From the Ashes: When the Unthinkable Happens to Your Child
She nodded. At noontime the next day, we talked again.
"I...die," Siân spelled out.
"Are you going to die? No, the doctors think—"
She shook her head vigorously.
"I don't understand."
"You want to die? Why, love, why?"
Had I been such a poor father that she didn't want to live?
The pain of the burns and the medical treatment—including the daily stripping of scabs forming on her wounds—were unbearable. Shocked by what I had heard, I had no time to compose either myself or my words. "No one can even imagine what pain you are experiencing," I blurted out. "All I can tell you is that we do know it will eventually pass. You can endure it; I know you can. And I promise that I'm going to be there all the time to help you through it. So no more about wanting to die, okay?"
For what seemed like an age I looked down at my daughter, hoping for some small sign that my appeal had reached her, that she was not going to give up. After a long silence, I saw her head move in the smallest of nods. Tears of relief ran down my face.
During the two months Siân spent in the ICU and burn ward, setbacks and small victories competed. As the swelling of her head went down, light reached into her eyes; she could see. She had new skin grafted onto her hands, saving them from amputation. She fought infection after infection as bacteria attacked her open wounds and grafts. She almost bled to death after one operation. But through all the surgeries, the pain, the daily scrubbing of her open wounds, my daughter kept her promise and I kept mine. I came to see her every day and read Dylan Thomas's heartfelt poem "Do not go gentle into that good night," for the line "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
On New Year's Eve, 27 days after the accident, Siân celebrated her 18th birthday. Having spent weeks in bed, she had been working each day to stand and move again. When I entered the ICU, I saw my daughter sitting beside her bed smiling through her rigid, grafted face and whispering hoarsely, "Look, Bobby, do you want to see how I can walk?" She swayed to her feet and shuffled a step or two toward me. "What do you think?"
I smiled at her, feeling as though a great load had been lifted off my back. But I had gifts for her, too—among them, a letter: "To a daughter on her 18th birthday, December 31, 1981." It described how excited I'd been to watch her come slowly into the world. Then it went on:
"Now I see her again, slowly opening her eyes in the hospital on her birthday. But this is not the same celebration of newborn life that we experienced in 1963, she and I together...or is it?
Can we look at this as another beginning? Can we understand it as a new introduction to life? For in the months to come, she must move, she must walk, she must leave a warm and safe sanctuary and go out into the cold world again. Here I stand, as I did many years ago, ready to help her prepare for what she must face. We will do it, she and I, perhaps better than we did before, for we are wiser now. We will do it, she and I, enthusiastically, with none of the reluctance she displayed at her birth; for such is her spirit!"
She read silently, mouthing the words, and we both cried. On that day Siân erased any doubts in my mind that she wanted to recover, and I erased any doubts in hers about my commitment.
At the end of four weeks in the burn unit, with Siân able to move in a bent-over shuffle, and the possibility of further infection unlikely, she was allowed to come home. Now began a seven-year journey of recovery.
Siân's arms were so stiff with scars that she couldn't bend them to feed herself, grip a doorknob, or put on her clothes. She was effectively a baby again. Everybody—my wife, my younger daughter, Rhiannon, barely 15, and I—traded off feeding her, bathing her, and putting on her clothes. Rhiannon took the night duty, opening doors and helping her sister to the bathroom. In the mornings I drove Siân to Parkland, where she spent the entire day in physical therapy. She worked; I watched and cheered.
Sometimes at the end of a day's struggle, Siân dissolved into tears of despair. In those moments, which sometimes stretched to hours, we sat on a sofa gently rocking back and forth, my daughter shuddering and sobbing silently and I wanting to say something that would comfort her. But, lost for words again, I just held her.
Next: "A deep distress hath humanized my soul."