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."
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."
After months of caring for a bizarre little figure in a clear plastic mask (worn to keep her original facial grafts tight and smooth), I stood by as plastic surgeons began to reconstruct her appearance. In more than 20 operations over six years, the surgeons implanted eyebrows, gave her more skin on her neck so that it would stretch upward, tried unsuccessfully to save her right ear (though she could still hear), formed her lips, and repaired her nose. They also shaped the fingers on both hands to make them fully flexible.
On the day of each operation, I left work to be with her. For the two hours or so before surgery, I was father, friend, humorist (by then Siân was known as Crispy Critter or French Fry), source of information and reassurance, and translator of medical terminology. One time she panicked and tried to climb off the gurney. I convinced her to face her fears and held her hand all the way to the swinging doors that swallowed her for the next several hours. After her surgeries, whenever the bandages came off to reveal a new face or a repaired hand, I took the first look at what had been done, describing it to prepare her for the sometimes unpleasant sight of raw grafts.
In the midst of all these procedures, and only six months after the accident, Siân enrolled at the local college, then, almost immediately, became a premed student at what is now the University of North Texas. She had decided she wanted to become a surgeon. Courage allowed her to endure the stares and tactless questions when she appeared in class after each hospitalization wearing a mask or bandages.
Soon she was living in her own apartment, and every time I visited she would pour out her feelings about the difficulties of being mutilated in a culture that reveres beauty. "Will anyone ever find me attractive again?" she asked more than once. I was uncomfortable with the question, and at first I told her that I didn't know. But then it occurred to me that in avoiding an answer I was saying that the way she looked was of the utmost importance. How dumb—and cruel!
It took me a few days to find an answer. "From what I know of most men," I said, "they are attracted first by appearance, and I am sure that you will meet many who won't bother to get to know you because they will not see past your scars. But the essence of you hasn't changed, and there are men out there who will be attracted to you for your personality and your brain."
"Those answers," Siân said years later, "helped me look in the mirror and see myself destroyed, more horrible than anyone I had ever seen. But they also helped me to get past that and to keep motivated to do my therapy and use my brain to keep myself mentally okay."
Siân graduated from North Texas magna cum laude and was accepted by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. With that news, Siân and I knew that we had done what we set out to do in 1981: She had survived a terrible accident and worked to overcome its terrible effects; I had stuck with her all the way. In 1992 she received her MD and was accepted as an intern at Emory University Affiliated Hospitals program in Atlanta, where she later became a surgical resident. One marvelous day in 1999, I accompanied my daughter on her hospital rounds and talked with a man whose new liver had been transplanted into his abdomen by Siân's scarred but skillful hands.
On the way to learning the skills she now practices, Siân also learned to accept her own scars. One day while in medical school, she was working out in the gym when an observer asked, "What happened to your face?"
Without thinking, Siân turned to the mirrored wall to see if her makeup was smeared. It took her a few beats to realize the stranger was asking about her accident.
In the years since she'd spelled "I want to die," Siân discovered how much courage, strength, and determination she possessed. And I now understand in a way I never did before that loving another human being is not just an emotion; it is a behavior, a series of acts by which you demonstrate your love. That realization freed me from the emotional silence I had maintained since childhood, and I began to express more and more clearly how I felt, in all my relationships.
The connection I reestablished with Siân paid enormous dividends for both of us in 1993, when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and had to undergo six months of chemotherapy. I called upon my daughter time and time again to talk to my doctors and to advise me on decisions I had to make. I trusted her implicitly, and she gave back to me what I had given her all those years before.
Stunned to silence for two months after his brother's death by drowning, the great poet William Wordsworth recovered to write some of his most flawless poetry, including this line: "A deep distress hath humanized my soul." And so this experience with my daughter has me.
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