award-winning documentarian: radio + music + photography
My son, Izzy, turned 10 last week. 10 years of showing up all the way for another human being. There is a remembrance. A re-living life again through new eyes. When I was 10, I had my ears pierced for the first time. I can remember the smell of the cleaning fluid and the anticipated moment just before that needle gun stabbed my earlobe. Memories held from childhood seem crystal clear to the senses.
Izzy has turned 10 and I wonder what he will remember, and how in only three years he will be a teenager. Three years is a flash of time. And time is moving at a different pace than it used to. His years remind me of my years, and what happened in them. One of which is a story about the first person I truly loved. It was a connection that opened my heart to experience how love works. This relationship showed me the first glimmer of what it means to believe in someone, and what it means to show up. These were critical teachings in the great human drama, the stories of our lives.
I was 14 years old and was living in a Romeo and Juliet love. It was a very intense relationship where we saw each other every single possible moment. Often, he used to sneak out at night from his parents house, which was only ten blocks away. I remember the way he held a flower in his teeth as he skillfully climbed up the side my parent's house and into my bedroom. I remember hearing him quietly make his way to me in the night. I was Juliet. He made me tapes of cheesy love songs that I played like a religion, learned to memorize, interpret, and dream. He was Steve, a junior.
The night was May 15, 1989 and one week before prom. My mother took me to get the finishing alterations to a fancy laced fairytale dress for the dance. As we drove home from the mall in our suburban town, we heard a commotion. After driving closer, we saw a swarm of sirens, a helicopter, fire trucks, police cars, people surrounding, it felt like some crazy scene in a violent 3D war movie. We kept driving, a bit shaken, grateful to be alive and well, and unable to determine what had actually happened.
After getting home, I went upstairs to watch TV on my parentʼs bed. Early evening had turned to night, maybe even after dinner and the phone rang. I used to have a habit of curiously picking up the phone after someone in the house had already answered, screening the call.
The call was from Steveʼs mom, Diana. She proceeded to tell my mother that Steve had been in a horrible electrocution accident. He was living by a thread in a burn unit in Maywood, Illinois, which was about an hour drive from my house. Diana could barely speak. I donʼt remember anything specific that she said but the devastation in her voice was palpable. I turned off the TV, with my other finger still pressing hard, as if it might break, on the phoneʼs mute button. My throat was on fire as my entire body ceased up with fear. I remained silent, listening, stunned, shocked, as if life flashed before my eyes. Steve, I heard in Dianaʼs voice, was about to die. This was the accident we had seen earlier.
Unbeknownst to me, Steve and his friend Frank (who lived close to my house) had spent the day together after school, making romantic surprise plans for the upcoming double prom date. They decided to go out to Frankʼs side yard to play with a bottle rocket. It shot high up into a tree and became stuck. Frank went for the ladder and an aluminum golf ball retriever to hit the rocket out of the tree. Steve held the ladder as Frank climbed up. Apparently, the electric wires above were supposed to be insulated, but instead, they were live. The golf ball retriever attracted 2200 volts of electricity and it raged into Frankʼs body, down the ladder, to Steveʼs.
By some miraculous intervention, there was a break in the current, which passed through Frank, throwing him off the ladder, his body hitting the ground with burning flesh on his face, neck and arms. Because Steve was holding the ladder, the electric current stayed pulsing through the silver beams held by his 16 year old hands. Steve had more serious burns than Frank as the molten hot force shot through his body. The current ran through, from the inside out, melting 80% of his Achilles tendon, out his head, missing his brain, and into the earth, through his feet, holding him to the ladder until all of the energy passed. His shoes and clothes were burned like dark, crisp toast. Had Frank not been thrown from the ladder, they would have certainly died right there.
Every emergency team seemed to hum around the scene like bees on honey, including a helicopter, which transported them to a hospital burn unit outside of Chicago. In the helicopter the paramedics whispered just over Steveʼs head, “Weʼre gonna lose him! Weʼre gonna lose him!” In that moment, Steve later told me that while he heard the voices, he experienced a white light and thought of staying alive so he could take me to the prom.
When I hung up the phone, lying on the bed, paralyzed with shock, the air felt lifeless with yet a stimulating silence. My mom did not know I had been on the phone and overheard her conversation with Steve's mom. She came upstairs and slowly opened the door. When our eyes locked I screamed a blood-curdling scream. I threw over shelves of books, emptied drawers of clothes, and kicked a basket across the room, which made it look as if we had been robbed. I needed to move my fear. I needed to get it out and my mom just stood there, watching, not attempting to change my experience.
“Get in the car!” I screamed. “Now!” We raced to the hospital so fast that if a cop dared to stop us, I might have been arrested. There was not a moment to put on a jacket, pee, or change clothes. She drove lightening fast, racing against time yet we didn't stop once. All the streetlights were on our side before and after the highway ride. I never saw my mom step on it like that. As she drove, I screamed, cried, held my body so tight with an aching heart and intense focus to get there. Inside I was both exploding and dying.
The car screeched into the emergency driveway, I swung the car door open and ran into the hospital, my mom parked and ran to follow me in. A rabbi was there in a black coat, reading from the Torah, Steveʼs parents were sitting there crying and holding each other. The doctor was also in the room with a face that seemed as if I was too late. I told them I had to see Steve. The doctor said, “Iʼm sorry, but no one is allowed to see him at this time.” Right when the doctor turned his head, I snuck in to see my young, innocent love lying on a bed, hooked up all over his body to machines and wires. Blood was on the ground beneath his right hand while his upper back was arched up, as if his heart was pulling his chest and body toward the sky. He was particularly muscular and I remember his muscles, veins, and skin hooked up to monitors and machines working hard to keep him alive.
As I stared at his face, fire in my eyes, burning with focus I said, “You will not die now, Steve. You will live a long life. You will grow to be a father someday. You will live on.” I felt a surge of superpower in me that permeated from head to toe and all around. I could feel him hearing me. Then, my instinct was to raise up my hands and repeat those words. We were working as a team. His eyelids fluttered open. When I saw that, I ran to get the doctors. They ran in. He was alive! He was going to live. He did.
26 years later, the experience is fresh today somehow, now that my son is only four years away from when I lived then. I wonder when the drama of my son's first love will begin.