You don’t know me (yet), but I was one of the thousands of people in the room laughing with you, crying because it’s you, and cheering at almost everything you said when you were in Calgary, AB this past weekend. I know you likely won’t actually see this, but I feel putting it out there into the universe can’t hurt.
Being able to see you and go to your show was a dream of mine. A couple of weeks prior to the show, my entire family (there’s a lot of us. Like, almost-need-to-rent-a-hall-for-family-get-together’s, a lot) , my husband and members of his family, surprised me with a beautiful hand-made card and two tickets for your Calgary show. I was shocked. Excited. And so incredibly happy.
July 25, 2018 will mark 25 years since the day my life changed forever. I was only nine years old and in a propane explosion on July 25, 1993. With 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body, I was forced to live the rest of my life with scars. To celebrate my 25 year anniversary this year, I had decided to go to LA at some point this year and try my luck with getting tickets to your show. Although I still plan to do that, those who gave me the tickets to your Calgary appearance knew that would be just as amazing. They all made that dream come true for me. I will be forever grateful to each and every single one of them.
So you’d think with so many amazing people in my life I’d have a tough time choosing who to bring with me to the show. As much as I wanted to take each and every one of them, plus some others, it was a no brainer for me who I was going take. 25 years ago this summer my mom’s worst nightmare came true when the cabin I was in exploded. From the day she first became a mom (eventually there would be 7 of us kids in total), my mom’s first fear came to her – she never wanted any of her kids to get burned. She witnessed the horrible physical and emotional pain a burn survivor can go through when she was just a kid. Kids she grew up with next door were burned when someone threw a fire cracker into their tent. It scarred her in a different way, for life. I’m a mom now to three amazing kids, and I ache when they stub their toe. Despite her heart breaking, she stayed with me in the hospital. Her and my dad were by my side for every tear, every painful procedure, every laugh. Not once did I see my mom cry or show any signs of weakness. Years later when I became a mom and felt what unconditional love truly was, I asked her how she stayed so strong while I was healing. She looked at me and said, “Joy, you didn’t see me in my room before I went to bed”. That broke my heart. Of course, the explosion was 100% an accident. But that didn’t stop me from hurting for what my mom went through. And not just my mom – my entire family. Their lives changed forever on July 25, 1993 as well. But that’s for a whole other blog – coming July 2018. I knew that my mom was the one who needed to be by my side when my dream of seeing you live came true.
So finally the day came. I dropped my kids off at my sisters, picked my mom up and we were off to Calgary. Part of me was still thinking that maybe this was all still a dream. I couldn’t actually be going to see Ellen DeGeneres, was I??
Now, anyone who knows me, knows I’m a crier. So it’s no surprise to them that I cried a few times that night. I wish I could say that the first tear I shed that evening was when you came out on stage. But that wouldn’t be true. Although you brought on the tears a few times with certain things you said, the first set of tears came during the last song that the Tenors sang just before you came out. I can’t remember what the song was called, but it was all about dreams. Believing in your dreams. It was beautiful – because I’m a HUGE believer in my dreams and working to making them come true.
So to the point of this blog/letter to you – I wanted to thank you. First, for coming to Canada and so close to my hometown. Considering it was your only Canadian show, I feel so incredibly lucky that I was able to go. Second, thank you for being you. From the second you walked out on stage with a hockey stick in hand in tribute to the Humboldt Broncos and kissed it before you put it down, it was obvious to everyone in that stadium that you really do care about everyone, even those you’ve never met.
There wasn’t a second of the show I didn’t enjoy. It was easily one of the best nights of my life, and I was so happy to have shared it with my mom. My only regret – not bringing a pen and paper. With almost everything you said that night, I was inspired even more to just keep chasing my dream (aka just keep swimming). You are my inspiration.
So Ellen, I will see you later this year at some point. I’m going to let myself be greedy and see you twice in one year; I will still be planning a trip to LA to come see your talk show. It’s my gift to myself for surviving 25 years ago and living positively every day since that explosion, despite all the challenges I’ve faced having to live a “scarred” but beautiful life.
Well, the inevitable came. Snow. Way too early, but I live in Alberta…it was coming. It’s the middle of September and as I’m sitting here writing this, there’s a bunch of white crap falling from the sky onto my lawn that desperately needed a mow and rake (that’ll be fun 🙄). My kids have been back at school now for just over a week – and I’ve been thrilled to be back into routine…but man do I ever miss summer.
I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for three summers now. This past one being my third. The first two summers I was bound and determined to make them the best summers ever for my kids (Ciara and Paxton had previously spent every summer of their lives in daycare).
That was my first mistake…focusing so much on making it a great summer just for my kids…and forgetting about me. I matter too. I deserve a good summer too, with more than just my kids in the memories. I love my kids more than anything – but they’re not my entire life. I would die for them – but I also want to live. So before the haters start hating let me just say this…
…and let me do me.
So how was this summer the best? I spent time with people who make me laugh, make me feel good. Good people. This is everyone from family, my kids, my husband, and of course my friends. I’ve made my circle. I made choices on what to do this summer, based solely on what I want to do with those in my circle. I didn’t revolve summer plans around just my kids.
I can feel it – the judgy moms are judging! But hear me out…my kids are the biggest part of my circle. I didn’t put them in camps, or sports this past summer. We just lived each day as it came and made plans on the fly most of the time. We made memories, without feeling like we HAD to. If you were to ask my kids if they enjoyed summer, each of them will say they had. They spent time with their friends, family and we even had some days where we just laid around and did nothing…and it was wonderful. I know…it felt wrong at first to me too.
My husband had to work most of the summer, with just a few hours at home at any given time. But we made sure to use every second of his time at home by spending time together as a family – and making sure all of our buckets were full before he had to leave again. We cherished every minute together, because we had no idea when the next one would be or if it’d be even shorter. It is thanks to my husband working so hard that I was able to enjoy summer so much.
