Saving his daughter, Auguste is burned severely. Tragically, shame keeps him from her.
|Auguste's first gazed at his princess when she was only minutes old. Her helpless cry let him know it was his sacred duty to protect her. When tragedy struck, he judged himself the worst kind of failure. A proper father would have made sure she had a mother. He blamed himself for that loss.
The night of the fire that changed their lives left horrific memories. It was like watching a frightful black and white film. He could still hear the terrifying sound of his child gasping for air. The bedroom door was shut but a black ghost seemed to be reaching from underneath the door.
The two of them shared a room. Angela, seven years old, was a asthmatic and now she was wheezing severely. He reached first for her inhaler, gave her two puffs and jammed it in his pocket. Then he soaked a towel from his small bathroom sink and placed it under a door that felt like burning coals. He also placed a damp washcloth on her face.
"Angela, we will be fine. Has Papa ever let you down?" He had to reassure this child that was so precious to him.
She had Mr. Wiggles, her stuffed bunny, clutched in her arms. Her tears fell on his crushed curly hair. Between the tears, hiccups and wheezing, there was a slight smile.
He searched for his cell phone to dial 911.
"Help us.... fire at Seventeen Treetop Lane... we' re trapped. 6th floor bedroom. I can get to a bathroom window. Another door is really hot.... people are crying!"
The dispatcher said, "Do not open that door! We will handle this. If you open it, you will make the fire more severe."
Auguste cradled Angela in his arms, trying to remain calm, yet praying in Latin.
'Please, God! She is all I have! You must help us!'
The dispatcher's calm voice crackled in his ear.
"Sir, a unit is already on the way! Get down close to the floor and keep damp washcloths close to your face. I will stay on the line with you."
He heard the sirens and had Angela in his arms at the open window. Help was climbing the ladder and his only child was handed into the massive arms of a New York City Firefighter. On the other side of the sweltering door were his ex-wife, Angelina, and her boyfriend. Angelina's frenetic cries for help broke his heart.
Why he did it was a question he would ask himself many times. He knew his child needed him as a parent and the risk to his life could be tremendous but he had to try to save Angelina. He could not let her go and that is why she and her unemployed, useless boyfriend were living in his apartment.
Auguste still saw Angelina as a beautiful angel with full curly black hair that covered him as they made love. Her body was a woman's and watching her breast feed Angela was like a painting of Madonna and child. The love between the two of them had been the real thing on his part. By now he realized that taking care of her was a sickness with him.
He believed this bum she was seeing had gotten her caught up in the cocoa bean. She had stopped breast feeding Angela when she was six months old and began acting paranoid and maniac. Her personality was completely different. She couldn't stay in one place, couldn't sleep or stop talking. Her hands shook.
He was trying to get full custody of his daughter by forcing Angelina to make the call. What did she really want? Would her eyes open and see the priorities in life? He didn't understand the power of the cocoa bean. How could she chose that insane love over the joy given by their precious little girl? Angelina begged him not to take her child away and he was good enough to let her boyfriend, Frelando, stay in the apartment even though they were both junkies. Auguste believed Angela needed her mother at any cost. The truth was he was still bewitched with Angelina.
Now, he had saved his daughter. Without further thought, he opened the door, not even feeling the pain searing his hands. The last thing he saw was an inferno, like Dante's Tenth Circle. It consumed him. He remembered waking up at some point screaming as white hot pain ravaged his body. Then a numbing wall of darkness rescued him.
In the hospital, his first weak words.
"Is Angela ok? Where is my little one?"
He was reassured over and over his daughter was safe, but was crushed that his ex-wife had not survived. Neither had her boyfriend. He had always believed Angelina would clean up her act and even if they had not reunited as a couple, she would be a good mother.
He realized his child needed a normal family. He had the nurses call his sister, Helene Modiere, a single social worker who lived about one hundred miles away.
He was fortunate to have those moments of clear thinking and ablity to speak. His condition became more critical as his face began to swell and there was the threat of his airway becoming blocked so an endotracheal tube was inserted. Then his consciousness was lost in a sea of pain.
