, what I was feeling. But one thought kept coming back to haunt me even in my anger at the little figure in the hospital bed: Siân was my firstborn child.
I recalled the moment she emerged into the world. I had been close enough to look into her eyes, which blinked at the light and the coolness of the room. I had connected with my daughter the instant we first saw each other, and the possibility of her death was more than my stoical self could bear. I had to find the words to reestablish a connection between us.
For the next 24 hours I wrestled with questions: What can you say to a 17-year-old when you know that she might not live? What if she survived but lost her sight? She and I had hidden things from each other for so long that I wondered whether I could ever tell her such harsh truths or if she would even believe me.
My daughter would have to know that she had suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body and that those burns would leave deep, knotted scars. The doctors told me it was possible that she could lose her left hand, charred down to the muscles and tendons. They said that Siân would need months of recovery, months more of physical therapy to move freely again, and years of plastic surgery.
I returned to the hospital the following day with my mind made up. No matter that we had deceived each other in the past: What was important was the present. So at eight in the morning, on the first of only four 15-minute visits allowed each day, I greeted her.
"Hi, love! It's me."
A tube in her throat prevented her from speaking, her eyes were swollen shut, but her head moved slightly as she heard me.
"I have figured out a way for us to talk. You can ask short questions by spelling out words. I'll divide the alphabet into two halves at m and n. I'll separate vowels from consonants and give you letters one by one. You nod or move your arm to tell me which one is correct, okay?"
She grasped the technique immediately.
"Eyes?" she spelled out.
"You could see when you came into the emergency room, so they are probably okay."
"They've shaved off all your hair, but it will grow back."
The face she had known was gone. Though I wanted to tell my little girl that everything would be fine, I could not.
Next: "During the two months Siân spent in the ICU and burn ward, setbacks and small victories competed."