My kids aren’t the only ones I wanted to make memories with. I spent time away from the kids; laughing and making memories with other adults. Some of these friends aren’t parents so some of those nights weren’t even filled with kid talk! Some of these memories are so great that I can’t remember them all unless reminded…
Not only did I make sure to make time and memories with my friends, but I was also careful with who I choose to spend time with. Let’s face it – summer is always too short. There’s never enough of it. I wanted to be sure to spend time with people who lifted me up, made me feel good and the less drama the better! The past few years I’ve made note of how I felt when leaving a get together with someone – did I feel drained or full?
I spent time with those people in my life who make me feel full – and because of that, my memories this summer are full of love, laughter, and in some cases, new friendships were formed.
Now again – summer is short. And I am blessed to have many positive, up-lifting, good people in my life. I did not get the chance to spend as much time with some people as I had wanted – but that’s just because life got in the way and summer is short! But that doesn’t mean I love you any less! If anything I love you even more – because our friendship/relationship doesn’t suffer if we only get a chance to see each other once in awhile.
Did I mention, summer is short? Short but oh so sweet. But just because my favorite season is over, doesn’t mean I can’t make this the best winter ever (apparently mother nature just wants to skip over Fall this year). And then the best Spring and then before I know it, it’ll be Summer again and next summer will be even better than this one. And without realizing it – all of a sudden I’m living the best life I could have ever hoped for (still some dreams floating out there).
Live in the moment. And cherish your moments. Give value to yourself and your time. Choose your circle based on who makes you feel good – and then love them hard. Summer isn’t the only thing that’s short – so is life. Make it your best life.
I’ll always remember the day my nine years of life was blown away from me. Literally. Tragically. It happened 25 years ago today. July 25, 1993.
I’ll always remember the last walk I took before the explosion. I was walking by myself, towards incredible danger, I just didn’t know it. I also didn’t know that I wasn’t really by myself. I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I was walking towards the cabin where my toys were. I didn’t know that this walk would be the last walk I would ever take, as me. To this day, I firmly believe that weird feeling I had, was God or some kind of divine intervention trying to tell me to stop, turn around – do not go into that cabin.
I’ll always remember the awful smell as I walked into the cabin. I didn’t know what it was. I remember looking and seeing the propane stove burner was turned to on but there was no flame or anything cooking. So I just shut it off.
I’ll always remember reaching for the lighter. The lighter that my aunt had previously given explicit instructions that only my older sister was allowed to use. But I needed some light; the cabin had no electricity. It was just a lighter anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? If only I knew.
I’ll always remember lighting the lighter.
I’ll always remember opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks covering the carpet of the cabin. I remember being scared and screaming.
I’ll always remember seeing my dad work frantically to cut my clothes off and wrap me in freezing cold drenched towels. I remember my dad picking me up in his arms and turning around to carry me up to the truck.
I’ll always remember the look on my oldest sister’s face when my dad turned me around. Her hands were covering her mouth, her eyes wide with fear, repeating the words “Oh My God” over and over. I remember looking over to my left arm when I saw her face, and I saw a large flap of skin barely hanging on.
I’ll always remember that as the moment I knew I wasn’t ok. I was hurt, badly.
I’ll always remember the first time I heard about my mom’s reaction, I wasn’t there to see it, for that I’m grateful. My dad had sent my mom up to our trailer to get some ice, mainly to get her out of the way, so he could help me without a hysterical mother getting in the way, just like any mother would be if her baby was badly hurt. When she ran back from the trailer with the ice in hand she saw that my dad, uncle and I were already gone. My mom dropped the ice, fell to her knees and just started crying, praying, screaming “MY BABY! MY BABY!”.
I’ll always remember my uncle speeding to get us to an ambulance. My dad holding me the entire drive. Talking to me. Making sure I didn’t fall asleep. I remember being so tired. Not in any pain…yet. I’ll never forget how my dad saved my life that day.
I’ll always remember my dad pounding on the ambulance shack door, the EMT’s taking less than a second to open it, and my dad yelling at them “WHAT THE HELL TOOK YOU SO LONG?”. He handed me – his badly hurt baby girl – to them. He probably won’t admit it, but this is the moment when my dad was allowed to break down. To lose his cool. He did everything he could for me. Now it was up to the pros – and god. He was finally allowed to be scared. And he was. My whole family was. No cell phones meant no communication. My mom, siblings and aunt – all left at the cabin, had no idea what just happened or if I was ok. Or alive.
25 years ago today, when I was just nine years old, I was in a propane explosion. I didn’t die. But the Joy who walked into that cabin, did not come back out. I was left with 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. Countless surgeries, never-ending prayers, unconditional support from friends and family, 5 weeks in a hospital bed – and not one of those days was I ever alone.
My parents were by my side the entire time. Taking turns being with me, working and taking care of my siblings. But I was their main focus for so long. I was all they thought about. All they talked about. They were so strong. I didn’t see my mom break down once – years later she’d tell me that’s because she’d wait until she got to her room for the night – it was in her room, alone, where I wouldn’t see her pain, where she would let it all out. All her fear, pain, uncertainty, tears. There was one time I remember my dad leaving my hospital room and as he got to the door he turned around and said “I love you Joy”. His words cracking as he fought back tears.
There are some things I remember from the explosion and hospital. Some things I don’t remember, but I’m told about – to this day my dad will tell the story of my accident with such pride. My mom stays a little more quiet when we talk about it, the painful memories possibly still a little too painful.
I don’t remember seeing my face for the first time after my grafting. My arms and legs were right there so I couldn’t help but see them; I saw the bloody, gross, “new” skin that I would have to live with forever. I can remember the pain. Excruciating. So incredibly painful. Indescribable. It hurt to cry. It hurt to smile. It hurt to move. It hurt to lay still. Eventually it would hurt to exist.
I remember my family being there, completely. Every single step of the way of my healing journey. My dad would tell us, “Normal doesn’t exist for us anymore. We need to find a new normal”. Not only was I not “normal” anymore, with permanent scars covering my body, but all our lives had changed. Forever.
