Essay: Eye On Fire

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A local mother explains why she hates Fourth of July parties.

Standing in our driveway three years ago, my then-6-year-old daughter, Anna, reached down to grab a sparkler while my husband, Mike, held a lighter. It was the Fourth of July, our friend Sam had joined us for a barbecue, and we figured we’d let our two girls set off some quiet, tame fireworks.

None of those loud, whistling ones, we’d all agreed.

As Anna held the unlit sparkler aloft, she was safely clothed, with her hair pulled back and tennis shoes on. A water-filled bucket sat near her feet.

Anna’s sister, Melissa, then almost 4, was not interested in doing any fireworks at all. In fact, she was terrified. Still, Melissa stood back to watch from inside the garage, shrieking tearfully.

No, no, no, Anna! she howled. It’s not safe! Not safe! Not safe!

It’s OK, Melissa, we all assured her. It’s just a sparkler.

Mike lit the sparkler and Anna held it at arm’s length from her body, mesmerized by the sparks that rained down onto the driveway. As Mike, Sam and I oohed and ahhed, Melissa continued to sob, watching fearfully through her fingers and begging Anna to stop.

Suddenly, sparks flew upward from Anna’s outstretched arm&emdash;probably from a little gust of wind. Anna dropped the sparkler, screamed and covered her eyes. My eye! she shrieked, running toward me, crying hysterically.

Don’t rub! I commanded, as panic bloomed. Hearing Melissa’s screams in the background, I pushed Anna toward the house and into the kitchen, where I thrust the water faucet on as hard and cold as I could and began throwing water at Anna’s eyes with my hands. Ashes flew from her face; I was terrified to look at her.

White-hot sparks had flown into her beautiful blue eyes. What would be left of them?

Open your eyes, Anna, I said gently, my heart pounding.

She complied, tears spilling down her cheeks as her legs shook.

Her eyes looked fine. Red with tears, but fine. Gray-blue, like an ocean on a stormy day, lashed in blond.
Complete.

What hurts? I asked.

Right here, she said, pointing to her left eye. There, on the white, I saw a little red blemish.

Can you see?

Yes.

Close your other eye, I said. Can you still see?

Yes.

By now, the men had come in the house with Melissa (who now was sobbing that she had told us it wasn’t safe), and we decided we needed to have Anna’s eye examined right away. The injury didn’t look too bad, but none of us had enough experience with eye burns to really know. It was about 9 o’clock when I hustled Anna into the car and drove way too fast toward Folsom’s emergency room. We passed groups of people out celebrating the Fourth of July&emdash;beer in one hand, a sparkler in the other&emdash;and drove through the smoky haze created by their fireworks. As Anna cried, saying this was the worst Fourth of July ever, I stepped on the gas and soothed her in as calm a voice as I could manage: It’s OK. They’re just going to look at it, sweetie. It’ll be OK.

At the emergency room, it quickly became clear that my daughter’s injury was not severe enough to merit much immediate attention. She was brought in quickly to read an eye chart, then sent back to wait. Eventually, we were called in and placed in an examining room, where Anna curled up and fell asleep while we waited for the doctor to see us.

While she slept, I calmed down and began to wish that I’d brought a book to read. I heard other patients being brought in: people who had been burned, involved in car accidents or had overdosed on drugs or alcohol. One woman screamed obscenities. A young child shrieked continuously, Don’t touch me! I heard someone vomit right outside our door. An hour or so later, I opened the door to look at the clock and heard one nurse say to another, Why did I say I could work on Fourth of July?

It was after midnight when a weary-looking doctor finally entered our room. In five minutes, he diagnosed Anna with a corneal abrasion and burn, and sent us home with antibiotic eyedrops and instructions to keep her out of sunlight or swimming pools for about four days.

      • Fourth of July never has been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my parents never allowed us to light fireworks, and I don’t recall ever attending any Fourth of July parties until my teen years. Then, it seemed, the kids&emdash;usually the guys&emdash;were into contraband fireworks. Competition was stiff to acquire the most dangerous, illegal firecrackers available, and to one-up each other as they took increasingly greater risks to show off. Between the pop-pop-pop of the firecrackers and the deafening squeal of the Piccolo Petes and the ridiculous antics of people who were drunk or stoned­&emdash;well, I was just one big, jumpy killjoy. Even though I never touched the fireworks, I always came home feeling like I’d barely come away with my life.

As an adult, before I was married, I spent many Fourth of July holidays alone. Even in my 20s, when my social life was thick with parties, I often opted out of the Fourth of July, choosing instead to stay home and watch movies or read a good book. I never said exactly why I wasn’t available on Independence Day; my fear of fireworks seemed silly&emdash;especially because even the safe and sane ones upset me. One year, I remember sitting on my couch and watching a horrible Neil Diamond movie as my friends left message after message on my answering machine: Krista, where are you? You should come over . . .

After Mike and I were married and Anna was born, we lived in a new Folsom subdivision where the streets were narrow, the homes close together. There was a block party on the court and, eager to be friendly, all the neighbors trudged over, hauling coolers and barbecues and children. The first year, I went home with Anna when the fireworks came out. I had a good excuse: She was 10 months old and loud noises scared her. The following years were similar; the party was held at various locations around the neighborhood, but it always ended for me shortly after the fireworks arrived. My daughters, I could say truthfully, were terrified of the noise and the smoke and the flames.

I watched the other kids in the neighborhood line up excitedly to hold sparklers and help daddies light bigger fireworks, and I worried that my fraidy-cat kids were missing out&emdash;as I had&emdash;on a significant part of Americana. When Anna, at age 4, overcame her fear and held her first sparkler, I watched through the living room window; I had retreated there with toddler Melissa, who had shrieked with terror when she saw the box of sparklers come out. I had a good view of Mike standing over Anna, coaching her to hold the glittering stick far away from her body and to drop it, spent, into the prepared bucket of water. I felt a bit of relief that she might actually enjoy the Fourth of July as she grew up.

Since that Fourth of July we spent in the ER three years ago, though, I’ve changed my view entirely. No longer am I embarrassed to admit that I hate Fourth of July parties, and I’m eager to tell people that fireworks&emdash;even the safe and sane ones&emdash;are potentially deadly. My daughter could have lost her eye that night, thanks to the foolishness of three grown-ups who urged her to hold a flaming stick less than two feet from her gorgeous face. When I remember Melissa, standing in the garage, insisting that this was not safe, I don’t think of her as just a scared little kid. I think of her as wise before her time.