It had been a warm day in August of 1959, but as evening approached it carried with it cool breezes from the Pacific that would make it cold when the sun set. It always got cold at night. Some Aunts and Uncles and my cousins were visiting! Oh what a great day!
What made it especially exciting is that the visit was one of the first on my own turf, and I wanted to show them every little thing in the house and yard. Well, everything that was important to ME that is. There was my bedroom with the hand written paper sign tacked to the door that said “BOYZ KEEP OUD” and my very own playhouse between the house and the garage workshop. Lukie Bean had built both the garage and the playhouse, and the playhouse looked like a Disney cartoon created especially for me.
Lukie Bean was not my Daddy. Just my Dad. But I liked him. He was okay by me. My mother was happier than I had seen her in a long time and I thought he was probably the reason. I didn’t want her to be sad. She was my best friend and she had seemed sad ever since I could remember. I tried to be very good, as good as I could be. Not because I would be punished. That hardly ever happened. I tried to be good because I couldn’t bear to see her sad and I didn’t ever want to be the reason she was sad.
A very big yard stretched out as we passed through the garage which had BIG doors on both sides so you could drive right through into the "back 40" as Mother used to call it. It was really only a 1/2 acre, but it felt big, there in our neighborhood in Linda Vista on the bluffs overlooking the San Diego River Basin. Out there in the "back 40",I had some really neat playground things. My favorite was the huge rectangular trampoline. I would jump on it for hours and hours trying to count how many seat drops or knee drops I could do in a row without faltering. Someday I would master the flip, but not today because everyone wanted to have a turn. Usually I only had Stanley, the kid next door, to play with, and I didn’t have any brothers or sisters yet so having other kids, and real live cousins to boot, there in my own pretend kingdom, was just too exciting for words. My little sister, Becky had died not long after her birth. She was born too early they said. That made ME sad. I had really been looking forward to a brother or sister, but Mother said I wouldn’t have to wait long. She was expecting in about a month and was waddling around like a duck. I thought she looked so funny waddling that way. It was a glorious day, full of promise and the kind of joy and excitement only a six-year-old can know.
The smell of BBQ wafted through the late afternoon air. We would be eating in the palm frond covered patio, but the kitchen of the smallish tract home we lived in was the center of activity. The meat was cooking on the grill outside, but everything else, it seemed, was happening inside and soon the bigger cousins were called away to help with the final preparations. I wanted to help too, but I was too little, being the youngest cousin in the troupe that day. Mother grabbed me as I was running somewhere and forced me into a sweater. I didn’t like that at all. It was wool and a little bit itchy, but even though I told her I wasn’t cold it didn’t matter. The sweater was staying on.
Deprived of the cousins, I ended up back in the “back 40” again to see if I could “do something” for my new favorite grownup. We called him “Uncle Buddy” and he was really keen. He was Lukie Bean’s younger brother and had just come to San Diego from Illinois, where he and Lukie Bean grew up. He had come to work for Lukie in his construction business and he was hardly more than a teen-ager. He lived, temporarily, in the travel trailer behind the house and he drove a model A pick-up. Sometimes if Mother and Lukie Bean had to go out he would watch me. He let me eat green beans cold and right out of the can and he had something else in a can I hadn’t ever seen before. Bread! Canned bread was amazing to me. He opened it with a can opener, plopped it out like a can of dog food and just like magic - round bread!
So, (back to my story) since no one else was paying any attention to me at the moment, I found Uncle Buddy and asked him if I could clean his fishbowl. He had showed me how already and I had done it before. I felt really grown up putting the little goldfish in a glass and then washing out the small, rounded tank. I usually took the whole business in the house and did it there. He said I could and so off I went, trying not to slosh the fish out before I even got to the house, walking like a tight rope walker and holding the fish and the bowl against my chest very carefully with both hands, which, of course, only made it slosh more.
My sweater was getting wet. Icky green fish water wet. Maybe Mother would take it off me when she saw that.