As the years passed, it felt like I would never be normal again. And yet that’s all I wanted. I just wanted to be a regular kid. A regular teenager who would have crushes and be crushed on. Oh I had crushes alright. But what teenage boy would ever want to date a girl with scars. The constant pain of feeling unwanted, unlovable because of my scars would follow me from my teenage years into my adult years.
I remember crying myself to sleep more nights than not. Scratching at the scars on my face, praying that I could wake up and they be gone. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t know lighting that lighter would make me look like a freak. Like a monster. With alligator skin. Or chicken skin, as some people liked to call it. I didn’t know. I was just a child. Nothing about this was fair. If you had told me that one day I would learn to love my scars, (which my mom did often), I would have called you crazy (which I did. Sorry mom). That day eventually came.
The pain I’ve felt since the day of the explosion is pain like nothing I could even begin to describe. The physical pain sucked. But it ended. The emotional pain stayed. It’s still there. I do wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t been burned. I wonder what I would look like, who I would be, where I would be. My dad would tell me all the time “No Pain, No Gain” – I hated it at the time. Now, those are words I live by.
I tried to end the pain on three separate occasions. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was constantly suffering. Struggling. Hurting. I didn’t know how to be ok. I didn’t know how to love myself the way I was. I thought everything would be ok, I would be ok, my family would be ok, if I just died.
Becoming a mom changed all that. I knew I had to change. The long journey of learning to love myself and love my scars, began the second I looked into my daughter’s eyes for the first time. I wanted her to look up to me, not feel sorry for me. I wanted her to see strength, beauty, and love when she looked at me. I knew that if I wanted that from her, I had to give it to myself first.
While learning to love myself and every single scar on my body, I realized, finally, that my family suffered too. For too long. They went thru hell, just as long as I did. Just a different kind of hell. They had no choice but to watch me suffer, hurt and cry. They felt helpless – what could they do? I want them to know that they did everything they were supposed to do. 25 years ago up to today, and I have no doubt for the rest of my life I can turn around and they’ll still be there.
I don’t want to diminish what my siblings, extended family and friends, and everyone else who was incredible support towards my family and I went thru, it will never be forgotten. But there are two people who I think really need a medal of honor, bravery, heroism. My parents.
Imagine sitting in a lawn chair, it’s a hot summer day. You’re relaxing. Visiting. Making memories. Little did my parents know at the time, when they heard the explosion, it was the beginning of a lifelong, heartbreaking, life-changing, on-going memory that they too won’t be able to forget.
Imagine hearing the sound of your child screaming in utter fear. You go running to the sounds of her screams. What you see in front of you is like something from a horror film. The front wall of the cabin was blown out a couple feet, the door was jammed into the floor. Your little girl is standing in the middle of the cabin. Something didn’t look right with her. She had a dazed look on her face. She was bloody.
Now imagine seeing your child lying in a hospital bed. Head swollen to the size of two basketballs, arms and legs just as swollen. She’s sedated. It’s unclear if she’ll survive the night.
Imagine being told that you might want to start thinking about a funeral for your nine year old child, as she lays in a hospital bed – secluded. You can’t hold her, touch her, hug her, you can’t even dry her tears.
Imagine seeing your child having their healthy skin removed and stapled on to the burns. Seeing her wince every time something as small as her toe had to move. Seeing her cry and hearing her swearing at god for letting this happen to her. You can’t cry too. Not yet. You have to stay strong. For your little girl. You have to. If you break down, she’ll have nothing left to hold on to. But you feel so helpless. You can’t do anything to make her feel better, to make the pain end.
What my parents went thru is something I hope I never have to experience. I’d rather go thru the explosion again a million times over than experience the hell my parents saw and felt 25 years ago. My parents are the strongest people I know.
I wanted to do something special and memorable to mark my 25 year anniversary. I didn’t want it to be looked at as a tragedy – but instead an experience that made me the woman I am today. I want my parents and everyone else to see that I really am ok. And maybe, probably, I need to see it for myself.
This photo shoot was emotional. I thought I was strong enough for it, and I was, for the most part. But there was a couple times when I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wanted to show my strength. Jerry, I don’t know how I can ever thank you for capturing exactly what I was feeling in my heart, my soul – it’s like you knew, without me being able to describe what I wanted. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving this gift to me. It means more to me than you’ll ever know. The photos captured what I needed to have captured. They show that I’m stronger than what tried to kill me. Which is how I finally feel. Propane still scares me, but I don’t let it control me. I am in control of my life and how I react to what happens in it.
The location of the photo shoot was perfect – the only thing that would have been more perfect would have been the actual cabin – but I’m not sure I would have been able to handle being back in there. I went once, and it was hard. Larysa – thank you so much for finding this building and thinking of me when you saw it. You have an eye for that kind of thing and it really was absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for that and for all your help during and after! These photos, this shoot, is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Finally, I’d like to end this with advice to anyone who is going thru their own hell. Advice given to me from the two people in my life who are true heroes. My heroes. As my dad would say, “No Pain, No Gain”. Those words I hated while I was healing but have grown to love and respect them – because it’s so true. I went thru a lot of pain, and I’ve gained so much because of it. And, as my mom would say, “have faith”. I asked her a few years ago how she survived this tragedy. She told me she prayed. A lot. And just kept having faith that everything would be ok. Eventually, it was. Today it is.
Although I will always remember July 25, 1993 – I am ok. I am strong. I am a survivor.
I originally wrote this as a Facebook status on my personal page – because the anniversary date of my accident is coming up and I’ve got all the feels. Not the good kind either. I honestly don’t have a name for them, but they’re there every year around this time. I decided to turn that post into a blog because I KNOW I’m not alone in this and I want others to also know they’re not alone.
Did you know, that when someone goes thru a traumatic event at some point in their lives, when the “anniversary” date of said traumatic event creeps up each year, it is a very emotional time for the survivor? No matter how well someone is doing (or seems to be doing), no matter how much time has passed since the trauma, no matter what…the date stares at them just as hard as they stare at it.
