THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED
Christmas morning December 25, 1948
It’s early. Cold. There is deep snow in the mountains.
My mother is in the kitchen making biscuits for breakfast. She is 36 years old, and six months pregnant with me. Four of my siblings have already left home.
Dad got up early, built a fire in the fireplace to warm the house and is outside clearing snow.
In the living room, my brother, Jimmy, wearing a new flannel robe, a gift he had unwrapped the night before, stands with his back to the fireplace.
My sister is asleep in her bedroom.
Mom begins pouring buttermilk from a green crockery pitcher into a flour mixture. She hears a scream. She rushes with the pitcher into the adjoining room. My brother is engulfed in flames.
She grabs him dousing him with buttermilk.
Pawing and slapping at the flames, she pulls him close to her belly, extinguishing the fire with her own body, absorbing the trauma, the pain, the fear. She yells for help.
“Paul! Paul! Oh God Paul!”
She manages to lay him on a rug in the middle of the room and roll him up.
Dad runs in.
My sister wakes up to turmoil.
Swiftly, braving the cold and snow, the four of them leave the house, get in a car, and rush 15 miles to the nearest doctor. The left side of my brother is badly burned.
In due course, the doctor must graft skin from his right chest to his back. During each successive trip to see the doctor, one by one his fingers fall off. Eventually, he looses the majority of his left hand. With a great deal of strength and courage for a six-year-old boy, he wills himself to live, but he is physically scarred for life.
Mom’s daily routine changes; care of my brother becomes paramount. For the next three months, she tends his burns.
Hester Stapleton moves in to help with the tasks.
Spring arrives. On a Tuesday morning in March, on the dark of the moon, my mother gives birth to me. I am heavy and on fire. The mountains light up.