By Rose Pauly
At first glance it would seem that the moment of the explosion was the one that altered life forever.
In many ways it was, but nothing compared to what would follow. The truth is, the moment of raging flame, when the very air was consumed by billowing fire and tortuous heat, was not the ultimate point of life change. It wasn’t the inextinguishable inferno that was the defining moment of his life, even as it tore his flesh and singed his body to the bone. His definitive moment was something much greater.
It started as an enthusiastic house restoration project. The old Victorian in Durango, Colorado, had potential and with some hard work and human know-how should be a great place to flip for profit. The varnish crusted oak floors were beginning to take on a new radiance as the last remnants of hundred year old patina were etched from the dimples and grooves of time. Lacquer thinner, a “hot chemical”, flowed across the floor and fumes filled the air, almost imperceptibly with gradual accumulation. His fiancé stood across the room and while in mid-sentence, it happened. Dense fumes intersected with the wall furnace pilot light and the laws of combustion played out in full volatile force. The five gallon can of liquid next to him was the next to succumb to the violent conflagration.
The explosion propelled her through the glass front door and onto the small stone masonry porch. He, in full adrenaline panic, ran through the wall of blazing air and incinerating heat to the back door and grabbed the brass knob. The shear temperature of the knob melted his flesh like butter. The moment seemed to briefly stand still, like a surreal out of body experience; every nerve producing severe pain at the same instant, and his brain on overload, unable to process.
Was it ecstasy or agony? He couldn’t tell.
Looking through the fire consumed air to the front door he knew there was no way of escape. He had to find a way out, or just curl up and die. With time as his enemy he ducked into a side bathroom. Briefly catching his breath he saw it. A four pane window above the toilet seat. Flesh, seared and hanging loose from his body, didn’t stop his upward movement to find release. With a quick blow of his elbow the window shattered and seemed to miraculously disappear. He leaped through the opening, landing with his midsection straddling the sill. Fire followed the oxygen and plunged through the open window, lapping at his back and bare legs. Without realizing, his lips moved, and a neighbor came running, “Angelo, help us, we’re dying!”
From the looks in the eyes of those peering at him in gaping awe he knew he was in bad shape.
Reality didn’t fade into oblivion until after the ambulance ride, a painful transfer to a gurney and the morphine began to take effect. Third and fourth degree burns over more than 85% of his body required quick action during the “golden hour” a burn victim is allotted. Medical personnel performed escharotomy, multiple incisions made across the skin. This procedure, which was not unlike the filleting of a fish, would save his life by preventing systemic shutdown due to swelling. Soon he was ready for the fight for life to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Here he would spend the next three months in a medically induced coma, waking up just in time to see the millennium turn the corner in December, 1999. Y2K had some strange events in store.
Erin was born 27 years earlier, the third child of five, to parents about to succumb to the pressures of life and divorce; his life shaped by the forces of poverty, pain and broken relationships. After the birth of his youngest brother, his mother struck out on her own in a ’79 VW bus and raised her children in precarious places, at one time living out of a refurbished school bus. She headed west too ashamed to return to her family that was in disarray after a series of painful and tragic events, including an attempted suicide by her younger sister. She, too, was shaped by her family dynamics, one of which was a recent loathing for religion. The family had been severely wounded by a trusted clergy and they had exited out of the faith arena with disillusionment and bitterness.
For 27 year old Erin, a life without God was bred from his beginning, and deep within he knew that the only purpose for life, was life itself.
He was determined to climb up the success ladder, be financially independent, and tear down anything that had the gall to stand in his way. Little did he know how drastically his plans would soon derail.
The day of the accident found him in full swing toward his goals. Achievement was certain, self-sufficiency was god, superior intellect drove him on, and life was on track. What more could he ask for? It was all life had to offer and he would grab every ounce of it. God didn’t exist, yet even if he did, he was irrelevant, a gross non sequitur.
But that life had been abruptly halted, crashing in on its own collapsing remnants. Waking up out of a coma as the new millennium dawned brought new confusion, pain and mental agony. A mirror was held up and his insides shut down as Erin peered at the figure looking back at him. There was no resemblance to the old Erin. His eyelids and eyebrows had been burned off, his nose, ear tips and fingers missing, and his flesh seared all over his face and body.