For me, every time I flip my calendar to July…the 25th always seems to just pop out. Every time I even glance at the calendar all I see is 25. And yet I’m SO OK with my accident. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Don’t really wanna go thru it again but I wouldn’t change it either. It was traumatic. I suffered for YEARS. It was HARD to learn to be OK.
But no matter how many scars I give a nickname to, no matter how many jokes I make about the explosion, I have a hard time giving a name to the feelings I feel every year as the time to flip the calendar to July creeps up on me. I don’t think there’s anything I can do to cure this. It sucks but I also think it’s important. Important to remember that even though I survived a propane explosion, I’m not invincible. To remember that with all the pain, of which I will never forget, there has been so much good since the second I lit that lighter. To remember that if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I allow myself one day a year, only if I feel it’s needed, to cry. To grieve for that 9 year old girl. To grieve for my family and all they went thru. Usually that day is July 25. But come July 26, I’m back. Back to living the life I love so much.
I truly wish that everyone who has experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives also can learn to not let it control them. That you learn to allow yourself one day, perhaps the “anniversary” date to have the emotions surrounding the trauma. But only one day. If you give yourself more than that, you’re going to find yourself in a hole that will be hard to climb out of. And you’ve already gone thru hell. You’ve already climbed that hole – don’t go in it again. Instead, look down into it and then look up, hold your head high and be proud. You survived.
Ahh, Mother’s Day. What a day. Some people really relish in the day and get spoiled. Others are aching extra hard today because their mom is either passed on or not part of their life for various reasons. Some feel like it’s just another “hallmark holiday”. I have three amazing children and an incredible mom who is very much a part of my life. So why the complicated relationship? Well, let me tell you.
NEWS FLASH!!! Being a mom is hard. Heart breaking. Stressful. Complicated. Confusing. Did I say hard?
The Single Mom Life
I had my first child when I was 20. She wasn’t planned at all. I was born in a Catholic home and we were raised to believe that you don’t have sex, therefore children, until you’re married. Well, I was the first (and so far only) child of my parent’s kids (they have seven) who got pregnant out of wed-lock. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the man I got pregnant with was not a good man. I won’t go into those details but lets just say my entire family knew he was no good for me, let alone a child too. Therefore, it wasn’t a happy pregnancy. Full of guilt. So much guilt. Full of sadness. And so much fear. There wasn’t any baby bump photos. There wasn’t any comparing my fetus size to a fruit each month. Although this pregnancy wasn’t planned, and this child was going to be born into an unhealthy relationship, I still wanted her. Abortion was never an option. Neither was adoption. She was meant to be mine. That was 13 years ago. And it’s been a hard 13 years. When my oldest was born, I left her “dad” when she was only three months old. Once I had another life to take care of, I saw what everyone else saw – he wasn’t just no good for me – he wasn’t good for her either. He wasn’t going to help give her the best life she deserved. So, I choose to be a single parent. Since the day I left, my ex proved that I made the right choice.
I was a single mom for 7 years. Just me and Ciara. I had to deal with all the challenges that come with parenthood by myself. My ex was not supportive in any way. But I made sure she felt loved. Every day. Even on the bad days when I had no idea what I was doing. I know I did good. How? She tells me. She loves her life now, but she mentions sometimes how she misses the days when it was just her and I. We did everything together. I remember booking her first day of kindergarten off work so I could just sit and cry after dropping her off. How did my baby grow up so fast? Don’t even get me started on how she’s almost done grade 7 already…
I didn’t feel like I was a good mom. I made mistakes. Many. Too many. I doubted everything I did. And although I’ve now given her the family she so badly deserves, I still feel like I haven’t done good enough. She deserves the world. All my kids do. My husband legally adopted her. Her “real dad” is more of a distant uncle to her. My husband, her REAL DAD, shows her every day what a dad is supposed to be like. But some days, I still worry that I haven’t done enough for her.
Step-mom to a child with special needs
When I met my husband, he was a single dad to a 1 year old boy. He had his son most of the time. His mom was in and out. And now, she’s mostly out. He lives with us full-time and sees his real mom a couple times a year. I treat Paxton no different than if I gave birth to him myself. I’ve been in his life since he was one, and I’ve been his mom since he was three. I don’t feel like I’m enough for him. Although his real mom isn’t really around, I see the pain he feels everyday, missing her. I know he loves me. He calls me mom. He respects me as his mom. But I’m not his real mom. He aches for her all the time. That makes me ache for a few reasons: 1. He’s hurting. Which in turn makes me hurt for him. 2. I know I’ll never have that motherly bond with him that most moms get when they carry their child in their womb for nine months. 3. I know that no matter what I do, I’ll never be his “real” mom, even though I consider him my real son.
I don’t try and “compete” with his birth mom. I know I’ll never replace her, and I don’t want to. I know he loves me like a mom. But I so badly just want his pain to end. My son, has had a rough life…and he’s only nine. When he was five, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Opposition Defiant Disorder (ODD). I knew when he was three that something wasn’t quite right. He struggled daily. He would have meltdowns that would last for HOURS. During these meltdowns, he’d get almost like a super-human strength. He’d hurt anyone who was in the line of fire. And it seemed he didn’t care who he hurt or how badly. But he did care eventually. He has the biggest heart of any little boy I know – and when he lets that show, he is so loving. He just didn’t know how to handle what was going on in his brain. He still doesn’t. Maybe he never will. He’s scared, lonely and in pain every day. I hold him when he’s crying. I try and be as patient as I can be when he’s having a melt down. But I fail at that too. Having a child with ADHD and ODD is HARD. Challenging. Exhausting. That combined with not being his real mom, makes parenting him extra hard. Extra heart breaking when he has bad days. More tears flow from my eyes and heart for him than I ever imagined possible. I just want him to be happy. To feel loved. And even though I do everything I can to make him feel this way, sometimes I really feel like I’m not doing enough. His heart has been broken since he was a baby. And I’m doing everything I can to mend it for him.
