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April 15, 2024

Burn, Baby, Burn

By Pete McArdle

What I discovered about third-degree burns is that they're a real eye-opener. Not my right eye, mind you, which now looks like a hard-boiled egg and stays open all the time, but my mind's eye, that mysterious inner portal to the outside world. That particular window is now wide open, the mysteries of the universe laid bare for my perusal, and frankly, I have to laugh. So much of what I thought I knew was wrong, or at the very least, terribly inaccurate.

Like pain.

You think you know pain but you don't. What you're familiar with is discomfort, hurt, angst and malaise, the sharp little pangs and everyday aches we mistake for suffering.

But spill a few quarts of sizzling-hot cooking oil on your face, chest and hands, and you'll see the beast in all its finery: pure white-hot agony, a pain so exquisite and unbearable that it sucks the very air from your lungs and fills your head with visions of Hell.

And as you roll around on the floor screaming, you'll discover new levels of sensation, a suffering so vast and incandescent that it lights up your world and sears itself permanently into your brain. The kind of pain that's spelled with a capital "P," and that rhymes with "D," and that stands for Death.

Before I burned over a third of my body down to sinew and bone, I was actually afraid of death. I wanted to live to be a hundred, taste all the world had to offer, ride that heady wave of existence all the way to the shore. Death seemed mysterious and terrifying, not to mention potentially long, messy, and painful, like dental treatment: a thing to be put off for as long as possible.

I would imagine most people feel that way, no?

But when your precious flesh is slowly frying, the smell of it not altogether unpleasant, the image you have of Death is no longer the tall, scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. In its place stands a Beautiful Woman, her arms held wide to embrace you, her lush bosom the perfect place to rest your ruined head. Death was in the kitchen that night as I writhed helplessly on the floor, I tried to call out to her but my burned mouth wouldn't work.

She sat in the corner of the ambulance, I recall, I could see her beatific smile through the ice-cold compresses covering my face. And she sat patiently on the windowsill all those months at the Burn Unit, Death did, as lovely as a summer's day. Unable to help myself, my face and hands wrapped up like King Tut, I begged everyone to take me to her, my family, the doctors, the nurses, even the janitor.

"Kill me," I mumbled through the bandages, "For God's sake, kill me!"

But they all shook their heads, their expressions unreadable behind their green surgical masks. And a part of me understood, for they themselves had never known pain like this, they were blissfully unaware of the beast's true nature, how relentless and degrading it can be.

Although I no longer pray for Death, I can still see her warm, lovely visage, her shy special smile. So when the time eventually comes, as it must for all of us, I shall welcome her embrace. For I've learned there are things far worse than Death. Trust me.

Who am I?

The philosophers say we spend our entire lives trying to answer that one simple question. We look hard in the mirror to try and see ourselves, or we look deep into other people's eyes and try to see ourselves there. Or perhaps we stare at photos, or yearbooks, or old family movies where everything seems so much brighter and better than it does now. But despite all the varied images we have available, it seems like an impossible task, knowing oneself, doesn't it?

Well it isn't. All you have to do is douse your face with a liberal quantity of canola oil, pre-heated to four-hundred degrees or so, and who you are suddenly becomes crystal clear. It's that easy!

I look in the mirror at the moonscape of pink, puckered flesh where my thick, somewhat-kinky brown hair used to be and realize I no longer have to worry about bad hair days. Whereas people used to tell me I had nice eyes, now, I guess, they'd say, "My, you have nice eye!" How one baby blue survived the Crisco inferno that devastated my face remains a mystery.

My big, white teeth -- straight as a picket fence, thanks to years of orthodontia -- also escaped the terrible conflagration unscathed. But now my smile's kinda scary with half my lips missing, in fact, it looks like I'm grinning all the time!

So I've learned a valuable lesson and I'll share it with you: we are not our image in the mirror. I am most definitely not the grotesque Halloween mask that stares back at me every morning when I brush my permanently-smiling teeth. I am not the shambling monster that people on the street turn away from, a sudden intake of breath telling me they've caught a good glimpse of my deep-fried features, a new bounce in their step confirming it.

I am something else, thank God! Something that can see, speak and hear, even without an external ear on either side of my head. It seems the hot oil seared the ear canals shut, thus protecting the eardrums and the small delicate bones of the middle ear. When a surgeon eventually cut away the scarring, I had perfect hearing once again, in stereo no less. And once I could hear again, my speech improved dramatically. Go figure.

My point is, don't look for self-knowledge in a mirror, nor should you look for it in other people's eyes: they see only what they want to see. To see who you really are, you must look within. I do -- I have to -- and it keeps me sane.

Now the behaviorists say we spend our lives looking not for self-knowledge but for self-gratification. Before my unfortunate culinary adventure, I was, to quote my dearly departed Mom, "handsome in a homely kind of way." And though many -- O.K., most -- women were less than enthralled with my meager exterior, there was always one or two who thought I was just fine the way I was. And when I made them moan and arch their backs in bed, why, they liked me even more.