Quick death seemed a much better option than life in this twisted skin.
There was one bright spot, however. He was allowed to see his fiancé, Molly, who had also come through the ordeal. Her burns were less severe and she was going to return to work shortly. Left alone during the brief meeting they again professed undying love and a desire to be together once Erin was rehabilitated. Their encounter was short lived as things would soon change. In order to get more advanced care Erin was transferred to the University of Utah where he embarked on a tumultuous and arduous journey of learning to walk, talk and function in daily activities again. The process was complicated as he was now functionally blind, his reconstructed eyelids sewn shut to facilitate healing. Even when his eyes were open the fire had left his vision impaired, like looking through a shattered pebble glass door.
By April he was ready to visit his home in Durango, scarred and patched on the outside, but finding a ray of joy on the inside. He would surprise Molly at a welcome home party friends were throwing for her. Anticipation swelled, yet the moment she walked in, instead of surprise, she looked at him with a dispassionate gaze and turned away.
His internal balloon of hope popped and the rubber latex melted to his insides.
Questions too big to fully encompass began to assault his thinking, “This relationship is meant to be. What is happening?!” “If she doesn’t love me, who will ever love me?” “What is my life worth without her?” In a desperate attempt to salvage the relationship counseling sessions were scheduled.
The first session was a colossal disaster. It became evident that money was wanted, not love. Molly was yanking everything that had meaning out of his life. In a fit of panic mixed with fearful rage Erin began spouting off erratically, cursing her and wishing all around her dead. That’s when the band snapped. Telephone calls were made, arrest followed. After a 72 hour hold at a mental hospital in Pueblo he returned home to condemning newspaper headlines and restraining orders. It has been said, “When hope is gone, consequences don’t matter.” This described Erin. The spiral continued downward at a ferocious velocity. Life was without meaning and purpose. The train was careening down the perilous mountain, a monumental wreck inevitable.
Post traumatic depression set in with a vengeance.
Drugs were easy to acquire from his physicians, claiming pain as a burn survivor. The prescription drugs were joined by alcohol, marijuana, LSD, cocaine and psilocybin mushrooms as the numbing agents. Alone or all together they could not blot out the internal pain. Erin became consumed by what he couldn’t do; still unable to tie his shoes or fasten his buttons. His mother had been at his side all along to help, and reminiscent of childhood days, she fed and dressed him.
When Erin went out he was both shocking to the senses and invisible at the same time, blanketed by a veil woven with the awe of his brutally raw profile. Using this to his advantage, Erin began a shop lifting spree, marveling at how he could walk right out doors with merchandise as people were mesmerized by the destruction of his flesh.
This too, escalated, and climaxed the day he stole a commercial truck and rammed it through the warehouse doors of a local business.
Without alarm or person in sight he loaded up his vehicle and headed off with the loot. In a strange way this exhilarated him and deep down there was pleasure knowing someone else was experiencing loss. Seething at the harshness of his own reality he gathered all photos of himself, threw them into the garbage can, and lit it on fire. To punctuate the moment he filled an old pair of overalls with rags and hung it with a noose from his balcony. The old Erin was dead.
Piercing news soon reached his ears. Erin’s longtime friend was now shacking up with Molly. He was operating Erin and Molly’s business in his stead, living with her in Erin’s old house. The world was sucked out of him. He was being erased from his own life, and someone else was living it. His friend became his much needed nemesis. Someone had to be the focus of his consuming rage.
A little over a year had passed since his injury and it was New Year’s Eve. Erin had been invited to a party with friends, and the dancing, drinking and revelry served to drown out his latest onslaught of loss for a time. That is until midnight.
When the clock struck and everyone began kissing their partner he was instantly hit with a bolus of emptiness and loneliness greater than anything he had felt before.
A tidal wave of despair hit without mercy, the voice ringing in his head, “No one will ever love you! You are worthless and alone. You might as well be dead!” If there was a hell, which he was sure there was not, it wouldn’t be defined by fire, but with unbearable loneliness.