Having a child in the NICU
My husband and I got married in 2012. My daughter and his son (now they’re both OURS) were our flower girl and ring bearer. It was a perfect day. Immediately after our honeymoon, we started trying for one together. We both wanted to have a child “the proper way”. A child that was planned. We finally got pregnant in 2014. We were overjoyed. It was a rough pregnancy though. I had gestational diabetes and everything swelled up and hurt. It was a long nine months. I was so happy to be having this child with my husband; but I felt like I was already letting my unborn child down – although I did everything to take care of myself during the pregnancy, it wasn’t good enough. The odds seemed stacked up against me; and therefore our child.
Our daughter came into the world exactly 10 years and 2 min to the day of our first daughter (just a little fun fact). I’d given birth once already so I knew how it goes. But when Sahtaysha came into the world, instead of them handing her directly to me like they had with Ciara, she was taken away from me. Because of my gestational diabetes, she was having a hard time breathing on her own. My husband and doctor tried to distract me but I could see the nurses putting a little oxygen mask on my baby. I kept asking what was wrong but no one would tell me. Soon, they took her out of the room. I didn’t even get to see her. My husband, torn with the decision to stay with me or go with our baby girl, was scared but being so strong for me. I told him to go with her. When it was decided that she needed to go to the NICU for treatment and to be monitored, he begged them to let me at least see her. They brought her into my room and I was able to finally lay my eyes on this new human who I already loved with every bone in my body. It would be another four hours before I’d be able to go up to the NICU and hold her.
She spent five days in the NICU. Nothing compared to most of the babies in there. She was the healthiest baby in there at the time. One baby passed away in another pod during our stay. It was the longest five days of my life. I’d rather go through my accident all over again than have to sit in a NICU, feeling completely helpless and scared.
I want a crystal ball
I worry about my kids Every. Single. Day. All day long. I worry that they’re getting bullied at school, or that they might be the bully. I worry that they’ll fall into the wrong crowd and get into drugs, sex and alcohol. I worry that they won’t follow their dreams. I worry that they won’t have a dream at all. I worry that because of mistakes I’ve made being their parent, that I will have screwed them up. I worry that all the times I’ve yelled at them or screwed up some other way that I’ve imprinted a permanent scar on their hearts.
If I could have a crystal ball, not to see the winning lotto numbers (that’d be cool too though) but just to see if they’re going to be OK when they’re adults. Will they be kind, caring, professional adults? Will they be good parents one day? Or will they be sitting on a therapist’s couch talking about me? I think I could relax a bit more, and just enjoy each day with them to the absolute fullest, without any guilt or fear, if I could know that they will be OK.
For so long I felt like I was a bad mom. Sometimes, I still do. I know that I am the best mom I can be and I am learning more every day on how to be better. They are loved, so much. I tell them that every day. And they tell me the same. Sometimes multiple times a day.
So why the love/hate relationship with Mother’s Day?
My husband and kids always go out of their way to make me feel like mom of the year on mother’s day. Although I have my doubts on if I’m doing everything I possibly can for my kids, the love they shower me with removes those doubts for a little while at least.
From the day I first became a mom over 13 years ago, I’ve always felt that it’s the most painful (and rewarding) experience a person can go thru. Sending my kids out into the world means I’m sending my heart out there too. It’s been trampled as they’ve experienced unpleasant things in life. And it’ll continue to be trampled and broken as they get older, until the day I die. There’s nothing I can do about it. I just love them so darn much. I suppose all I can do is be sure they know I’ll always be there to mend their hearts back together.
Now to the hard part. Mother’s Day is impossible to forget. It’s plastered all over the tv, social media, and in every store for weeks leading up to the day. What about those who have lost their moms? What about those whose mom chooses to not be in their lives? What about those who so badly want to be a mom, but can’t for whatever reason? What about those who have lost a child or children? What does Mother’s Day mean to them? I ache for these people.
I lost one child, before I even knew I was pregnant. I didn’t really grieve as most do when they miscarry – I was sad of course, but I didn’t even know I was pregnant so I didn’t bond or fall in love with the child who died. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it is to lose a child in any stage – whether it’s before they are born or after. Whether they pass on when they’re children or adults. The pain of losing a child is one I hope I never have to endure – but my heart still hurts for those who have. Especially on Mother’s Day.
So, the day after Mother’s Day, I’d like to say this to anyone who hurts on Mother’s Day for whatever reason – you are loved. Your pain is recognized. Your loss is recognized. Your loneliness is recognized. I wish for you, a crystal ball too. So you can see that you too will be OK. For whatever loss you are feeling every day but especially on Mother’s Day, I am so sorry. If I could give you all a hug, even though I may not know you, I would.
This summer, July 25, 2018 will mark 25 years of me being a burn survivor. For the past 10 years or so, I realized that I was burned for a reason – to help others. OK, my accident WAS an accident. A freak accident. I wasn’t supposed to get burned. No one is. I learned I couldn’t dwell in self misery and pity my whole life. Instead, I wear my scars with pride and hold my head up high. And with this being 25 years, I can’t help but feel like this is the year my dream will come true…
I devote my life now to helping others, in many ways. However, I decided that I was going to do something for me this year to celebrate my 25 year burn anniversary. Out of everything I could do, I ultimately decided a couple years ago that I would go to LA at some point this year and try and get tickets to the Ellen show; my gift to myself.
I haven’t made it to LA…yet. The year is just started. That’s not the point of this blog, or why I need you to help me get Ellen’s attention. Ellen is coming to Calgary (which is only 3.5 hours from my home) this Saturday, April 21, 2018 for a moderated Q&A, “A Conversation With Ellen”. When I realized she was coming, I wanted to go so bad. But having three kids on a single income, it didn’t seem like it’d happen as there was not enough time to save money for the tickets. But then, at Easter, my entire family and members of my husband’s family presented me with a beautiful card and two tickets to see Ellen in Calgary this weekend. It was their gift to me for my burn anniversary later this year. I still can’t believe I’m going. I’M GOING TO SEE ELLEN!!!!! The woman who thrives on making dreams come true…I’m getting closer to how you can help me….closer to my dream coming true…I hope.
