Only a man who’s been burned knows what hell is truly like - Sandor Clegane
Twenty years ago today, I almost died.
I came home from presiding over a successful meeting of my Masonic Lodge, did some work and went to
bed. I woke the next morning in the Intensive Care Burn Unit of the Erie County Medical Center. I wasn’t expected to survive the first twenty-four hours. Ten days later I was released.
It is that simple, and that complex. It was the worst nightmare that you can imagine. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It almost killed me, but it saved my life.
To understand how I can look back on a traumatic event as a blessing, you have to know my life as of April 21, 1994. I was wretched.
Wretch•ed adjective: wretched; comparative adjective: wretcheder; superlative adjective: wretchedest
1. (of a person) in a very unhappy or unfortunate state.
"I felt so wretched because I thought I might never see you again"
synonyms: miserable, unhappy, sad, heartbroken, grief-stricken, sorrowful, sorry for oneself, distressed, desolate, devastated, despairing, disconsolate, downcast, dejected, crestfallen, cheerless, depressed, melancholy, morose, gloomy, mournful, doleful, dismal, forlorn, woebegone.
And that was on a good day.
Whatever I had hoped for from a legal career had never materialized. Maybe it was never to be. There is no question that our generation of lawyers was ill-prepared by our schools for the reality of practicing in the latter years of the Twentieth Century, but I am not certain that the type of skills needed were in my nature.
I love the law – nestling myself among the stacks at the library, researching the arcane constructs and fashioning cogent arguments from my findings. I hated the practice of law. I hated the clients and the judges. I feared the telephone. I hated the esoteric paperwork requirements. I hated myself for not doing my best.
I was usually broke. I’d take that small retainer knowing that I’d never see the remainder. I had to eat. The bulk of my income came from work I did for the firm I shared space with. The problem with that was that on their list of payment priorities I ranked somewhere below renewing their subscription to Popular Proctology magazine.
Aside from the professional, the personal was grim as well. I had been suffering undiagnosed and untreated for severe depression for a decade, perhaps longer. Alcohol makes one feel better short term, but long term it makes things worse. I finally did get some treatment, but only because I was hauled before the Attorney Grievance Committee because I couldn’t pay my registration fees. A Good Samaritan hooked me up with a part of the Bar Association that helps with shrinks and med. Too little too late.
Romantic life? Heh. Twenty years spent in life-consuming unrequited love. Another ten wallowing in self-loathing for screwing up something real and special. A few years earlier opening myself to possibilities, only to get blindsided by rejection. Three strikes, you’re out.
I had accepted that I would be alone.
On April 21, 1994, I was broke, carless and being evicted. Many days I couldn’t get out of bed. The only future I saw for myself involved a cardboard box under the Skyway.
I came home that evening in a rare good mood. I had won a hard fought battle in my Lodge – the capstone of my year as Master. I had a line on a car, and the owner let me drive it home that night. I did some work, had some drinks, watched some tube and went to sleep (On the pullout couch in the spare room. My waterbed had quit months before.)
I don’t remember much after that. Vague images of smoke and heat and flames. Indistinct memories of fear. I don’t remember calling 911, though a friend who heard the tape said I was quite lucid.
I certainly don’t remember refusing to jump out the window, as claimed by the first responders, but then my doctor said by that point I had so many toxins in my system that I’m lucky my brain was functioning at all.
A cigarette left smoldering in an ashtray, possibly knocked over by a cat, they think. A cat saved my life. Of that I am sure. Deep gouges on the chest where he woke me. Both died. Their little lungs couldn’t take what I was breathing.
I have a brief recollection of being in the receiving area of the burn unit - a bright open area with water hoses, where they cut away my clothes my first real memory is when I awoke in my hospital bed tubes coming out from almost every orifice of my body.
I was not expected to make it through the night. I did. The external burns were minor – picked up when I was carried out. My lungs were a mess: smoke, fumes, pieces of vinyl from hundreds of burning record albums. Spent a week coughing up hunks of plastic.
I really didn’t want to see anyone while I was recovering, except for family, but somehow my friends managed to get in. One dear friend managed to bluff her way in by suggesting that she was my sister-in-law. I’m glad she was that for at least one day.
That isn’t to say that I have no positive memories from my stay in hospital. Several humorous moments are still worth telling stories about.The self-important ophthalmologist. The way Curtis the ward orderly warned me about what my first solid waste would look like.
But perhaps most memorable was just before I released. Asking very attractive nurse who taken care of me to go out. She responded: why should I do that? I replied “because you’ve already seen all my shortcomings”.
I spent a week or so recuperating with my parents and then moved into the home of two really generous friends who allowed me to stay there as I regained the use of my lungs. Long walks in their large yard and along the canal.
That was the beginning of the series of things that began happening increasingly positive.
Much was lost in the fire. Irreplaceable memories things that I shall always miss. Merlyn and Gandalf the cats who saved me.
But when I finally made it to the self-storage unit my friends had rented in my name, to place all the other things they recovered from the fire, I was moved to tears by what I found. Things I thought lost forever still here.
Just before I overstayed my welcome at my friend’s house, my largest single client bought out my contract lump sum – a contract I couldn’t fulfill that I wanted. This allowed me to rent an apartment and move out on my own once again.
The law firm I had shared space with contacted me about writing an appellate brief I had done the lower Court papers on. I continued to do piecemeal work for them over the next couple of years - still able to exercise my legal chops, but able to set my own hours show up in civilian clothes.
The same time I got a part-time job working for the statewide publication for the Masons of New York. This not only provided income but valuable lessons, not the least of which is never go to work for an organization of which you are a member. The line between employee and member is often blurred.
Because I was back to firm, I was once again a participant in the office Christmas parties. Following one such party, in 1995, Trish and I went from being colleagues and friends to more than that. We were engaged two months later and married later that same year. Happily for 17 years.
Shortly after we were married I received a phone call which forever changed my life. It was my friend Fred, who sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. (There will be more about Fred in the near future.) To put it simply, he invited me to come cook with him, and I did.
That job lasted only a brief time, but actually being in the industry got me an introduction to the people at DACC’s. Trailing led to an invitation of employment. I quickly accepted. In a few months’ time I was promoted to sous chef.
While working there I came home one day to find out that the “test” was positive. In about 20 minutes the two of us went from me offering to hold her hand during the procedure to having names picked out. Ellie was born nine months later. Eighteen months after that, Alison arrived..
I moved on from DACC to Warren’s/Zuzon’s, and then back together with Fred at Fredi. My time working with Fred was among the best times I’ve had in my cooking career. But it soon became clear that I had to make a choice between being a parent and being cook. I chose the former. I spent the next ten years enjoying being Mr. Mom, with occasional forays catering with Fred or subbing in the restaurant when he fired another Chef.
My current job at Premier came out of nowhere. I’ve written about that before and have nothing to add other than I’m still enjoying it and it’s the perfect job for me.
My daemons were not exorcised by the fire. They’re under control now better than ever, but the fight continues. And I didn’t have the nightmare last night – the one filled with conflagration.
I had a good day. I drove home from work today and came home. I have a family who I adore, who I’m pretty sure adore me back. The friends who helped me out twenty years ago remain good friends, and more have been added to the list of people that I love and trust. I have financial security (to the extent anyone can) and roof over my head.
I even have cats.
A pretty good place to be as I enter the second quarter of my life.