Up the back steps slowly. Carefully holding the big glass bowl cradled in the crook of one arm, I opened the kitchen door. Inside and across the kitchen. My Cousin, Loyce, was the only one in the kitchen now. She was filling a pitcher of ice with water to take out to the picnic tables in the patio. That's where everyone else seemed to be at the moment. I reached the fridge. A few of my drawings were there. Not all of them made it to the "Frigidaire Art Gallery." Next to it was a counter top with a cutting board built right into it. I liked that. It would slide in and out and in and out until my mother told me to "quit it." That’s where I decided to set the fishbowl down while I got the other things I needed. Sitting on top of that counter, that afternoon, was a HUGE coffee pot. It was a giant cylinder that looked like a rocket ship and the smell of percolating coffee was strong as I stood right in front of it.
My arms were getting tired after carrying the fishbowl across the back yard, through the garage, up the paved drive past my playhouse and into the kitchen. I realized that I had better be quick before I dropped it. The hand that opened the door shot out again to pull the breadboard out. I guess I didn’t see the electric chord of the coffee urn draped a little over the edge of the counter and hanging where the breadboard would catch it when I pulled, but I did notice as the big coffee urn tilted in my direction and started to fall off the counter, tipping sideways like a rocket ship that never made it off the launching pad. Both hands shot up instinctively to protect myself from being hit by the urn. The fishbowl crashed to the floor (poor little gold fish) and when the side of that urn hit my small outstretched hands, the lid exploded off the top and about 30 or 40 cups of boiling coffee hit me squarely in the face and chest, finding the floor by following a path down my left arm and leg.
Then commenced a period of time where I don’t remember much of anything except strange emotions and surreal, disjointed impressions. They say when you are dying or in shock you don't feel much pain and I don't remember feeling any at all. When I got a little older Mother filled me in on the details of what happened next.
Cousin Loyce, still standing by the sink with that pitcher of ice water in her hand, saw most of what transpired. When she saw me standing there covered with coffee grounds and literally stewing in the aftermath of being dowsed with the boiling liquid, she didn’t really know what to do. She was still just a youngster herself, only 4 or 5 years older than I was, but she knew she had to do something! As she screamed for help she took the pitcher of ice and water and poured it over my head.
I ruined a perfectly good BBQ and family gathering that day. Everyone was beside themselves. Mother ran in and started to undress me to look at the burns, but the woolen sweater had literally melted, it’s fibers merging with my boiled skin. Because of that, taking the sweater off meant taking the skin off as well. The ice over the head was both the best and the worst thing that could have happened, the Doctor told us later. Washing out the coffee grounds probably saved me from infection, but iced water over burning flesh had the same effect as heating a marble in the oven and then plunging it in icy water - You get cracked marbles, all shot through with tiny fissures that create a kaleidoscope effect. The extreme hot and then extreme cold popped the burned skin loose. And now I know, though I didn’t then, that our skin is what keeps what is inside on the inside and most of what is outside from getting in. So, what was inside me, didn't have much to prevent it leaking out. You get the picture. Sorry. Yet infection might have killed me just as easily.
Mother stopped what she was doing, wrapped me in a clean sheet and they rushed me to the clinic of our brand new family Doctor. Even though it was after hours and a weekend, Dr. Wilson met them there and surveyed the damage. He spent a very long time with tweezers removing badly damaged skin, and doing what he could to keep me going. I remember laying on the table and looking into that strange, giant face that was very close to mine, nostrils flared, frowny face concerned. After a while an ambulance was called to take me to the hospital his practice was connected to. As the night wore on, he could offer no hope. Death would almost surely be the outcome here. 3rd degree burns over more than 50% of my body and not enough skin left to hold the fluids in. I would die sometime in the night. They needed to prepare themselves for what he thought was inevitable. He was a kind, but very blunt and practical man.
As doctors and nurses swarmed around me in the hospital, the family gathered in the waiting room. The mending of fences that was beginning for my mother and her sisters, after her divorce and re-marriage, began to dissolve. The youngest four of the eight siblings were a pretty religious bunch and Mother hadn’t been doing very well in their eyes for quite some time. They were right, but they didn't know how to handle a backslider sister. To top it all off Grandmother was ill. Too ill to have traveled the hour or so to the gathering that day. They weren't sure what was wrong with her. She shouldn’t be told. She couldn’t be told, the sisters said. It might kill her! Her precious, youngest grand-child injured and dying. This would have to be handled with care. But mother resisted. Grandma knew God. She knew how to pray. She had to be told! But they wouldn’t have any of it and they became a united front against her.
