In our home, we have this approach to bad days: go to bed early. Our thought is, “the earlier we go to bed the sooner the day will be over, getting us to tomorrow, a brand-new day with brand-new beginnings.”
Lynn Anderson was onto something when she sang, “I never promised you a rose garden.” Bad days are as much a part of life as the good ones. Thankfully, however, the good ones do overall outweigh the bad. But sometimes the bad are more than bad. They’re horrific. And those are the seasons a simple turning-in-for-the-night won’t fix. We wake up to the nightmare we long to escape.
I frequently write and speak about the most terrible day of my life. Why on earth would I continually revisit such a day? Because it’s a story more about triumph than tragedy. It’s a story of victory, of courage, of overcoming. It’s a story offering encouragement, hope, and inspiration, a story that’s been used for a variety of discussions including medical care, bullying, self-image and abstinence.
It’s the story of a beautiful spring day in Oklahoma on April 27, 1988. The day had ended and the school bus returned two blonde-headed children, ages nine and seven, back home. Chores were done, homework completed, the outdoors calling.
As routine, play clothes were changed into, and I slipped on those 1980's popular jelly shoes. My twenty-six month older brother, Jon was outside ready to start-up our blue two-wheeler motorcycle. We had one hundred and sixty acres of our family land to ride on, but this particular day, we had a grand idea. We decided to go for a ride to visit our friends two miles away. Our Mom was not home from work yet. We begged Grandma, who lived right next door, to let us go. Reluctantly she did.
Our ride there was uneventful. Jon dropped me off at the corner house. The plan was for me to play with my friend while he drove down a couple houses to see one of his classmates. Time passes quickly for little ones at play. Jon returned and said it was time to go home. The time was not in our favor.
We swung our legs over the bike, Jon driving, me holding tightly to his waist. As we pulled out onto that dirt road, there was a factor present not present before: motorists returning home from the workday. There was danger on that country road and we were not adept to knowing it. No helmet. No goggles. We drove along behind a little pick-up truck. Did the driver even know we were following? The dust stung my eyes. Holding onto Jon I turned my head to the left, lightly laying it against his back, to shield the enveloping cloud of those fine, tiny particles of earth.
His eyes burned too. I know, because he kept swerving, trying to avoid the dust. In an instant, we swerved too far to the left, entering the lane of oncoming traffic. We hit a truck head-on. Our bodies thrown off as the motorcycle slid under the truck igniting a fire.
Time, against us before, standing still, forever changing its course.
My body was on fire. Jelly shoes melted in my feet. The memories I recall are vivid. Those eyes which stung with dust now beheld images of the blur in the flames. My face felt hot. So very hot. And then someone grabbed me, underneath my armpits, and began to pull me out. Out of the fire.
Loaded into a helicopter, my Mom was there. “I want to go home,” I said to her. Home meant safety. Home meant everything was going to be okay. She replied, “We will, but we’re going to see the doctor first.”
Arriving to the burn center, I was separated from my Mom to commence emergent medical treatment. Chest x-rays obtained, one concerning to an alert nurse stating, “Her mediastinum looks large for a child.” Further investigation rendered the need for immediate open-heart surgery. I was bleeding internally. My descending aorta had sustained a traumatic transection from the force of the impact. Operative reports inform, “This patient has a traumatic transection of the descending thoracic aorta and without surgery her chances of death are 85 to 95% or greater, with surgery her risk is increased because of the situation.” The repair would take six hours and require a thoracotomy, and removal of my left fourth rib, to avoid the burn injury to my chest.
The images in my mind shift to the turquoise My Little Pony sitting on the shelf in my hospital room. Mechanically ventilated, I could not speak. Heavily sedated, I aroused seldom, but when I did, I looked at that stuffed animal, and gave my best to ask where Jon was.
“He’s in the room next to this one,” was one answer. “He’s better and went home,” was another. Stories were conflicting. Despite my critical condition, within a week, my parents sat at my bed and told me Jon was in Heaven. I don’t think I even understood what “killed on impact meant,” but I knew it meant he would no longer be with me. In that little room, right off the nurse’s station, my Mom and Dad read notes of memories his second grade class had written about him. In my small vocabulary and limited perceptions, I knew one thing to be certain; life would never be the same.
I was in the woods many times during that three-month-hospital stay. Countless bad days followed, including the diagnosis of peritonitis, and the blood clot that nearly took my right leg. There were many unknowns on the day of discharge, July 11, 1988. Would I ever walk again? What would my quality of life be? What was going to be the new “normal”?
Physicians wanted to send me to a rehabilitation hospital, but my psyche couldn’t handle it. I needed to go home. I needed to see the house I was forgetting, sleep in the room that held my things, eat at the table with my family. Therefore, my parents insisted I be released home with a vigorous outpatient rehabilitation program. However, home wasn’t the same. There was an empty setting at the dinner table, an overall emptiness in the house. The evidence of Jon was there but he was not. My Dad took me to his grave. At seven-years old I stood looking at the grains of wheat on his marker representing the wheat fields surrounding our house. His name, Jon Michael Cochrane, and those dates, January 18, 1979 – April 27, 1988, those dates that held his life, a life completed.
The one question burns inside me, nearly 29 years later, “Why didn’t I die too?” There are so many days I wanted to. Considering the surgeries spanning all the years since the accident. The learning to walk, learning to assimilate back into school, learning to accept this body which bears the evidence of an eighty-seven percent third degree burn injury.
Still today, there’s nothing I’ve done with my life that Jon couldn’t have done with his. I married the most precious man, my high school sweetheart. I had four healthy children. I’ve been honored to wear the title “registered nurse,” completing my bachelor of science in nursing and working in a neonatal intensive care unit. But what have I done that he couldn’t have lived to do?
Everything I have lived to do, he could have too.
Every time I stand in front of a room full of faces or sit typing words on a screen, I share our story and Jon’s memory stays alive. As long as I share, people will know him. They will know our journey that day. They will know how the Lord was with us in those horrific moments and every one thereafter.
Life will never be the same. But life is still good. Today I’m living not for just one, but for two. It is here in this place, where my very broken journey promotes hope to you in yours as we continually stand on the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
Heather Meadows is a wife, mom to four fabulous kids, burn survivor, writer, public speaker, and NICU nurse. She serves events, conferences, schools, businesses, banquets and churches through inspirational and motivational speaking and is currently writing a personal memoir about persevering through life’s painful places. Join her on her journey by visiting www.heathermeadows.com to subscribe and view her story at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP-3u3RONI8