Facing The Fire
I do not consider myself to be an exceptional person. I am content with being average. I do not consider myself to be particularly brave, nor do I feel I am leaving any sort of mark on the world. However, when I tell people that I am a firewalker I get some strange reactions. Some say I am crazy, some think I am brave and one or two have even said I am an inspiration. I am often embarrassed by these reactions. I wave away praise and blush at the compliments because I feel so undeserving of it. I don’t think that I am any of those things. I just want to do what little I can to make the lives of sick children a little bit easier. Children like my son. My son is my hero. There are times when I am in awe of his strength and character. You might never realise to look at him, but my son has a disability. He has never let that stand in his way. He is captain of the basketball team, a Tae Kwon Do champion, an athlete and a boy scout.
Soon after he started school, my son began to have difficulties with his health. In the beginning it was brushed off as stress from starting school, but as the months passed his health deteriorated and it became apparent that there was a more serious problem. It took many years of fighting with various healthcare professionals before we finally found the support and the diagnosis we needed. Things improved quickly from then on and in the past few years we have finally managed to get things under control. Through it all my son has carried himself with the quiet dignity of someone much older. He made it through the bullying, the endless tests, the unpleasant medication, the stress, the therapy and the emotional trauma much better that I did. The number of times that he has complained, despite the pain and discomfort are very few. I wish that I had half of his strength. He is the reason that I chose to become a firewalker. His disability and the struggle we had to find the right treatment is what inspires me to raise money for the local hospital in the hope that more children can have better access to specialised paediatric care rather than relying on the family doctor, who might have no idea how to handle their illness. I wanted to do something that would require daring, something that would somehow measure up to the bravery of a little boy who could make it through all that life threw at him and do it with a smile on his face. I don’t think there is anything that I could do to match his courage, but fire-walking seemed like a good place to start.
The first time I ever walked barefoot across burning embers it was a bitterly cold November night in an otherwise ordinary hospital car-park. It may not have been the most glamorous of locations, but the scene was certainly dramatic! A fire eater was entertaining the small crowd of spectators who had gathered to watch the festivities and bright orange flames danced in the darkness at the far end of the car-park, just barely visible from the windows of the small room in the children’s hospital where the other fire-walkers and I were undergoing some intensive psychological training. At least, that’s what they called it. In reality, it amounted to a couple of hours with a motivational speaker, playing some silly games designed to make us relax. I had never held motivational speakers in high regard until that day, always believing that they were just pretentious know-it-alls full of their own hype, but at the end of those two hours I was a convert. I fully believed I could do anything at that point. I felt like a super hero, or at least I did until I walked outside.
When the hospital doors opened the first thing that hit me was the surprisingly pleasant smell of burning wood and it was somehow very comforting. The rich, slightly sweet smell echoed of happy childhood memories of times spent by a camp-fire, grilling sausages and toasting marshmallows. I inhaled the rich aroma of the smoke and it calmed me for a moment. That split second of inner peace was soon shattered when our motley crew of brave souls spilled out into the night air and caught sight of the bed of hot embers for the first time. I descended the stairs to the lower level of the car park never taking my eyes off of the dancing flames along the edges of what now seemed to be an endless path of glowing red embers being raked over by the fire master and sending sparks shooting into the air. The heat hit me when we were still fifty feet from the foreboding path and I suddenly heard the voice of our instructor echoing inside my head telling me that the temperature was around 1300 degrees Fahrenheit and that human flesh burned at just 130 degrees. That was the moment I was forced to remind myself why I had put myself in this crazy situation. Glancing back at the hospital building behind me I thought of all the children inside who were fighting all sorts of illnesses. I realised how thankful I was that my son wasn’t among them. Instead, he was down there by the fire lane. Knowing that he was out there in the dark watching was what spurred me on. I didn’t dare to look for him in the crowd of onlookers. We had been warned beforehand not to talk to our friends or family once we were at the fire lane, so there was no chance of anyone breaking down that confidence the instructor had just spent several hours building up. I knew if I saw him I would want to go to him and give him a hug.
There was a fairly large group of us waiting to take up the challenge even although we lost one or two somewhere between signing the rather scary liability disclaimer and arriving at the start of our blazing path. The waiting might not have been so bad had it been summer, but unfortunately it was the dead of winter and the temperature was hovering menacingly somewhere around zero. The contradictory feeling of the thick wall of heat rising from the fire and the sharp bite of ice cold tarmac on my bare toes made me giggle, and once I started I just could not stop. I was suddenly struck by the thought that I really was mad after all and had simply given into hysteria! Thankfully, in reality it was just a nervous reaction and I wasn’t quite at the stage where anyone had to slap some sense into me! The irony of spending several minutes dancing from foot to foot to keep warm was not lost on any of us as we waited our turns and by the time it came to me it was almost a relief to step onto the warm strip of turf at the beginning of the path. The instructor took my hand and gave it a squeeze while another member of his team raked over the path sending up a fresh shower of sparks and transforming the slightly dimmed walkway back into a brightly lit trail. He asked if I was ready and when I whimpered something that must have sounded to him like a yes he told me to prove it and gave me a gentle push and set me on my way.
It was over in a heartbeat. That seemingly never ending fiery road took just seconds to traverse. Before I had even had the chance to get used to the warm, and unusually wet feeling of the treacherous surface underfoot I was already stepping back onto the frozen concrete at the other end. A surge of adrenaline was pulsing through me and just as we had been promised at the beginning of the night, I couldn’t wait to do it again. I would have walked up and down that bed of burning wood all night if I had been given the chance. Grabbing my shoes I finally searched the crowd for my cheering section and found them jumping up and down grinning like Cheshire cats. I made my way over and was almost knocked to the ground as my son, best friend, her boyfriend and my fiancé all mobbed me! They were all telling me how amazing it looked and how proud they were of me, but I already felt like it was no big deal. It had been easy and fun and not scary at all. How quickly I managed to forget the knot of terror that had taken up residence in my gut previously!
We were called back together to be debriefed and get our certificates, and as we stood huddled together by the dying firelight the first flakes of snow began to fall, dusting the last smouldering remains with powdery white. It seemed appropriate somehow to have walked through the fire into the ice and snow. The snow that fell that night didn’t leave for nearly 4 months, but it did nothing to distinguish the warm feeling inside when I thought about the experience.