Death Passed Me Over

While boiling water for my morning coffee, I removed the kettle from the stove. A flame shot up, catching the underside of my sleeve, and soon it seared 55% of my body.  I raced into the hallway screaming for help. A neighbor saved me by smothering the flames with a blanket and calling 9-1-1. 

Settled in the burn unit, I knew nothing in my life would be the same, and panicked. 

Since I am a painter, the only thought that calmed me was the prospect of transforming this horror into art. I have since been determined to make a film of the day, with me as the director not the protagonist, to survive as a creator. I knew nothing about making a film. It took me seven years to heal, find the people to help me with my project and to raise the money for the 11 minute short.

After the writing of the film, collaborating with a composer for the soundtrack and the shooting of it, the time came for the special effects. I still felt like a victim, a slave to the trauma and scars holding my mind back from experiencing life without feeling damaged.

My producer hooked me up with a special effects man, Gary. I hadn’t coordinated this phase of post-production with the Jewish holiday symbolizing freedom. Nor had I thought about Passover’s significance in relation to my life or film at my family’s Seder a few nights before. It was our biggest annual holiday celebration with relatives and friends gathered around my parents’ table with great food and conversation. Although we took turns reading from the Haggadah, the Passover prayer book, the required four glasses of wine made it seem more theatrical than religious, devoid of any application to our lives. I hadn’t connected the three drops of wine my father always spilled for blood, fire, pillars of smoke, as anything more than ritual.

After staring at images of flames for hours in the studio, I had no appetite.  But Gary opened a brown paper bag and took out his lunch of matzo, two hard boiled eggs, carrot and celery sticks, in observance of Passover. A subliminal perception clicked in my brain: between the way my eyes had just been overwhelmed by images of flickering fire on one hand, and his familiar meal of sacrificing bread for the holiday on the other.  

I realized: I had been passed over by death.

We returned to our work. Watching closely to see the most convincing way he could create the illusion of fire catching on the actress’ sleeve, I became nauseous. I was going for believable realism and I knew when he got it right because I stopped breathing. I touched my right forearm, and it was not hot. It was intact, a reminder that I was watching it happen to someone else on a screen and that she really wasn’t getting burned. I exhaled deeply. Reliving the initial experience, on a cellular level made me dizzy. At that moment I felt the same panic as when I was on fire, although the experience had happened seven years before. It was very difficult to convey the essence of the sensation for Gary to reproduce while simultaneously remaining detached in the present. This challenge generated an adrenaline rush that forced me to relive and fully experience the heat and  pure terror, triggered by the movement and color on the monitor.  

I returned to feeling myself sitting on a chair, watching.

Next, Gary needed to make the flames slowly consume the actress’ body. I watched as she rushed from the stove towards the door into the dark hallway. He tried several techniques to meld the dancing orange and red fire with the dashing figure. Eventually he made the flames gradually envelope her green jumpsuit until the woman was no longer visible. The scene was only fire, scored by the recorded cries of whales.  I was shaking, but only as the observer. I wasn’t on fire, but watching the action on a small screen wearing purple silk Bermuda shorts, a cotton top and vintage, short brown and white cowboy boots. On the outside, I had moved on. I had the power to say, “Yes, that’s the EFFECT I want.”

The next task was to move the bright red and orange flames down the color spectrum to yellows then blinding white. As we sat at his small desk, Gary filmed a single flame from a small candle in front of us and proceeded to manipulate that light. I wanted to see something expansive and abstract. He broke down the colors in the flame and ran them together on the screen. It reminded me of blending oils with a brush, wanting that painterly blending from pale yellow to white heat. 

The goal was to recreate the white light I saw in the hospital after the Priest performed last rites, not knowing I was Jewish. Several hours passed and Gary succeeded. When I left his studio, the sky was turning dark. I didn’t notice it. The image on the screen had filled my head and all I saw was the bright light.  

Taken out of suffering and breaking some chains of my trauma by the act of recreating it onscreen, I felt deeply, unexpectedly connected to Passover, and to my ancient ancestors’ Biblical release from slavery to freedom.


Brahna Yassky’s book, “Slow Dancing with Fire” is forthcoming on May 3 from Shanti Arts.