"Son burned, on the way to hospital, not life threatening...".
That's what was written on the pink "While You Were Out" phone message handed to me by the office aide. I had just answered an unexpected knock at my classroom door; unexpected because this was a night class at a very tiny community college, and a summer night class at that. Indeed, this evening, mine was the only classroom occupied in the 30 year old portable classroom module impressively labeled the "Business and Technology Building".
I caught a glint of silver movement out of the corner of my eye as a few head's bobbed up and then back down. My class of mostly senior citizens had an hour left in that evening's "Computers for the Fearful" class and were busily attempting to insert graphics and clip art into a document. The normal cross-talk had faded away, and several pairs of eyeglasses were now focused on my whispered conversation with the office aide.
I couldn't seem to focus on the entire message.
" ...son burned"
- why couldn't I visualize what that meant?
"...on the way to hospital"
How could they be "on the way" and still get a message to me at the college? One is either driving or one is there, but "on the way?" This just didn't make sense.
- surely they wouldn't call an ambulance, our home was miles from the nearest town. If the burns were minor, Dad would just drive him to the hospital himself.
And...and...what? Do I come to the hospital, now?
...how bad can it be,?
...I can't leave my class unattended!
...what kind of mom am I, anyway...?
The kid's only fifteen years old...
I just saw them at the house, no one was burning anything...
...how could he be burned?
A 20 year old memory intruded and increased my panic. I could clearly see myself, a 12 year-old latch key kid frantically scrambling to finish a last minute dinner and scooping a spoonful of boiling mashed potato right onto my hand. I vividly remembered the bubbly mess that resulted.
I retraced my steps after arriving home this evening. It couldn't be a cooking accident, dinner had been prepared and eaten before I left for school. Besides, no male in our household got near the range unless food was prepared and ready to be served.
What else would he be burning? A candle in his room? No, he doesn't have any candles. A wood burning kit? No, that had gone to the Goodwill years before. There was a glue gun floundering around in a craft drawer somewhere, but even if he managed to somehow glue the gun directly to his body, he wouldn't be seriously injured.
I continued to stare at the stupid pink "While You Were Out" note, hoping to discern additional information.
"...son burned...on the way to the hospital..."
The only thing he ever burns is garbage in the burn barrel outside. Another memory of my own youthful stupidity intruded. I was a fire-bug kid and would grab any opportunity to participate in a "legal" burn in our rural community.
Burning trash in the burn barrel provided just such an occasion. The fire would burn wonderful colors of yellow, green and red, depending on the particular mix of combustibles. Wonder Bread bags burned a particularly fine shade of blue, I remembered. Add the occasional exploding aerosol can, and it was nearly as entertaining as Fourth of July.
Except for the time a hair spray can near the top of the pile exploded, blasting burning plastic all over my new blouse and blowing tiny flecks of cinders into my eyes. Altogether a painful, and expensive, experience.
I shook off the memory with a quick prayer that son had inherited my smile, and not my judgment.
Still, I couldn't stop staring at the pink note -- While You Were Out ...son burned
...son burned...on the way to hospital.
"Oh God", I offered up a quick prayer, "please don't let it be bad."
I felt a touch on my arm as the office aide brought me out of my daze, "...not life threatening, it says."
I blinked back unexpected tears and shooed the aide away - I would finish the class.
I tried for a reassuring smile as I turned back to face my students. It failed as I saw curiosity, concern and fear reflected in the faces of both the women and the men as they waited to see what I would do. I tried, unsuccessfully I think, to convey my confidence that my son had experienced a small accident that did not warrant my immediate departure. I don't know who I thought I was fooling -- it certainly wasn't my students.
Adult learners are different from other students in many ways, not the least of which is broad life experience. They will let you bluster your way through technical issues and allow you to take the lead with computer tips and tricks, but when it comes to life issues, they're way ahead of you.
These were fathers and brothers and sisters and wives with close personal knowledge that bad news doesn't always give you fair warning, sometimes it sneaks up and jumps right in your lap.
They knew perfectly well that, mostly, there is no justice in the universe. Bad things happen to good people - a lot more often than you might think.
I could tell by the way they avoided looking directly in my eyes, by the way they held their mouths, by the tone of voice they, too, were worried. This could be a very bad thing.
I don't know what I taught. I tried to continue the lesson, but realized I couldn't keep track of where we were and moved us out to search the Internet. All I remember is a vague recollection of the room so quiet I could hear random clicks and murmurs, but mostly I was trying not to think of my son.
Finally the clock clicked over to the top of the hour. No students lingered after class for additional tutoring, no one stopped to chat. Everyone quietly gathered their notes and coats and books and headed for their cars, most offering words of encouragement or managing a simple touch as they passed.
Though nearly two miles from the college, I got to the hospital in under two minutes. Suddenly, I was sitting, frozen, in our van in the hospital parking lot. I didn't run right in, but just sat there, staring at the glass double doors leading to the emergency entrance and feeling cold fingers of panic squeezing my heart.
