I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary that evening, but I wound up in the hospital with a burned hand and, at least in retrospect, a little insight about compassion.
It started after work one day when I had just sat down at the kitchen table with a glass of water to stare at the mail. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my 5 year-old son heading out the back door, busy with a project of some sort.
In a few minutes he was back, stepping up on a foot stool to fill a pitcher with water at the sink. He said nothing and made his away again to the back door.
I followed only to get to the bedroom, but he turned at the door, glared at me and commanded: Stay there!
A private kid’s game, I thought. I walked into the bedroom, pulled off my tie, took my aching feet out of their shoes and then caught an unmistakable whiff of pungent smoke floating in through the window. The dial clicked in my head: Fire!
I flew to the back door just as my son pushed it open, roaring at me: Hurry!
I jumped off the edge of the porch, as I yelled back at him to go to the yard on the other side of the house. I landed in the coarse gravel of the old driveway, ran past a water hose as the thought flashed through my mind – it’s off – and saw smoke coming out of the half-open door of the dilapidated garage we used as a storage shed.
I paused for a second as I thought of the boxes and bedding that must be burning in there and had one instinct – pull the burning junk out.
I knew it wasn’t a good idea to storm into a smoky room, but I did it anyway, and confronted the slow flames eating at a mattress and burning into boxes of stored papers.
I kicked apart the boxes to break up the fuel source and reached for the twin-size mattress. I leaned over it, grabbed the sides and lifted it up in a kind of embrace. I dragged it backwards toward the door but knew I was holding the bulky thing too close to me.
The mattress seemed to spring and twist in my grip, as if it were alive and resisting. I felt my hands getting hot and winced as I breathed in a bit of sharp smoke that I knew must be toxic.
In that moment I felt a quick fear of death. It’s the smoke that gets you, I knew. This was stupid, I thought, but I wouldn’t let go.
I kept struggling with the mattress, dragged it outside the shed and threw it down. It lay there smoldering, a small flame burning on one side, no movement left in it.
I was coughing, staring at my well-burned left hand, with swollen red fingers, soot-covered and bubbled skin, clear fluid seeping here and there, but no pain yet. I was just remembering that I had heard an emergency siren at one point when someone took my arm and led me gently to the street where an ambulance was parked. He was a volunteer and when I looked up I realized he was my dentist. Oh, hi.
Another volunteer came up to me and asked where the fire was since he couldn’t see much from the sidewalk. I pointed the way and then heard my dentist telling me to get inside the ambulance. What, right now? My kids are up there. My wife isn’t back yet. That’s OK, he said, we’re with them.
So I was inside an ambulance for the first and only time in my life and speeding to the hospital. One medic looked at my hand and another asked me about smoke inhalation. He fitted an oxygen mask over my face and leaned me back on the gurney.
I kept thinking, what’s the big deal and felt half embarrassed at all the attention. It hadn’t been much of a fire, and it was mostly out already. It was my fault that I rushed in there and got myself burned.
When I was wheeled into the emergency room, there was suddenly a little crowd of people around me. Someone plunged my hand into a bucket of ice, and the doctor – a good friend – was listening to my heart and lungs with a stethoscope while telling me what a great job I had done in burning my hand.
But my attention was fixed on a nurse who was staring into my eyes with a look of deep empathy and something close to anguish.
“Oh, I’m so sorry that you’ve burned your hand!” This was no polite formula. She really meant it.
I suddenly knew what the phrase “loving kindness” was all about. She was pure compassion in that moment. I stared at the name plate on her chest: Paige __ it said, and I knew I wasn’t ever going to forget the name.
I doubt I had ever felt such a wave of compassion coming toward me, and I remained swept up in it as she described the danger of hot smoke burning the tissues inside your lungs. That was one of the worst problems in burn cases, she said. I’m not sure what else she said. She soon disappeared when it was clear my lungs hadn’t been damaged, and I never saw her again.
Later, after I had been admitted and had a room of my own, my wife arrived. She was upset about my injuries, felt badly that she hadn’t been there but also relieved I hadn’t been more seriously hurt. She was full of affection and concern, and held out to me an enormous sandwich, an offering of pure love that moved me deeply.
She persuaded our son to come visit, though he had been so full of remorse and guilt that he had not wanted to see me at first or talk at all about what had happened. It was her experience as an art therapist that had helped him in that moment. She had gotten him to draw a picture of the fire that had started when he was playing with matches, and that act of expression had freed up his feelings, at least a little.
When he came to see me I was full of assurances that he had not caused me to get burned. I explained that I had run into the garage when I could have stopped, hooked up the garden hose and let the water do the work. We all felt close then, full of love and compassion for each other, but it was much harder for us to receive the feelings than to give what we felt so deeply.
When the nurse had surprised me with her outpouring of feeling, I had been caught off guard, open to anything that might happen. But later, I had time to dwell on the strange moment when I had picked up the burning mattress and held it close.
Its smoky whisper had been like a touch of death, and I had been half tempted to cling to it tightly. I’ve never attempted suicide or planned such a thing, but I’ve often been afraid of an impulsive act of self-destruction. The fire had offered exactly such a moment.
I thought about that in the hospital as the adrenalin rush of crisis wore off, and I could feel the pain of the burned hand at the beginning of its slow healing process. And I could feel the confusion and fear of impulse that could shatter many lives in sudden loss.
That was my barrier to taking in the love and compassion of my family, and I sensed barriers of their own in my wife and son. I had been able to receive compassion from a total stranger when flat on my back, but it was so much harder with my closest loved ones.
Does it have to take a near disaster to lower defenses and open a person enough to feel what is so freely given?