*Note: this blog post was published on February 18th 2013. I had the date in the first sentence marked at February 18, 1979 when in fact it should have been February 19, 1979* *
On February 19, 1979 on a cold winter morning 34 years ago… it was a typical start to the day for my grandmother even though she was about 64 years old then. She made her way to the barn that day to go feed and milk the cows. That day she was also caring for three of her young grand-daughters, so she took them to the barn with her.
Grandma also took care of her household pretty much by herself along with a few of her children that were still at home. She was a woman of incredible strength and determination. She worked extremely hard and had raised a family of 12 children. My grandfather wasn’t very much in the picture with family life. There were still a few kids living at home. They were now young adults, and she was also caring for her 19-year old son who was severely disabled and living at home. He was my uncle even though he was a year younger than I was. His disability required that he receive total care. He was unable to feed himself, sit, talk or walk, yet he warmed a person’s heart with his laughter. My mother always had a way of making him laugh. He needed care like an infant did. Grandma and a few others in the family that still lived at home gave him the care that he needed.
That morning Grandma headed to the barn. One of her sons who still lived at home stayed in the house with his disabled brother. I can’t recall if anyone else was at home that day. Both were asleep upstairs when she left to go to the barn earlier that morning.
That day something horrific happened and I will never forget… Grandma heard the dogs barking from in the barn so she went outside to tell them to quiet down and that’s when she saw her home that was on fire. She ran to the house in attempt to save her sons from her burning home. She rushed inside her home and tried making her way up the stairs but she couldn’t. In the meantime her adult son had to jump out the 2nd story of their home to save himself. He suffered some burns.
Grandma wasn’t able to get out of the house without serious injuries… she suffered 3rd degree burns to probably half of her body that day, as she tried saving her sons from their burning home. Her son that was disabled, sadly perished in the fire that day.
My husband was working for a local business then (that was before we began dating) when he heard of the fire. Along with his boss and another guy, all volunteer firemen, they jumped in their vehicles and headed down as fast as they could to go and help. When they arrived the ambulance was already there and the fire trucks also. Nothing could be done to save my uncle from the burning home.
My husband recalls that cold winter morning as they poured water on the burning house, they could also see the oil tank on fire and it was venting through one of the openings making a loud whistling noise. Before they knew it the tank exploded creating a massive flame in the shape of a large mushroom. One of the firemen violently extended his arms out when he heard the explosion and he knocked a few of the guys to the ground my husband being one of them. All they could do was watch this flame come back down towards them. It all happened so quickly. My husband said that they could have been killed if the flame had not burnt itself out quickly on the way down. Luckily there were no serious injuries for the guys fighting the fire
At that time I was living in the city and working at a government job. I remember my mother calling me that day to tell me that Grandma was in the hospital and that they didn’t know if she was going to survive because of her serious injuries. My Grandmother’s family all gathered in town that evening. All any of us could do was to pray and let the medical staff do their job in caring for her as best they could. The family didn’t know if their mother would survive, and yet they had to plan a funeral for their young brother.
There’s no doubt that Grandma had the will to live. She was in constant and excruciating pain but yet she fought for her life with everything she had. Her face was severely burned… her arms, her hands, her back and more. She endured many skin grafts where skin was taken from areas on her body that had not been burned and grafted on her body where she had been burned. I don’t recall many of the details yet you think I would since the five months that she spent in the hospital in intensive care and in an isolation unit, I was there almost every single day. I lived only 10-minute walk away from the hospital. After work every day just about I would go and visit her. I felt helpless as I watched her struggle… I saw her in so much pain… I saw her fight for her life… I saw her scream and cry as they poked at her and change dressings and whatever else they had to do to help her heal. Eventually she had to learn to eat again and to feed herself. I saw her attempt to knit at the hospital so she could get her fingers mobile again. Grandma was severely disfigured because of that horrific tragedy that day but yet her spirit was shining through.
It was a while before her family would tell her that her son had perished in the fire that day. Yet as a mother I feel that she must have known that. Losing her son created a huge void in her life.
My grandmother lived for 19 years after that day where she was seriously injured. I still remember doctors telling the family that if their mother had been a little granny that sat at home not being as physically active that without a doubt she would not have survived. But because my grandmother could do the physical work of a man and she took care of a family, home and a severely disabled son… that is what gave her the strength to live through this ordeal. She never gave up. She was a fighter every step of the way.
Within a year or so after coming out of the hospital she had her dream home built like she wanted to do eventually. Grandma often would save gifts that she received at Christmas or on her birthday… she would save them for when she would build her new home one day in the future. Well all those presents were lost that day in the fire.
She was proud of her new home, where she lived with one of her son’s. But not long after this move to her new home, her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she was faced with yet another difficult journey.
Today as I think back to 34 years ago, I don’t know how I did it going to visit her almost every day that she spent in the hospital. I was happy that I lived so close to the hospital that I could just walk over and be with her. Being her oldest grandchild I felt a sense of responsibility. All of her family lived out-of-town an hour or so away, it was not always easy or possible for them to go in everyday.
Grandma was at the hospital for five months in total. Not that this was a difficult thing for me to do, but it is when you feel the pain that someone else is in and there’s nothing you can do to help make any of it better for that person.
I vividly remember the room she was in, the smells, the tools that the nurses had to use to change her dressings on her burns, the bathtub that they eventually were able to sit her in to help loosen off the burned skin. It was all so horrific.
My Grandmother was a survivor and she lived for 19 years after that horrible day 34 years ago. I don’t know of another person close to me to have suffered as much as she did. Yet her spirit still kept shining through everything she did in life.
My Grandmother is my hero… and I miss her dearly!!
Do you have a hero in your life also? We’d love to hear about that person and your story. Please share with us.