Helene looked around at the machines, there were so many with alarms and monitors. She hadn't seen her big brother since Angela's Christening. Helene had seen other patients in terrible circumstances so she felt pain for her brother. Yet, she had a difficult time understanding why he would risk his life for a piece of trash. She had never liked Angelina; it was a gut feeling. At least her profession gave her prospective. People didn't seem to think rationally when it came to emotions. Now Auguste needed her help and more importantly, Angela needed her.
She knew Auguste needed hope and distraction. She assured him that Angela was doing well just concerned about her Papa.
Helene would cchat about their childhood, hoping to distract him with happy memories.
"Do you remember the time we got caught coloring the Holy Water right before Mass?"
It was a one sided conversation. She had been assured by his neurologist that there wasn't any neurological deficit.
"Between the medication to keep him from fighting the ventilator and the rest his body needs this is normal for a severely burnt patient".
The door to the Isolation Room in the Intensive Care Unit was slid open and Auguste's nurse entered. With the gown, mask and gloves, it made it hard to communicate with her patient. Helene began a conversation with her. Cindy Sloan was an experienced R.N. and appeared very professional as she checked everything then she bent over and spoke to Auguste with a sweet caring tone. Helene had seen this extent of burns and even worse on children. Sometimes the predators were even the parents.
Auguste's eyes were brown and beautiful, now the long, lush eyelashes and brows were singed. Cindy put drops in them to lubricate.
"I don't like to keep the pads on all the time. It seems cruel," she commented. She knew it was best to keep them moist.
"I will take care of them. I love to see his eyes," Helene spoke up, "I'll let you know when I leave".
His face was sliced from the glass that was embedded in it. You could tell that his hair was brown and had been long but now it was patches and beyond combing. Cindy lifted his hand from the bed and tried to get him to squeeze hers but he wasn't able to. His left hand wasn’t burnt but the right and both arms were. Pieces of fabric had to be picked from the skin by debriding.
He would eventually be lowered in to a whirlpool and then all the clothing would be removed along with dead skin. His breath sounds with a stethoscope were very noisy. Cindy suctioned some of the mucus from his lungs. The area across his chest and most of his abdomen was bandaged. Areas that were open were black and bloody and the smell was awful. If only he could survive all the complications from burns; infection of areas, sepsis, pneumonia, metabolic problems, temperature regulation, pulmonary embolus plus others. Then he would have to get donor skin and hope it would be successful. His movements would never be the same again and he would live with constant pain.
Helene was grateful that right now the pain seemed to be controlled by IV medication. She knew he was hovering on the brink of death and right now, she was not going to tell Angela anything.
Helene had picked Angela up from a foster family where she had spent three nights. When she saw her Aunt, her eyes looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a car.
"My Papa is dead. That is why you are here."
"Oh no, honey, he is very sick but he is not dead. You are going to stay with me until he can take care of you."
When Auguste began to rise up from the depth of his medication ocean, he realized how severe his disabilities were. Out of desperation, he motioned on a computer made for disabilities that Angela be told he had died.
Helene didn't argue with him. He was emotional and desperate right now. She would pray about it and decide what to do.
She told Angela that her Papa was in a coma and unable to see or speak to her. There wasn't a way this fragile child could cope with his disabilities and the confusion, rage, and depression that his medical condition had caused. She knew the narcotics didn't help this since he was now dependent on them and it required more and more to help him. Whenever the staff tried to lower the dose he became combative and had to be sedated even more. It was a good ICU but always understaffed and constantly changing with their patient's needs. Helene had rquested that he be transported to a hospital that had a Burn Unit but it hadn't been approved.
He eventually had seven surgeries over time on his face and upper body. In spite of drugs, he screamed when the nurses removed dead tissue in a whirlpool. In surgery, donor grafts were used for reconstruction. Infection set in twice and the burns seeped with the terrible smell of dead tissue. His fever climbed, adding to the confusion so he was placed once again on a ventilator to give his congested lungs and fighting body a rest. He was so close to death that Helene finally believed Auguste had been right about keeping Angela in the dark.
It was so hard for Helene to keep the truth from Angela. At first, she desperately wanted to see her Papa. She thought her love would cure him. She made pictures for him and jewelry. She cried herself to sleep every night. She accepted the fact that her mother was gone. She knew her Momma was drug sick and was in a better place.
Angela found out her Papa's true condition six months after the fire. She never believed he was that close to death. She told Helene that she had to see him because she would never forgive herself if she didn't try to save him.