On July 25, 1993 my mom’s worst nightmare came true when the cabin I was in exploded. Her 9 year old little girl was burned with 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of her body and I was scarred forever. For this reason, and also because she is my mom and the strongest woman I know, she will be the one sitting next to me this Saturday when we go see Ellen. I made her worst fear come true the day I got burned (obviously not on purpose) so I feel it’s only right that she’s there with me when my dream comes true. My mom hasn’t left my side in my 34 years on earth, and especially not in my 25 years as a burn survivor. She’s dried every tear and held me when she couldn’t end the pain. She’s cheered me on in every endeavor I’ve taken, and she too believes in my dream. She believes in me. My whole family does.
I’ve called and researched and asked – how does a moderated Q&A work? I’ve only ever been to concerts so I’m a newbie at this. How do we submit questions for Ellen to answer? Turns out, no one really knows. My mom and I will be sitting in the front row of section 219 (FYI Ellen) and I hope she’ll see my hand waving in the air. I’ll probably make a sign in hopes she’ll see that too. I will do everything (non crazy) to try and get Ellen to hear my question. Which is ultimately, to hear my dream.
Easter was 3 weeks ago – and I haven’t stopped thinking about what question I’d like to ask Ellen. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I need to make it count. It needs to be perfect. I have ONE chance. My chance could slip away…but not if I can help it. I’m known to be a dreamer, and a doer. If I want something bad enough, I’ll work my butt off to make it happen. So that brings me to the point of this blog and why I need YOU to help me get Ellen’s attention. All I need you to do, is share this blog. You never know if she or someone she knows will see it! The internet is a wonderful creation – and has been the gateway to making dreams come true. I have a dream – a big one. A good one. A beautiful one. A dream I’ve been working on and towards for years – a dream that answers the question I yearned to know the answer to, “why did I get burned?”.
Everything is lining up perfectly in my dream – well, almost perfectly. It hasn’t come true, yet. But I truly believe that if Ellen could hear it, she’d believe in it as much as I do – it’s that good. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll help me make my dream come true.
This world is in need of a lot more love, acceptance and understanding. For too long, I felt alone as a burn survivor. Like no one understood what I was going thru – not even other burn survivors. I felt scared, sad, angry. I would pray asking God, “why? Why me?” for so long. Well, he finally showed me why. I was burned because he knew I could handle it – OK wait. Not quite. I don’t believe God planned for me to get burned. But it did happen, so he helped me thru it and he is now answering my question as to why – I want to help others who have been thru a traumatic experience at some point in their lives. I want to help people like me, so they too can not feel alone in their pain. Not just burn survivors. Anyone who has an incredible story of survival. I want to help others to rise above their traumatic experience and live their life holding their heads high with pride for what they went thru – and survived. Like I did. I don’t cover or hide my scars. I never have. I’m proud of them. They tell my story.
My dream is to help others in a new way. A big way. I’ve worked so hard on this dream, I believe in it, and I truly believe it will happen one day. Because it’s exactly what the world needs. It may not be what I was born for, but I truly believe it was what I was burned for. My dream is too big for a simple blog or for me to read to her on Saturday if I’m given the opportunity; but I will have it printed out and ready to hand to Ellen for her to read when she has time. So, my question for Ellen is this:
Ellen, can I hand my dream to you? I’m not a musician or actress – but handing out audition tapes or head shots is how so many people make their dreams come true. So I figured that this isn’t really any different – I have my dream and the background with me today – can I give it to you? All I need is someone to believe in it as much as I do, and I think you could be that person. You resemble love, acceptance and you have proven that dreams do come true. If you could read it in your own time, that alone is a dream come true.
As a kid there are few defining moments in your life that can alter the course of your existence. Mine was when my father abandoned us. I will never forget it. He left when I was 8 years old and to be honest, good riddance but that still doesn’t make it any better. He terrorized my mother and caused her such heartache. The WIN House was a place we called home for awhile.
After he left, my mother, grandmother and myself had to learn to fend for ourselves. I was so angry with my father for leaving and often blamed my mother. A boy should have his father and he abandoned us. I didn’t understand any of it. I had to grow up quickly because my mother spoke very little English and I had to become the man of the house and help her. I learned how to do the banking, pay bills, cook, clean, and grocery shop.
Now being raised by a single mom, we often used the services that were offered. We survived on social assistance, the food bank and the generosity of friends. I suddenly was shifted into a world where I got used to what hungry felt like.
Growing up wasn’t easy, I was angry and wasn’t an easy kid to deal with and my mother didn’t know how to help me. I suddenly had no rules and more freedom than I knew what to do with.
When I was 12 years old I would sneak out at night and roam the streets. I ended up talking to the ladies of the night while they were waiting for their next customer with tears in their eyes. I would bring snacks and talk to the homeless, I was never afraid for some reason, just very curious about people and why they were in the situation they were in. I think this is why I can do what I do today. I would learn from people, their body language and facial expressions, how they wore masks and tried to be someone they never really were. This is where I started to learn compassion for the broken and lost souls of humanity.
During high school, one thing that distracted me from wrecking havoc on my life was the love of sports. I was really good at basketball and I loved it. Nothing would or could stop me from playing but I got in with the wrong crowd and things changed for me.
I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol and found myself creating a character to help with the anxiety and sadness I would feel most of the time. This character was fun and fearless and I found myself liking him more and more.
People wanted to be around me because I made them laugh, little did they know and I was more comfortable playing him than I was the real me. This led me to eventually be out of control and rely heavily on drugs and alcohol. For over a span of 10 years, drugs and alcohol was my main existence. My life was a huge contradiction. By day I was working with kids and adults with disabilities and by night I was partying like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t care, I loved the high and I wasn’t afraid. Eventually I realized I needed help because I was so out of control and the coming down from the high was excruciating, I lost everything.
I knew I needed help and couldn’t do it on my own so I admitted myself into rehab. I have to admit, I ended up going back a few different times because I would slip up and be right back where I started but I have to be honest with you, rehab taught me a lot about myself and I realized why I was doing what I was doing to myself. I also realized I was good at helping others and that started my journey to finding my purpose in life.