There was something missing beyond the physical though, I couldn't seem to make that special connection that people shout about while dancing in the rain. True love eluded me. But I must admit, I sure did like the sex.

And now?

The percentages are still the same, the vast majority of women I meet still pass me by, only at a much faster clip than before. Heck, some of them run!

But as strange and incredible as it may seem, there's still an occasional woman who'll give me the time of day, as it were. Maybe they think they're Mother Theresa, helping the truly hopeless, or perhaps they have a soft spot for mangy, three-legged dogs. It could be they suffer from low self-esteem and think a cripple like me is all they deserve. But whatever their reasons for being with me, when the lights are off in the bedroom, I still feel like a man. And at the height of passion, during those precious few seconds of ecstasy, I forget all the pain, all the scars, all the deep humiliation. In the dark, I feel whole again, and in that moment, I feel beautiful.

Of course I still haven't found that special someone, I'm still searching for that happy-ever-after feeling, the stuff that Blake, Keats, and Shelly wrote rhymes about. Maybe love's the one mystery I will never fully understand. But thanks to sex, long, sweaty, oh-my-God sex, I still know what it's like to feel beautiful. And in a pinch, I can feel beautiful simply by closing my eyes. And if I can, so can you.

Now I was not the most compassionate guy in the past, far from it. I was egotistical and selfish, concerned only with my music and overly proud of my achievements, all of them made possible by my nimble, concert-pianist hands. Less-accomplished people were slow, careless and lazy in my eyes, clearly children of a lesser God.

As I look down at the sad melted stumps where my highly-educated fingers used to be, I have to laugh. They're good for nothing now, my hands, I can't play music, type on the computer, or even comb the hair in the back of my head, what little remains. I use a hooked prosthesis to brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Try that some time!

I still love music passionately -- and like beauty, the music lives within me -- but I'll never play the piano again. Or any other instrument for that matter, although my physical therapist suggested I could always learn to play the kettle drums with my stumps. I've been working with Mohammed, my P.T. (and undoubtedly a Grand Inquisitor in a previous life) since the very beginning, and his utter lack of sympathy has spawned a new sensitivity in me.

I'm now terribly sad for the blind, the deaf and the wheelchair-bound; my heart goes out to the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill; I grieve for those who grieve. It's no longer all about me, you see.

Fact is, I like to volunteer at the Morrissey Burn Center where my shocking appearance gives hope to those less-damaged, which is just about everyone. And when I do meet a patient as bad off as me, I give them Mohammed-like advice, pointing out that they can always join the circus or try for the lead in a low-budget horror flick.

After a moment or two of disbelief, they inevitably laugh. And laughter is the best medicine, although personally, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Oxycontin.

So maybe I can't play Chopin's Etude in C-minor before a packed house at Carnegie Hall any more. But I can still give a horribly-charred human being hope. And in doing so, I give myself hope, a gift doubly-blessed, as The Bard might say.

I'm simply a much better person now, I've had all the petty selfishness burned right out of me. My eyes, er, eye, is wide open, I finally get it. Now perhaps there are easier paths to enlightenment, but I wouldn't know.

What I do know -- pay close attention here -- is that there is no "fair," there is no "safe," and for sure, no "secure." One moment you're salivating at the thought of some golden, deep-fried calamari, and one slip of your talented, concert-pianist hands later, you're lying in a puddle of scalding-hot oil, howling like a wolf pup caught in a trap.

Life is inherently unpredictable, it can turn on you in the time it takes to say "Shit!" As it was, I only got as far as "Shi -- " before the cooking oil showered down on me, although in retrospect that moment seemed to last forever. In my dreams, I somehow scoot out of harm's way, or turn to helium and float away, or turn to steel like some comic-book hero, anything to avoid the wall of molten agony coming straight for my kisser. In the real world, however, all I did was say "Shi -- ," never did get to " -- it!" And the rest, as they say, is history.

Still, I'm living, breathing proof that life remains wonderful, no matter what. It's a precious gift, regardless of how you look or feel, in spite of what you can or cannot do. It all boils down to how you look at it. "All boils down," get it?

So please, open your eyes and see all the wonders around you, and more important, within you. Know that you're beautiful, let the soul inform the flesh. See the beauty in others, feel free to lend a hand, and for God's sake, laugh!

And if, after reading this, you still can't appreciate the vast, amazing, stars-a-blazing universe Our Creator has seen fit to give us, I've got a barely-used deep-fryer you could borrow.

You can do it the hard way or the easy way. S'up to you.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-12-16
1 Reader Comments
01:42:38 AM
Solid work, Mr. McArdle. The writing is compact and precise. The imagery is jarring. The narrator is both believable and unsettling. And the pacing is perfect.
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