Suddenly he ran out, desperately determined to do whatever it took to reclaim his business. He needed some part of his old life again. Knowing Molly and his friend were away on vacation, he broke into the house he had once called home and frantically looked for his computer and business files. Passing a doorway to the spare room he noticed her purse on the bed. Peering into the forbidden contents he gasped as he saw a new .357 magnum. Instantly he knew his initials might as well have been carved on each bullet. Grabbing the gun, the computer and files, he headed out the door, greeting neighbors as he loaded his car. The small town headlines that followed the arrest spoke volumes yet carried little understanding of what was driving his hurt, “Burn Victim Threatens to Kill Girlfriend.”
The sentence of four years in the state prison seemed like an eternity.
Almost exactly two years after his accident, Erin watched the last remnants of his life slip away as he shuffled, burdened by restraints, through the stark gate of the Denver Reception and Diagnostics Center of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Here there was no special treatment for a burn victim. His injuries were ignored and he was expected to survive with the toughest of them. It made Erin furious when he struggled to put his shoes on only to miss the open door for yard time. “You missed me!” he screamed into the intercom. The flat toned voice responded, “Better be on time.”
Crazy as it may seem, it was in prison that the runaway train that had been his life finally hit the plains and slowed to a steady crawl. Erin was forced to start doing things on his own and could no longer fall back on the help of a sympathetic hand. His life hit the necessary “pause” button; essential if he was to survive. Finally stripped from the medicated whirlwind that had encompassed his existence he was laid bare to grieve. He began the process of walking through the pain of his loss, which seemed to include almost every part of his life. Vacillating between utter despondency and glimmers of hope he allowed his heart to face his reality. Weeping became cathartic as gut-wrenching grief flowed from his being.
The years passed and Erin was soon released back into the world that had been such a harsh place to navigate. He was in a good place considering everything. Could he make it this time? He was determined to give life one more chance, give it his all. But if it didn’t work out; look out world.
A fortunate turn of events opened an opportunity to volunteer for the Red Cross. This in turn opened up a hired position and before he knew it he was working in downtown Denver at a great new job. It seemed mysterious how things just kept falling into place for him, being hired for data entry when he was the one missing fingers! Unexplained success continued until Erin felt some force of the universe was on his side. That was as close as he got to an idea of God. When any discussion came up of a real and personal God he dismissed it readily and labeled the idea preposterous. When Jesus was mentioned he became even more adamant.
All Christians were crazy and deluded as far as he was concerned. He was not prepared for what would happen next.
At a World Burn Congress in Baltimore his eyes fell upon a most beautiful woman on the dance floor. A burn survivor herself, she stood out above everyone around as she radiated an inexplicable light, joy, peace and happiness that immediately drew him to her. Instantly he was struck with how opposite her countenance appeared from what he had experienced on the dance floor that fateful New Year’s Eve long ago. He wanted what she had. A love he hadn’t felt for a very long time welled within his heart. He had to get to know her. The next thing he knew, the two were walking along the waterfront, getting to know one another in the moonlight. A friendship was born that night that turned into love.
Erin and Melisa were married on June 26th, 2009. They had much in common, yet there was one grand difference. Melisa was a devout Christian, Erin a stalwart atheist. He loved her so much he figured he would take a chance on her regardless of her wacky faith. After all, he was sure that after some time he would be able to adjust her ideas more into alignment with his own. The rest of life was on the road to success as he was invited into the position of interim executive director for the Red Cross in Northern Colorado. It was as if some spell were on him, some weird source of blessing, some uncanny hedge of protection. He didn’t understand, but it was good.
Parole was finally up in 2009, a full 10 years since his accident. The celebration, however, was short lived. It wasn’t long before the slide began. The previous path of success seemed to have evaporated. Work became stressful and weighty and the drugs and alcohol that had once numbed were brought in as sullen friends once more.
Life plunged downward as he frantically grabbed anything that looked like a life buoy in the tumultuous seas.
Peace was gone. His relationship with Melisa was deteriorating and even counselors didn’t seem to help. Erin tried Buddhism and Hinduism, grasping for some form of the eternal, something outside of himself. Deep inside he sensed there was more to life; but God? Surely that idea was just too backward, too preposterous to consider.
