Friday, August 29, 2008

A Crash Course in Empathy

by John Gilstrap

Write what you know. Good God, how many times have we heard that over the years? As if Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s pseudonym, or Lincoln Rhyme Jeffery Deaver’s. For way too many years, that write-what-you-know counsel was a real problem for me. I grew up in suburban DC, a middle class white kid with no respectable non-academic. What the hell was I supposed to write about that was, you know, interesting?

As I got a little older, I came to realize what my writing instructors really meant with that cryptic advice: you have to be convincing. Unless you’ve loved, you’ll never be able to write about it convincingly. Until you’ve had a child and you’ve surrendered that part of your soul to another human being, I don’t think you can write parental angst in a way that will convince parents who are living it. It’s not about relaying events that you know; it’s about conveying emotions that you’ve experienced.

For me empathy came early, when I joined the fire service at age 22. A recent college grad with spare time on my hands, I couldn’t think of a more engaging, exciting way to spend my time—especially since I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. (I would claim that I never hit on an ambulance patient in her weakest moment while I was there making her feel better, but that would be less than true. Hey, I was 22 and I was a pig. What can I say? I was also thin and had hair. Everybody changes with time.)

The first time I met Jason Bryant, he was sitting Indian-style in the dusty driveway of his home in that part of the Washington ’burbs that hadn’t yet shed its rural past. My most vivid memory from that summer night in 1981 is the sound of pure anguish, the guttural wail that poured from Jason’s mom, whose cigarette had triggered the fireball that consumed her little boy. He’d been siphoning gas to feed the slightly-used trail bike that had been his birthday present. Clearly afraid to touch him, she squatted at his side wailing, “I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry.” Over and over again.

When she saw me approaching with my ambulance crew, she ran to meet us, grabbing the sleeve of my uniform and pulling me along, the story of the cigarette and the fire spilling out of her as if confessing to a crime.

Jason himself was surprisingly stoic. Fully conscious, he sat with his arms out to his sides, his elbows bent. His scorched flesh hung like rotted draperies from his arms, his chest, his belly and his back. Where the meat below had not been charred black, it had been cooked to a lifeless mottled red and blue. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts when the fireball erupted. What was exposed was consumed.

His hair was gone, incinerated to a curly mat of carbon. And the stench. Oh, my God, the stench.

“You’re okay now, baby,” Mrs. Bryant said. “The ambulance is here. They’re going to make you better.” She looked straight into my brain. “You can make him better, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said; but my hesitation betrayed the lie. The truth was that I was only a kid myself and I was terrified by the horror of Jason’s injury. At that particular moment, I was as concerned about not vomiting up my dinner as I was about caring for her child. I lied because it seemed easiest. And then I went to work.

Actually, there was precious little to do. Those were the days before mobile intensive care units and medevac helicopters—when your only viable option with a critical patient was to load him into the ambulance and run like hell to the hospital. We called it “scoop and swoop.”

The only time Jason screamed was when I grabbed him under the arms, across his chest, and lifted him onto the ambulance cot. Raw agony from a teenager sounds a lot like raw agony from any other wounded animal.

A half hour later, we were done with him. We handed Jason off to the hospital staff, where for the next year or more he would endure daily tortures of a breed that only burn victims can adequately describe. Suffice to say that it involves the routine scouring of raw flesh and the stretching of fused, contracted tissue.

I went back to the firehouse, took a long shower and threw my uniform into the trash. I spent the rest of the shift in a pair of borrowed coveralls.

Two years later, we were called back to the Bryant home. We parked our ambulance among the police cars in the yard. A much older Mrs. Bryant met us at the front door, and her eyes zeroed in on me. “You were here for Jason’s accident,” she said.

I nodded, embarrassed to be recognized. The dispatcher had made it clear what we were here for, and frankly, I didn’t know what to say. As Mrs. Bryant led us through the house toward the bedrooms, I noted the pictorial shrine to a Jason I had never met: a normal, healthy, athletic teenager whose flesh was whole and flexible. I looked away.

Mrs. Bryant took us as far as the back hall, and stopped abruptly. “He’s in there,” she said, pointing. The police were finishing up the last of their pictures. In Virginia, suicide is considered a form of homicide and it is investigated accordingly.

“We can take it from here,” I said. From where I stood, I could see a revolver in a plastic evidence bag and a trace of blood spatter on the wall.

“Thank you for your kindness,” Mrs. Bryant said, gently squeezing my arm.
I gaped back at her, not trusting my voice. "He just couldn’t take it anymore,” she explained. “He used to be such a happy boy.”

I first met Jason Bryant on his sixteenth birthday. On his eighteenth, I zipped him into a body bag.

4 comments:

  1. Wow!! There's nothing more to say...

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  2. Such a tragic story, John. I can't imagine what it must have been like for any of you. I'm so sorry for that mother and her son.

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  3. Oh, John. That has me in tears. What a terrible tragedy, for both of them.

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  4. Beautifully written John. Thank you for the story. David R

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