As a child, teen and young adult my Mother had experienced a vibrant, exciting and Spirit-Filled relationship with God. She and my father had gone to Bible-School and were planning a life of full-time ministry. But disillusionment during those Bible School years, a failed marriage and even adultery had all but destroyed her faith, and Daddy's as well. In her heart, she was far from God and she knew it, even though her life was slowly getting back on track outwardly.
Mother had always been the head-strong one, though among the 5 Payne sisters, Allie, Mary, Lillie Jean, Betty and and Mother there were several that rivaled her. The youngest of eight and baby of the family, my mother, JoAnn, was hot or cold and nothing in between. That night she didn’t care one bit about obeying the wishes of older siblings. She knew she wasn’t walking close enough to God to have the faith that was needed in this moment. So, she went outside to “get some air," found a payphone and called her mother.
My Grandmother, Lillie Payne, was polar opposites with Mother in personality. Slow and methodical. Not one to talk much. Extraordinarily patient for most of her life. Very short with long, straight grey hair and high cheekbones in a round face that framed slightly slanted eyes. Piercing eyes, but eyes that smiled. All together her physical features clearly betrayed the 1/4 Choctaw Indian that flowed through her veins. She was Lillie Shrum and had married, James Payne at the very young age of 14. Then she had stubbornly stayed married to that alcoholic husband who would disappear, sometimes for days and sometimes for years at a time. She kept her family of eight children together, housed and fed through the Great Depression and beyond - even when she had to do it alone. She had come to Jesus when Mother, her youngest, was only a year old. And though her life had been hard beyond imagining, she was sweet and kind and generous and full of the Holy Spirit. At six years old I loved her beyond words. She lived to come stay with us and help with my wedding and then went home to heaven about a month later. Her house was more familiar to me than any I had lived in. I can still see it’s rooms and furniture and her standing in her kitchen whenever I wish to. With her I was safe and around her there was peace, and we doted on each other. When Mother was single and I was very young I spent a lot of time there.
So Mother sneaked away and called Grandmother. And Grandmother went to her knees. What she prayed I don't know. How she prayed that day I couldn’t say. How much she prayed. No idea. All I know is what Mother told me later. After a long night of not being allowed to sleep and sipping 7-Up through a straw that was almost continually held to my lips (I do remember that and I guess that’s why I’m not a big fan of 7-Up to this day), lying in a humiliating, crib-style, child’s hospital bed; which is mortifying for one who is a BIG GIRL and SIX-YEARS-OLD, (Isn’t it weird the things we remember), morning FINALLY came and I was still alive. When Dr. Wilson made his morning rounds and poked his head in at the door, he was amazed that I was still in the land of the living. He changed my bandages, talked to the nurses and then came and told my very pregnant mother that I seemed to be “out of the woods.” I would probably live. BUT! Yes, but. And this was a very big BUT. Here’s what we had to look forward to. Months and months in the hospital. Horrible scarring was a certainty, especially on my face, neck and chest. To expect to have anything like the appearance of a normal child, while growing up, was a thing not to be grasped. Any good looks, not to mention beauty, Mother might have hoped for in me needed to be forgotten. At that point I wasn't at an age to know or care about such things. And one last thing. There would be surgeries. Many, many painful surgeries - skin grafts that would need to be done and re-done as I grew since grafted skin doesn’t grow with the child.
So, Mother waited for Dr. Wilson to leave, then put down the glass of 7-Up with the straw in it, picked up the phone and called her mother again.
I’m sure there must have been others praying. Grandmother went to the local Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church there in Vista, California where she and Grandpa (who had finally settled down in his old age, but still hadn’t given his heart to Jesus) lived. Grandma went to church faithfully. It was her support group. Her extended family. Her social network - even though Grandpa steadfastly refused to go with her. Aunt Betty, however, who was Mother’s next youngest sister, lived near Grandma and they all went to church together. Aunt Betty, her husband, Uncle Eddie, and two of the cousins, Roger and Loyce. I would imagine that the prayer warriors of that church were involved and probably the pastor as well, and the others in the family too. But Grandma was certainly the tip of the spear and she continued to storm heaven on that second day that I was in the hospital. Me there with Mom, who sat by my bed in what must have been incredible discomfort and fatigue in her last month of pregnancy, forcing me to sip 7-Up, trying to stay awake and keep me alive. She probably got breaks relieved by other members of the family, but I don't remember that and I don't remember them. I only remember that she kept watch and Grandmother prayed.
