When I was 19 years old, I burned myself with an iron.
Twenty years later, it's funny to think of myself ironing. My mother ironed every day, everything--tshirts, even. My grandmother had one of those old fashioned irons--no cords, just pounds of iron heavy in your hand when you heated it over a fire and hoped no one startled you. They used to iron sheets. Why did anyone do that? To kill vermin, I suppose. Me, on the other hand, what was I doing? It was summer. I was 19, home from college, looking for a summer job. I wasn't going anywhere special that day. I had one of those portable ironing boards you place on the floor. The phone rang, and I moved my arm to answer it. It was such a small movement, something you do multiple times a day, every day. My boyfriend said hello and I gasped from the pain. I had placed the iron standing up on the board, and my arm went straight against it. "Oh my God. I have to go." I hung up the phone.
This was no minor burn. The burn immediately broke, and bled. It covered almost my entire forearm. My mother lived in a tiny 3 room apartment, and she was in the galley kitchen. I ran in, stoic as always, not crying, but grasping my arm. I told her I had burned myself. She looked at me blankly and said "I'm baking a pie."
I did not know what to say to that.
I waited for her to react, to realize, but she didn't. My brother was visiting home as well. He had graduated from college and was in grad school. He was 22. He too looked in astonishment at our mother. And then he said "Uh, OK. Katy, let's go. I'll take you to the hospital." We drove to the emergency room; we might have talked, we might not have--I don't remember. I grasped my arm as hard as I could so that I could feel some pain that was not the pain I was really feeling. And isn't that how it is with everything?
Back in those days, with the way health insurance worked, the emergency room was not a place you could visit lightly. I was put on the phone and forced to talk to an insurance company representative and self-diagnose how bad the burn was. I was not the right person to ask, with my high tolerance for pain and assumption that it could always be much worse than it is. They sent us away, to an immediate care center. Once there, the nurse was aghast that they hadn't treated me at the hospital. She scrubbed the burn, dressed it, told me I was lucky, as it was very close to third degree, and gave me instructions on how to take care of it at home.
All my life I've feared being a burn victim. For as long as I can remember, it has been my worst fear. Cancer hasn't changed that. Burning, my loved ones burning, the pain, the numbness, the smoke, the disfigurement. This burn, however painful, was so small. It covered just a quarter of one of my arms. But when my mother, who had come out of that pie-stupor, tried to change the dressing, she was so gentle with me that I knew it wouldn't work. Her dabbing at my skin would not get the job done. I remembered how the nurse had scrubbed, how tears sprang to my eyes. I took the cloth from my mother and scrubbed that burn myself. The pain was excruciating. I had to bite a toothpick in order to clean it. My body changed temperature, I broke out in a sweat, I felt nauseous. I felt weak, pathetic. They had warned me of how burns, no matter how seemingly insignificant, impact the body. It isn't voluntary. How do people survive major burns, I wondered? I thought of a newspaper article I had read as a child that haunts me still. A young girl, burned in a house fire, her nose burned off, her lips gone, her entire body burned. She sat in her disfigured state with her arms crossed in defiance on the school bus where no one would sit near her nor talk to her. I asked my mother why she was so angry and she told me "look at what she does every day, what she has to do. Maybe being angry is what it takes to do that." I saw anger differently after that.
Who was I, with this tiny, insignificant burn? Why couldn't I sleep without holding my arm straight out? I could not let the lightest sheet touch my skin. My boyfriend slept with me in a twin bed in that tiny apartment and made himself smaller next to me so that I could lie with my arm outstretched. The next day, he changed the dressing for me--he was the only one besides me who could do it. I still remember that.
For years, that burn came back every summer. With the return of the freckles on my face, a perfect pink triangle (half the size of the full face of an iron) would appear. It got fainter with time. I thought it might be permanent, an involuntary tattoo. Eventually, it disappeared. Ten years later, maybe, fifteen? I don't know. One day I looked, and it was gone.
When I was 35, I burned myself with radiation treatments.
It's funny, five years later, to think of everyone's surprise at how my body handled radiation. The fair, freckled redhead, who barely burned, well not until the end, when the sunburn spread across her chest. The sunburn not caused by the sun, nor an iron, nor a fire. The sunburn that altered the DNA of the flesh it touched. I remember the radiation technician who compared me to a Thanksgiving turkey, surmising that I didn't burn because I had no fat on my chest, and just think, when you deep fry that turkey, it's the fat that burns hottest. I remember running into the house after my last treatment and ripping off the radiation tape, and some of my skin with it, and not even caring.
It has been years, and that burn comes back every summer. There is no sunscreen that can match it. After the long Chicago winter and this year the long Chicago rain, I will find sun and water again but I will also find that burn faintly spreading over my chest. I will be lying there, reading a book in the sand, and my husband will stop building castles with the kids, walk over to me, and point: "Kate. Your chest."
Oh right, I say, putting more sunscreen on, knowing it won't make a difference. My chest will be twice as dark as any other part of my body. It's my job to accept that, his job to casually notice it, my body's job to remember.
There is no larger lesson here. This is just to say. The light and the heat are beautiful and deadly. The warmth gives us life and the heat brings our greatest pain. The beach and the quiet and the perfect waves and the bald eagle flying over a rainbow the evening before the Aurora Borealis appeared coexist with the rawness and the illness and the reminder of what it all means.
Everyone has it, I suppose, all of us have this burn. On some of us, it is simply easier to see. Our bodies tell us every day, they try and try to remind us. All of us have that tenderness that makes us cringe from the most loving touch. All of us are marked.