Afraid I may never move, I rushed out of the car and through those imposing glass doors. I could feel the furtive glances of others scattered around the reception area, a mom here, a husband there... family members fretting nervously and glancing repeatedly at the locked entrance to the emergency room. I studied the receptionist's face as I gave her my name, hoping to discern the degree of panic I should feel. A true veteran who would do well at the any of the local card rooms, I gleaned nothing from her neutral smile. She pressed the buzzer and I felt the door release under my hand.
Tired, pinched faces returned my anxious glance as I approached and passed by beds surrounded by hospital blue curtains
... a child sobbing softly as a nurse applied ice to her arm
... a teenage boy glancing over his mother's head with the teary eyes of a little child.
None of these the face I sought, and I pushed myself further into the room until only one curtain remained.
When I rounded the last corner it was both better and worse than I imagined. My beautiful, wonderful, first-born son was stretched out on a too-small bed, surrounded by his dad and grandmother. His face was swollen and shiny with burn cream and tears; loose white bandages covered his chest and soft little tummy. One hand was elevated and covered in gauze while a male nurse applied sterile ice water from the largest eye-dropper I had ever seen. I stood helplessly at the bedside, unsure what I could hold, where I could touch and what comfort I could give. My husband let his worry show in his face as he stood behind the head of the bed, and I felt my mom grab my arm as my knees began to quiver.
I thought I was being strong and brave, until I noticed a nurse subtly pushing a chair into the backs of my legs. Mostly to ease their fears, I had a seat and demanded some answers. If there is one thing I have learned over 15 years of motherhood it is that anger will abate tears, even if only temporarily.
Dad provided the short story, as son drew a few ragged breaths and tried to compose himself. Seems that at 15 (and a half, mom), he still needed to learn first hand that lesson about no gasoline on a fire. Dad had instructed him to go out and put the garbage into the truck bed to be taken to the transfer station on Saturday. Our Bub just couldn't resist burning it in the burn barrel. Also, even at 15, he didn't understand the significance of the thin tendril of smoke rising up from beneath the bag he stuffed into the barrel. His concern was that it was beginning to rain, and he wanted to be sure the bag (evidence) was thoroughly burned. To help the fire along, he filled a pop can with gas and poured it into the burn barrel. When the gasoline hit the hot coals below, it exploded.
While listening to the story I was examining his suddenly six-foot tall body trying to determine the extent of his injuries. His shirt was burned off, thus the blistering bubbles on his chest and belly. Thank God and every fire safety class since kindergarten that he had the presence of mind to drop and roll. His basketball shorts sort of melted, but they protected his legs pretty good. Most of the damage was to the hand holding the pop can, his chest, neck, and both cheeks. Glasses kept his eyes from being burnt, though he lost most of his eyebrows.
I noticed the hair brushed back from his forehead looked like that of a Barbie doll I had once attempted to recoif, pretty much melted looking. I was hoping that might mean a switch from long and goofy style to a nice clean flat-top, but enough hair remained that those hopes were short-lived.
By the time son made his way into the house, he had peeled down to just his under shorts and began hollering about having done something really, really stupid. Since burns don't always look serious initially, it was only as his big, blonde, nearly-a-man son began to weep uncontrollably that dad realized this would require more than just kitchen first-aide and wisely dialed 911.
Out in the country, 911 calls are answered by the local volunteer fire station. In our case, the station is located just two miles from our house. To compensate for the short trip, however, they respond with every piece of emergency equipment the district owns.
Neighbors alarmed by the two fire engines, aid car and ambulance bouncing down our dirt lane assumed our woods were on fire, and gathered near the mouth of the forest. Twenty minutes later they were contemplating if they had enough garden hose between them to damp down the property if their worst fears were realized. Only as the fire trucks meandered back out of the lane, followed by the aid car and the family sedan did they realize it was an emergency of a different kind.
I watched son's face as the story unfolded. Hearing his story in third person brought home to him how terribly close we had come to losing him. As I stroked a part of his arm not covered in burn cream, tears welled up in his eyes and his chin began to tremble before he buried his face in his father's arm. Thinking I had hurt his arm, his dad leaned in close, asking him to please tell us if we cause him pain. Son's shoulders shook uncontrollably as he choked out something into his dad's ear. Dad shushed him and hugged him and whispered comforting words as son slowly composed himself.
Later, I asked my husband what I had done that upset him so.
"Oh, that wasn't it at all", he said. "As we were talking, he thought of something you told him a long time ago, and was feeling bad about it."
I searched my memory for some motherly admonishment I could have given that would bring a 15 year-old, not-quite-a-man to tears.
"You told him", my husband continued, "that if he ever did anything that would result in bringing us to the hospital, you would never get over it, and when he saw your face when you came around that curtain, he remembered it and thought he had hurt you for life."
Which of course, he did.