She cried, "My heart is missing a piece without Papa."
Then she managed to talk a agency nurse into taking her in to see her Papa. Of course, she had to put on a mask, gloves and gown. The raw terror in her innocent eyes was Auguste's true mirror. He saw the monster he had become. She ran from the room screaming. The staff then realized who this little person was and it took a couple of hours to calm her down. They even had to call a physician to give her a sedative.
She kept crying.
"That's not my Papa. It couldn't be him".
Helene and psychiatrists tried to reason with Auguste to let them talk with her about it. In his head he heard her screams at what he had become. He could not put her through that again. He insisted that he knew what was best.
Angela decided it was best to remember her much loved father as he had been. It was as if he resided with the charred bunny from the fire in her treasure box. Of course, not dealing with it wasn't healthy and eventually she would have to.
Over all, Angela's life was good. Helene enjoyed children and since she couldn't have her own, Angela was a special joy in her life. At nine, she had many friends, was in the Drama and Art Club, and was taking ballet classes. At ten, she was beginning to like boys but still really missed her Papa.
She told Helene, "There will be a time when Papa and I will see each other again."
During Rehab, Auguste lived in a special home for male burn patients and bonded with many. This renovated old clinic was called "A Home for Supermen". He was very disciplined and worked hours a day exercising his scarred limbs. He became depressed at the number of them who couldn't move past their disabilities and heal internally. The pain would always be there and if they didn't constantly work their muscles and bones, their bodies became stuck in abnormal positions called contractures.
When Auguste was able to leave he made a deal with the Nurse Practitioner that managed the home. He trained with the resident Physical Therapy tech while taking computer classes in Anatomy/Physiology, psychology and Basics of Physical Therapy. He had to go to the campus of the technical school for clinical labs. He wasn't able to do many therapies that required strength but he was a symbol of hope for other patients so the instructor passed him.
He kept his bed and was paid a salary. He became a model for patients with "talk and listen" therapy plus doing laundry and help with treatments. He knew the routine and the staff loved him. He had to remember his own limits and pain usually reminded him. He had found a way to do something he could enjoy and give back in his own way.
It had been three years since the fire. He finally obtained a partial disability.
There was a man at the Rehab facility that he had built a special bond with. This wonderful guy, Terry, had lost his wife and three children in a fire. That was the only famiy he had. Like Auguste, he had extensive full thickness burns over one-third of his body and had been at death's door several times. He was in the hospital six months then came to "A Home for Supermen".
His depression was overwhelming. Auguste was able to touch that hollow desperate place inside Terry. He recognized it. The two men would talk into the wee hours. It was about two months and Terry began to smile occasionally. He was joining in small group activities and eating more. Lee, the psychologist that came by to talk to those who needed him was happy but not surprised. He knew Auguste.
Auguste wasn't there when Terry developed sharp chest pains. The ambulance got him to the ER and it was diagnosed as a Pulmonary Embolus.
They decided to go into the vessel and grab the clot before it would be fatal. Terry went into cardiac arrest. They worked on him for over thirty minutes and then called it.
Auguste was upset but felt Terry was at peace. He had been a believer in a Heaven where he would eventually join his family. Auguste knew burn victims were at risk for a number of complications. Yet he grieved for his friend. They had a small memorial and everyone told stories about Terry.
Several days later an attorney came by and asked to speak to Auguste. Before the fire,Terry had his own small IT business. There was a customer apartment that he owned. He left it to Auguste in his will.
The place was perfect. It had two bedrooms, a combination living room and kitchen, many windows and two baths. Auguste loved the light and covered the area with plants. There was a view of the city instead of an alley. He combed the city for thrift stores with really good furniture. He was proud of his bargaining power. People had good hearts and much was given to him. His home soon looked like a show place.
There was a room for a teenage girl, complete with a mattress on the floor with a lovely pink satin coverlet, pillows in the shape of hearts and a wicker chair hanging from the ceiling. He found a deal on a stereo and TV. He even kept up with the latest in hip-hop and pop music and the stars young girls were idolizing. His heart sung with joy and hope for what could be.
Auguste had found his passion. He sat before his show mirror preparing his mask; the paint could not touch the tender scarred areas. He had found an expert to work pro bono to mold his face with a silicone substance and fashion a lightweight mask to apply makeup on. He had seen an ad in the newspaper for an experienced clown. He auditioned in full make up. It all worked brilliantly.
