A special occasion was underway. Only a special occasion would motivate me to get out the silver. That was evident by the condition of the silver.
Tarnished: A Story of Surviving & of Living Hope
Not a shimmer of shiny. Not a glimpse of reflection.
The pieces passed down to me from my family, & the others, which were given to me for my wedding, did not reflect the special & valued they were intended to bear. Not in my house. I received the gifts knowing what a treasure they were & understanding the significance of the gift. However, they aren’t pieces I use on a daily basis; therefore, I continued moving them over the years until they ended up on the top of my laundry room cabinets.
I gave no attention to these precious pieces of silver. I gave no effort in finding a way to utilize them here & there. Instead, they just sat. Untouched. Unused. Unpolished.
Only a need in decorating for a twenty-fifth anniversary party prompted me to climb up to grab them off the top of those laundry room cabinets & begin the tedious & tiresome work of bringing back the beauty of the silver which set untouched, unused, unpolished.
It took some time. Much time actually. But as I stood at the sink, rubbing the cleaner on the surfaces of the pieces, washing away the corrosion & polishing back the glamor, I realized the necessity of this process, not only with platters & pitchers, but with thoughts, opinions & perceptions.
Mine own to be exact.
I lived tarnished. For a long time.
It began on a beautiful spring day in 1988.
My brother Jon was nine-years-old & held every ounce of my admiration. Although never in a million years would I have admitted to that fact. He was twenty-six months older than me & not one memory I had made was without him.
We lived in the country, being raised on the one hundred sixty acres our great grandparents left to my grandma. Grandma lived right next door to us. Mom & Dad had built a house, shaped like a barn, in the same place as where my great grandpa’s barn had been before it burned to the ground.
Those events occurred before my birth, but I reaped the benefit of them—growing up with a field across the dirt road, another to the north & east, & Grandma, there across the driveway on the west side of our house.
Jon & I spent our childhood with the opinion we could do anything. By “we,” I really mean Jon.
I assisted in holding hammers & nails making a wooden clubhouse sign, although not surprisingly, the little sister’s name didn’t get included on it. I tied strings & fetched the scissors when the grand idea of frog dissections arose. I stood up to any dare imaginable, from downing Pepto-Bismol to outlasting him in the breath-holding challenge, & perhaps the grossest dare of all, eating a mud pie.
We were kids in the country. No neighborhood children to chum up with, we were all each other had.
We were close - Best friends truly.
A Day Like Every Other
That April spring day unfolded as every normal day before it. We went to school. Returned home off the bus. Completed our homework. Put on our play clothes. Did our chores & then outside we went.
It wasn’t unusual for us to ride our motorcycle after school. As long as our responsibilities were fulfilled we could play. But this day we had chatted up a plan on the bus ride home & we were eager to get to it.
We asked Grandma if we could ride down to our friends. That was a no-go. But Grandma rarely told us “no.” I believe she offered a compromise, & what seemed like a generous offer—to ride around the farm, as everyone in our family called the land.
This would not do. We had already made plans. So, we wore Grandma down until we were granted permission to go.
Jon & I never talked when riding. We sang. We sang songs like She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain or I’ve Been Working on The Railroad. We arrived to my friend’s house where Jon dropped me off & then he went on down a few more houses to see his friends. Before I knew it, he was back & it was time to go home.
Disappointed the fun was over, & disgruntled at his bossiness about leaving, I swung my legs over the motorcycle, wrapped my arms around his waste & we left for home.
We pulled out on the dirt road behind a small red pick-up truck. There was such an urgency to get home, that we followed right behind in the cloud of dust the truck created. It was impossible to see & the dust burned our eyes.
A Day Like Every Other - Until Everything Changed
Jon kept swerving to the left & the right. I laid my left cheek against his back trying to shield my eyes from the dirt. Jon’s last swerve to the left we were met with an oncoming truck. Worlds collided on that dirt road marking devastation & tragedy in our lives.
Our bodies flew, a fire ignited.
I was within the flame & could see the blur it contained.
My face felt so very hot. I never remember feeling like my body was on fire, but I do remember feeling the intense heat on my face. Then the memory of being grabbed under my arms & pulled away from the fire. The driver of the truck was the first hero in my story, using a blanket to put out the fire burning my body.
A helicopter transported me from the rural dirt road to the nearest burn unit. There emergent medical treatment commenced. An assessment determined the injury. Third degree burns, also know as full-thickness burns, covering eighty-seven percent of my body’s surface. Then a chest x-ray revealed further damage.
A total transection to the descending thoracic aorta. The main artery delivering blood to my body had been ripped from the force of impact. Six hours of open heart surgery, removing the left fourth rib to access the area of injury & avoiding the burns to my chest, were required for attempt at repair.
Against All Odds
One hundred forty. That is another number. It is the percentage calculated from my burn & heart injuries. It is the percentage my parents were praying against. The number that quantified my chances of dying.
She may not make it. But I did.
She may not walk again. But I do.
The odds that I lived are beyond calculation.
The journey included a potentially fatal diagnosis of peritonitis, which presented additional threats to survival, surgeries that surpassed my dad’s one hundred count, & endless hours of physical therapy to name just a few.
But life, like the silver up on my laundry room cabinets, was tarnished.
Tarnished when my parents sat in the intensive care unit by my hospital bed a week after the accident reading notes my brother’s second grade class had written about him. Telling me how loved he was, how beautiful his funeral was & all the people who were there—his Boy Scout troop, his teachers, many of our friends from school. But not me. I wasn’t there. In those moments I so greatly wished I had passed from this life with him on that dirt road.
Tarnished when I returned to life outside the hospital, a life where scarred skin is ugly & little girls who don’t have hair are weird. My perception of myself was being formed from the responses my seven-year-old self experienced. To adults I was a survivor, but to kids I was different.
I spent years corroding on the inside, years pulling off the brave-little-girl role on the outside bearing far deeper scars within.
In the early teen years, my tarnished state transitioned to an eating disorder. My internal pain so desperately needed an escape. In my world, where what I knew was pain is gain, the notion of inflicting such harm seemed helpful.
Tarnished but not forgotten.
Every prayer prayed over my life was a token in the bank account of hope. Hope that there would one day, at some place, be triumph over tragedy. Hope that the difficult days would not define them all. Hope that joy, happiness, & fulfillment had a fighting chance.
That hope was the silver cleaner to my tarnished life.
Through the darkest, most empty, painful places of my heart, I began to cling to a living hope that while life would never be the same, while I would live with loss & scars, life could still be good.
Life was not about surviving. It had to be more than existing, like tarnished silver up on a cabinet. Life is meant to be lived. Lived polished & shiny. Lived special. Lived valued. Life is a gift, with all the imperfections it contains, & today I’m cherishing it as the treasure it is, not just for me but for Jon as well.
Making the most of these days for two.
About The Author - Heather Meadows
Heather Meadows is a wife, mom to four kiddos, burn survivor, writer, public speaker, & NICU nurse.
She serves events, conferences, schools, businesses, banquets & churches through inspirational & motivational speaking & is currently writing a personal memoir about persevering through life’s painful places.