I picked up a camera and I can actually say photography saved my life. It gave me a purpose and a reason to do what I love and that is sitting down with the broken and forgotten humans that are so often passed by without a glance. The first time I took the first photo, I was hooked. I spent all my spare time practicing and learning about photography. I studied all the great photographers and knew I wanted to be one of them.
It’s funny with all the photos I have taken and I have taken thousands, you will never get to see my best photos because I have never taken them. More often than not when I sit down with someone and ask them, “how are you today”, they can look at me with such pain in their eyes that it takes my breath away but I understand it. I sit down and I listen. I have no desire to take those photos, because not all pain needs to be documented.
I feel more comfortable with the souls of the street than I do with any other type of people. They are my people and I feel at home with them. They trust me now and know I have their best interest at heart. Through my photography, I am raising awareness for the way they live and creating change in the hearts of the people who follow my work.
At times I receive messages from family members of someone I have posted and they are so thankful their father is alive because they haven’t seen them in 5 years or someone I have posted has passed away and they message me asking if they could use my photo for the funeral.
I am not driven by wealth or material possessions. I’ve been there, done that and it didn’t do anything for me, it actually complicated my life so much that I never want to go back to that lifestyle again. I am a simple man with simple needs and live an hour out of the city to get away from the hustle and bustle. For 10 years I didn’t have access to the Internet or even have a cell phone.
One day, a friend of mine told me I should check out Humans of New York and out of curiosity I did. I realized, that is exactly what I have been doing all along and could share my photos with other people in the same way so I created Humans of Edmonton Experience and the rest as they say, is history.
With all of this being said, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to find myself, to find my purpose in life. I have to admit, I used to look back on my life and wonder what if things were different, I could’ve been this or I should have been that but then I shake my head and realize, this is exactly who I am supposed to be.
I learned the true meaning of hard work at a very young age. My folks made sure we had food on the table, a roof over our heads but more importantly a loving family.
Living on the farm we learned the true meaning of hard work. We were part of a small community and we all contributed to each other’s livelihood. We all trusted each other even when strangers came around, they were treated like family. But I soon learnt that trusting someone doesn’t mean they are trustworthy.
There was a stranger who would frequently visit the farm. He was always kind to the kids, giving out treats and making us laugh but I learned later he was a monster. He sexually abused me and stole my innocence. I knew I should tell my mom, but I didn’t want to burden her because she was going through hell of her own. My dad was killed in a hunting accident and she lost the love of her life. That man finally stopped coming around. I don’t know what ended up happening to him but growing up I always hoped to see him again one day to settle the score.
My whole family had to relocate to Edmonton. We had no money for a home of our own so we relied on the generosity of family and friends. We all ended up going our separate ways, just trying to survive the best we could.
We were all broken kids, we lost our home, our dad, we just lost all hope. I saw my sister take her last breath. I was losing everyone that I loved. I had so much anger inside of me and no way of understanding how to deal with all of the pain, I turned it into learning how to live on the streets. I turned to drugs and alcohol because I didn’t want to feel anymore. I was homeless for years and my new home was the inner city and my new family were it’s people. I came to rely on the Bissell Centre and the The Mustard Seed for my basic needs like food, clothing and a hot cup of coffee.
One day while I was at the The Mustard Seed centre, I thought, I could help out. What my parents taught me still stayed with me and I wanted to give back to the organization that was there for me. I asked the staff if I could volunteer and that is the day my life started to take a turn. It felt good to give back, it felt good to have a purpose and help those who became my family. I cleaned the tables and did whatever was needed. I volunteered at Bissell Centre centre as well and as much as I could and realized helping gave me back purpose and a direction that has carried me through to this day. I ended up being hired on at the Bissell centre and have volunteered and worked there for over 20 years.
I have moved on from there and now I dedicate my time and my life in helping out in the inner city and those who are less fortunate. They are my family and I work to ensure we have what we need everyday.
To the Humans of Edmonton Experience, I bring over 40 years of experience in the inner city. I will be doing inner city walks to show people what it’s like to live on the streets and explain what the different agencies in the city do to help with homelessness. One of the biggest reasons I want to give back is because I owe it to myself to be kind to all those have help me and to show my son and daughter that I have not seen in years what I have become.
My strength is my compassion and to always strive to make a difference in this world. I am very proud of where I have come from to where I am now, life couldn’t have been a lot different.
I received the Diamond Jubilee Award from the Queen for recognition for volunteering in my country, a plaque from the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in Recognition of Human Rights, the Human Rights Award nominated by Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta’s Promise Award for my commitment to youth and children, Outstanding Service of an Individual from the Bissell Centre, 2006 Volunteer of the year from the Bissell Centre and the Commitment to Volunteerism.
When I was born I had no clothing and no pockets and that’s the way I’m going out.
My name is Joy Zylstra. I was born and raised in Camrose, AB by two loving parents. I am the middle child, of seven kids. Five sisters and one lucky brother. My childhood was not a normal one, to say the very least.
When I was nine years old my family and I were visiting with my aunt and uncle at their cabin in Boston Bar, B.C. Two of my older sisters and I were staying in the guest cabin while everyone else slept in the main cabin.
On Sunday July 25, 1993 everyone was sitting outside the main cabin, chatting and relaxing. But I was bored. I went to the guest cabin where all my stuff was to play with my Barbie’s. To this day, I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I walked to the cabin. We had just had lunch, so I knew I wasn’t hungry. So, I ignored it. Now, looking back, I firmly believe that it was God telling me to turn around; to not go into that cabin.
I walked into the cabin anyway and I smelled something strange. I looked around and saw that the propane stove was on, but nothing was cooking. Thinking nothing of it, I turned the burner off. The cabin didn’t have any electricity, so the only source of light was a candle. I grabbed the lighter to light the candle so I could find my toys. The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks all over the floor. I screamed.
My family had all heard the explosion. But at first, they didn’t know what it was. They thought a semi truck had fallen off the mountain. But then they heard my screams coming from the guest cabin. My uncle and dad came running to me.
