The emergency room doctor was holding my right hand in his left palm. He was examining the kidney shaped, blood red wound on the pad below my fingers and its matching triangular patch on the flesh next to my thumb. With careful snips, he cut away shreds of skin fringing the wounds. My left hand had deep cuts and mangled skin, to, but it wasn't as angry as the hand the doctor held.
"Did it occur to you to let go," he asked.
"Guess not," my words strangled with pain and tears.
Seventeen-year-old invincibility and self-consciousness about what others think are just like throwing water on a grease fire, with a similar result. I had gone to the rodeo grounds just south of Santa Fe with a male friend to watch another friend in a horse competition. He drove us there in his supped up Dodge with push button gears and a muffler that sounded like a fighter jet when he raced the engine. Being as cool as I was at seventeen, I said, "Sure," when my Friend asked me to hold her horse.
She said, "Don't let him go anywhere."
Growing up in Santa Fe, I had been around horses before. Around them, mind you, never very near and certainly never on one. I held the rope she handed me with a sturdy grasp worthy of my first close encounter with this beautiful creature. His long face was punctuated by big brown eyes that were surrounded by the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen. The lashes were as far as I got. While saying nice horsy soothing things to my new found friend, the boneheaded Dodge jet pilot decided to impress everyone by gunning his engine. The horse shot straight up, whinnying like Fury in the old TV western. The words that echoed in my head were, 'don't let him go anywhere. So, the true answer to the doctor's question was, No, it never occurred to me to let go."
Time had slowed as it always does during pain inflicting events. I held the rope, helplessly tightening my grip to prevent the inevitable. I only let go when I saw the horse's hoofs returning to earth near my head. He ran off and I stood, with scalding pain flaming upward to my right shoulder. I looked at my hands and fell to my knees. The `top gun pilot came to my side asking, "Are you okay?" Again, being the coolest of cool seventeen year olds, I nodded, ""Yes." Hiding my hands from him, I got up barely able to breathe, much less speak. Tears involuntarily streamed down my face. He then asked, "Do you want to go home."
'No, you dummy,' I thought, "this feels more like a hospital moment to me.' Without ability to form words, I again nodded affirmatively.
The next half hour ride home was spent holding my breath and moving my hands hopelessly attempting to find a way to stop the ever-increasing conflagration consuming my whole body. My head throbbed. My heart was racing. I was sure I would lose consciousness. Pride trumped my urge to throw up.
We pulled in my driveway. He said, "Hope you feel better."
My pleading looks between at him and the door handle eventually penetrated his Neanderthal cranium. "Oh, yeah," he said, "let me get that door for you." He reached across and pulled up the door handle, leaving me to `push it open with my searing shoulder. I got out; turned around once I passed the open door. With the heartiest of efforts, I used the flat of my foot to kick the door shut. I hoped it left a dent in his precious beast.
My older sister was furious when she saw my hands and heard the car making its supersonic escape. "Why didn't he take you to the hospital? My shoulder shrug and heretofore muffled wail ended the conversation. She ushered me to her car to get me to St.Vincent's where I first met the inquisitive ER doc. When the skin shred Trimming was complete and an excruciating spray of antibiotic was applied, I heard him talking with my sister.
"The best way for third degree burns to heal," he explained, "Is to not cover them but rather allow them to be exposed to the air so they heal better."
Third degree burns? Keep open to the air? The air felt like an acid wash and they are to be healed by that? I was given a salve to apply to the wounds that soothed them a bit. With a strong analgesic, I was sent home. The burns healed, scarred for a time and eventually paled with the help of cocoa butter. What has never faded is the memory of the scorching, nauseating pain of failing to let go of the rope sooner.
My mistake was failing to let go of my attachment, not to the rope, but rather, my desire to not disappoint my friend. The horse incident is a painful and vivid example of holding on too long. For me, it was not the last lesson in letting go of attachments to people, places and things that inflict pain when asserting their finitude. That which "moths and dust doth corrupt and thieves break through and steal" are the source of searing pain. Yes, relationships, possessions, status and prestige are pleasurable. The rub comes when they fade or come to an end. These transient human pleasures are merely on loan. Our children, our health, material goods and even our lives are not ours to own forever.
A friend once said, "The people who have nothing are the happiest of all because they have no fear of losing what they don't have. "
Joy and contentment are products of a willingness to let go of everything? This paradox is just as peculiar as air healing burns.
Copyright Mary Ewing Rixford, M.A.,LMFT, LPC, 2012, All rights reserved.