It was November 17, 2010 and it seemed like any other day. Erin had just met with a therapist who had encouraged him on the practice of channeling Hindu spirits and cleansing his Chakras. It was his latest attempt to find meaning and he felt driven to draw Melisa into his new ethereal world. On the way home he dialed crazy cousin Billy for a chat. His cousin was an off the grid hermit living in a sheepherder’s cabin up near Vail, Colorado. Billy, who obsessed on aliens, world strife and the Mayan calendar was always good for an eccentric idea or a good conversation about the latest conspiracy theory. Walking through the door of their home, Erin thought it might be fun to taunt Melisa a bit with some outlandish rhetoric so he put Billy on speaker phone and began following her around the house.
Melisa had reached her breaking point. She couldn’t take any more of Erin’s affronts. She would go home to her mother’s in the morning, traveling back to Canada, a place she once called home. For now, a refuge in the bathroom was all she could find and she shut the door. At that moment, while talking about surviving the end of the world, Billy asked a startling question. “Erin, you know what the most important thing you got to do is, right?” Erin never would have guessed what he would hear next from Billy, “You need to get on your knees and ask Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior.”
The words instantly pierced Erin’s heart. In that moment it was as if he heard the very voice of God, a God he had never believed existed.
Total fear began to consume him. Thirty-eight years of searching for meaning and truth suddenly seemed to evaporate into thin air. He was overcome like never before with his own utter sinfulness, filthiness and brokenness. The presence of God, a being so powerful, holy, and majestic made him feel like melting to the floor. In that moment he sensed he was standing before the judge of the world. If lightening were to fall, he would be a grease stain on the carpet. What does one do in the presence of God? He began shaking like a leaf. Melisa emerged out of the bathroom and Erin ran to her desperate and crying, bawling and shaking. Grabbing her shoulders he pleaded, “Please pray for me!” But Melisa appeared vacant as if she didn’t hear. She had taken a sleeping pill and it was already working.
That’s when it came. An impression he knew was from God, “Erin, this is between you and Me. Just give yourself to Me.”
At once he dropped to his knees and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. Thirty eight years of trying to prove God didn’t exist ended in an epiphany of the holiness of God. There were not words to say, only a deep release and an acknowledgement of who He was. A profound peace poured over Erin in that puddle on the floor and a weighty load felt lifted from his shoulders. He had been in the presence of God. Nothing in his life had impacted him like this. Erin was broken but knew he was loved. He was wounded, but knew he was whole. He was a sinner, but felt bathed in forgiveness. He would be forever changed.
In a world where cynicism is vogue and disbelief in a realm beyond is commonplace, it is difficult to come to grips with an event of such magnitude. We are afraid to entertain the grand idea of a God who intersects with human life, often at the point of our greatest heartache and failure. We try to explain away the miraculous and love the stories of human will and strength pushing through all odds to overcome any obstacle. It makes us feel in control. It gives us a sense of superior intellect as we pull from our repertoire of rhetoric to disprove the existence of deity. We attempt to observe God as a scientist peering into a microscope at an amoeba, detached and evaluating with our assumed superior wisdom. But then God reveals himself. The only response is to bend the knee and surrender. It is surrendering to a place of love, of peace, of hope, of healing, of life. Like Job of old, when God spoke, there was no other option but surrender.
There is no way of knowing why God chose that time and that place for a grand revelation of himself. Maybe it was the prayers of Erin’s great-grandfather, poured out years ago for his offspring, or maybe it was the hours of prayer that Melisa had offered since she first met Erin, that finally reached their fulfillment time.
However it was, Erin will be the first to say that this moment of encounter with the living God was the true defining moment of his life.
When he thinks back on his journey he realizes that God was there all along; guiding, directing, and holding him up, even in his rage, his disbelief, his runaway-train-living. It has been quite a ride, and he is still traveling. Yet he readily says, “My birthday pales in comparison to my burn anniversary. But my burn anniversary pales in comparison to the day of my conversion. That’s the day my eternity was decided.”
Life continues with its challenges and struggles and sometimes those things can hit like a load of bricks. But Erin has confidence in a new reality as he walks forward with his wife, Melisa, at his side. There is a God who loves him, has healed his heart, has restored his soul, and has saved his life. He is a God who says, “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.” Erin knows this promise is real because he knows God is real. He is a man who knows what happens when the depth of human pain intersects with the love and power of God. It was the moment that changed his life forever.
For more information, or to contact Erin Mounsey you can send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org You can also find him on Linkedin and Facebook
By Rose Pauly