The clock ticked away another day there in that, oh so boring, room. When Dr. Wilson appeared the next morning and took a look at me, pulling bandages away from oozing flesh to have a look (a pretty painful process as I recall since I wasn't in shock any longer), he got a funny look on his face and sort of rubbed his brow. He didn’t speak for quite some time, but after bringing others in and talking among themselves, in whispers outside the room, he came back to Mother and said,
“I’ve never really seen anything like this before. We’re going to change her bandages here in a bit and then you can take her home."
And that was it.
I never went back to the hospital. There were just some regular visits to Dr. Wilson's office for bandage changes, checkups and wound care. I never had a skin graft or any other surgery - not one from then until I was all grown up and had to have a C section. Within 6 months of "the day that changed everything", in August of 1959, when all the scabs had healed and dropped off and the sun had tanned the new miraculously smooth skin again, no one (not even the family) could tell where, or even if, I had been burned at all.
By the time I was all healed up I was just turning seven. My little brother, Monte, had arrived strong and healthy, during my convalescence and Mother and Lukie Bean had found a church in town where the pastor was one of my mother’s former bible school classmates. They attended faithfully there for many years. Mother threw herself on the Mercies the Lord again, and in genuine repentance never looked back. Lukie Bean, who had been raised in a very decidedly NON charismatic/NON Pentecostal household and church, was also beginning to surrender to the Lord and see life under grace in a whole new way. Soon he knew that there was more, much more to serving God than his “Cessationist” upbringing had led him to believe. God DID care about us as individuals and WAS still doing miracles today. And. . . you COULD have a real personal relationship with Him. Thank you very much!
Mother was walking as forgiven and also learning to forgive herself for the failings that had almost destroyed her life. As for me, when I heard a ventriloquist and his dummy at a child-evangelism meeting tell me that Jesus Loved me and that He wanted me to give my life to Him - I didn’t even bat an eyelash. It was a done deal.
I already knew it for certain sure.
I knew then just as I know now. God is REAL and He CARES for me and for you. It was all very fresh for me then, but I bear the evidence of it in my body each day.
I have walked with Him ever since.
When I was 11, I was filled with the Holy Spirit. The next day, He spoke to my heart and called me into ministry.
By the time I was 12 He was already drawing me to sing and speak for Him in public.
When I was 18 I became a full-time missionary and am today, still walking in that calling.
When I was 21 and expecting our first child a funny “rest of the story” kind of thing happened. Jim and I were in Northern California and getting ready to go on tour with the Agape Force. The Lord provided money for me to have a checkup and the doctor that saw me happened to be a young resident at a local hospital/clinic while he was working toward a specialty in dermatology. The check-up that day was just to make sure that I was healthy and that my pregnancy was going well before I left town for the Summer. But after I was examined I sat for what seemed to be a very long time, mostly dis-robed, in a cold examination room, waiting for this young Doc to return and give me the "All Clear". When he did come back he seemed a bit flustered.
“Have you ever been burned,” he asked timidly.
“Yes, I have,” I answered. A smile was forming inside, but I tried not to let it out just yet.
“Can you tell me about it,” he asked again?
And so I did!
I told him a somewhat shortened version of what I have just told you here. All the while, he listened intently, his eyes getting big a few times like what I was saying was a little hard to believe. But when I was done he said, with what seemed like a kind of relief,
“That explains a lot because your skin is not right. Well, what I mean is, ummmm, it’s not the right texture. It’s texture is like scar tissue, but it's smooth like normal skin and I have never seen anything like that before."
And so, Dear Friend, that is my memory of the day that changed everything for me, for my family and for many people since. And also the rest of the story. It is why I know, for certain, that God is real and that prayer does move the hand of God. It is just one of the reasons why I belong to Him completely and it is why there is nothing so important in my life as communicating His love. Nothing I care about as much. Nothing else that really motivates me. Nothing else that seems more worth doing than to speak or teach or sing or write or serve and show, somehow, that He is real and that His Kingdom is HERE. His power and love are NOW and his open arms are for ALL who will submit themselves to His loving, Fatherly heart.
I am essentially still that same little girl who, having done nothing to deserve this healing, was touched and changed forever as an answer to the prayers of others.
I was pulled, as a child, into His loving embrace and that is the only place I ever want to be.