Long story short, the cabin was filled with propane. Just the spark from the lighter caused it to explode. The logs lifted and came back down, trapping my sister’s sleeping bag in-between; the roof lifted and came back down sideways; shelves fell; and I was burned. Badly.
After the doctors realized I was going to survive, they told my parents that I suffered from 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. This meant I would have skin grafting which would result in scars, to almost half my body – for the rest of the life. I was in a lot of pain while in the hospital. But nothing could prepare me for the pain I would have being forced to live life looking like a “freak” and “monster”.
I was only 9 years old. In the hospital, I was determined to remain positive, happy – I would tell jokes often. But I had no idea what was coming. When I returned to school just 5 weeks after the explosion, all my old friends (except one) wouldn’t come near me. I don’t blame them – we were just kids. And I looked awful. Bloody, purple skin; garments on my torso, hands and legs; a mask on my face and a bald head.
Teenage years were the hardest. While all my friends were starting to get boyfriends, I realized quickly that no guy wanted to date me. I was ugly. One guy even told me that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because of my scars. I was severely depressed. Depression would follow me for the rest of my life. At 16 I attempted suicide three times. I would cry myself to sleep every night praying to God to take my scars away. I just wanted to be normal. Pretty.
As a teenager and young adult, I thought the only way to numb the pain was with drugs, alcohol and sex. I thought if I slept with a guy then he could eventually learn to love me, scars and all. Drugs and alcohol didn’t numb the pain, it made it worse. I was so lost. So scared. So sad.
Then, I became a mom at the age of 20. I’ll never forget looking into my daughter’s eyes and refusing to let her feel about herself the way I felt about myself. The birth of my daughter was the start of my healing process.
I left her father as it was not a healthy relationship and embarked on the single mom life. I moved us to Edmonton where I put myself through college, got a good career with a big company and bought my daughter and I our first home. And while doing this, I would look in the mirror and tell myself that I was beautiful – scars and all. Eventually, it worked. But I was still depressed.
It was just my daughter and I for the first seven years of her life. I was so lonely, but now I had self worth. I knew I deserved a good man – but where was he? Most men still looked at my scars and wouldn’t even think about a relationship. I was about to give up on finding my soul mate, thought maybe the single mom life was for me. But then I met him. My husband. He tells me that the first thing he noticed about me when we first met was my smile. Not my scars. We married 5 years ago. He adopted my daughter and we now have three beautiful children together. But I was still depressed, I just didn’t know it (or maybe want to admit it).
For years I knew my accident happened for a reason, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started going to schools and giving burn awareness presentations to help avoid any one else going through what I went through. I volunteer at the same burn unit I was treated in almost 25 years ago to help those burn survivors know that they’re not alone – and that it can and will be ok eventually. The depression though, never left. I just buried it. It eventually creeped back up earlier this year, and this time I didn’t ignore it. I sought help with it and have accepted that it could be there for life, as long as I take care of it though, it won’t take over my life.
A year ago I started my own page, Scarred, Not Broken to showcase hope. I started interviewing other survivors of tragic and life challenging events. I want people who are going through a hard time to know that they’re not alone. Because that was the hardest part for me – although I was never physically alone, I felt so alone. Like no one knew what I was going through. I’m determined to help others, not just burn survivors – survivors of anything, know that they’re not alone. I dream of one day having my own talk show. One that has guests who share their story of survival and hope. Their stories deserve to be heard – and need to be heard by others who are going through something similar.
Which brings me to why I am so excited, proud and humbled to have been asked to join Humans of Edmonton Experience. The four of us have such diverse backgrounds, which makes us the perfect team. I look forward to the lives we’re going to help, to the changes we’re going to make in the world, to the love and acceptance we’re going to help spread. Being part of this team is the beginning of my dream coming true.
Emil Tiedemann is an Edmonton-born and raised blogger, writer, and photographer who runs ‘I Heart Edmonton,’ an award-winning blog and social media outlet specializing in exposing all the awesomeness of his hometown. He also spent two years on the Board of Directors of the Edmonton PrideFestival Society and is the writer behind the book 101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton (2016).
I wholeheartedly believe life’s far more accessible and optimistic for the LGBTQ youth of today, especially in a country such as Canada. But even just a few decades ago, it was another story altogether. And that’s not to say that today’s LGBTQ youth don’t have their own issues and struggles as well, because that’s just not the case, but what I would have given for the chance to grow up gay in today’s social climate!
I am sure I would have “come out” far sooner than I did and that it would have been a clearer decision for me right from the beginning, and that perhaps most of the people who cared about me couldn’t have cared less about my sexuality. Let’s be honest, when I finally did come out – in my early 30s – I had it pretty good. Nobody disowned me or even used any derogatory language towards me (to me face, at least), and I felt free to let practically anyone know exactly who I was for the first time in my life.
However, when I was growing up, my thoughts of coming out were grim and even ominous. I felt dread and fear about my future all the time. In my head my options were either to pretend my life away by living as a straight man the best I could, or just not living at all. I just couldn’t imagine – no matter how hard I tried – myself living as a gay man, living with another gay man. It was not plausible, and so I chose the former.
That’s until I met a guy, a straight guy, who didn’t even flinch when I answered “yes” to his question: “You’re gay, right?” It was the first time, in fact, that I had answered that question honestly, and it was like I had unleashed something deep inside me that had been dormant all these years. He didn’t care that I was gay, and I had a new outlook of what my future could be. Those feelings of dread were no longer there, replaced by optimism and even excitement.
It was from there that I decided that I wanted to help others take on their own personal demons, to shed frustrations and fears, to open up ideas and find new paths to follow. Because my story isn’t just my story, it’s a shared narrative for folks all over the world, even right here in one of the most liberal and progressive nations on the planet. A place where being a gay, agnostic, Indigenous man is not just okay but even celebrated, and where these restrictive labels do not exclusively define the rest of my life and who I am. Hiding from one’s truths should never have to be an option, for anyone.
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