He was "the Clown of the Circus". It was perfect because he truly was in disguise yet he let his inner sparkling personality show through. After Terry's death he had continued with more Physical Therapy classes, gotten a degree and they expected more of him at the center. There was a new manager.
Working as a therapist was becoming more difficult for him. He was having more joint pain. His physicians had to increase his medication dosages but it wasn't helping. Since he had constant pain, he had to find a way to deal with it. There were pain patches that he had worn before that he had to use now. These helped with his gift of putting himself in his magical world.
He knew that trying to work two jobs part time was a lot for him but he wanted to put a daughter through college.
He watched Angela over the years. While in makeup he watched her go to school, playing with her cousins outside, even in a play. He had pictures everywhere and letters and calls from Helene about his brilliant lovely daughter. Now she was twelve and Helene said she still cried for her Papa at night.
While Auguste believed he was being cagey, his daughter was following his tracks just as thoroughly through the papers and reviews of his excellent performances.
One evening there was a soft knock on his door. He opened it to his beautiful Angela. She looked like her mother; long curly black hair, almond eyes and a flawless olive complexion. Her face was alive with the spirit of goodness. Tears ran down his mask, washing away his makeup, his whole body trembled with the need to hold her.
Angela broke the awkwardness as she impulsively leaped into the shelter of his arms.
She cried, "I love you, Papa. You are dope! You know that means, right? Awesome-the best Dad and clown".
She caught his loving tears on her fingertips, like precious jewels. He returned the hug.
"My princess, you are as lovely as your mother was. God, rest her soul. How I have missed you!"
Auguste made a pot of herbal mandarin orange tea and got out some deli cookies. They settled on the couch to catch up with each other.
Auguste didn't know that Helene had been taking Angela to burn units at hospitals to volunteer.
Angela told him how a few months ago her, Aunt Helene said, "I think you need to know about disabled people. It is good to volunteer for your fellow man. Jesus taught us that."
She spoke so candidly, "They look like something from a zombie movie. I almost didn't go back. How could I help them when I don't know anything about burns? Then I learned how weird they felt-like their burns make them scary, I had to dress in an ugly hot gown and wear gloves and a mask. Papa, I help them eat and read to them. Some families didn’t even come to visit. Can you believe that?"
She rambled on with passion.
"I’d come home and think about you and Mom. I'm glad she died so she didn't suffer. Am I awful to think that? I don't think she could have been brave. I know for sure she would have hated not being beautiful."
Auguste pleaded, "You must not judge your Mother, why do you think I loved her so very much? She was so sweet and giving when we first met. She loved you and I so much until the demon drugs entered her life. I only wish you could have known her better."
"Papa, don't you think I know about addiction? I learned about it in school. A lot of kids are already into pot and pills. I know better. I just don't think Mom could have been cool with it like you are, the burns, I mean."
He hugged her. "You are so much smarter than I am. I cannot think straight when it comes to your mother."
Then he tried to explain why he kept his burns from her.
"I don't understand. Those burns are badges of love and courage, Papa."
She was very excited and so proud of him. She wanted him to come to her school for Career Day to show them what he does for people, making them forget their problems and laugh.
Angela told him the memories she had of that remarkable day when her courageous Papa had saved her and then tried to save her Mom.
Auguste picked her up, whirled her around and hugged her close. He had caused both of them heartache because of his own fears.
"My love, because of my stupidity, we have lost precious time and must make up for it".
So Auguste spends time in Adult and Childrens' Burn Units and schools. He shows them both his real face and then a special clown's face. Watching their faces go through a range of emotions is wonderful. They are frightened at first, then perplexed and finally, they laugh and cry.
He tells people, "My daughter, who is beautiful both inside and out, taught me so much. We are all the same so we must smile and greet each other as equal souls. We feed each other emotionally as Jesus and Gandhi taught us."
His show brings all people the healing power of laughter. He speaks of wasted time.
Auguste always tells teachers, children, patients and staff, "Young children are our teachers. I believe they are closer to God. They are not scarred by our false worship of superficial beauty. Their love is unconditional like the love of our Heavenly Father."
By Kathie Stehr