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The Spirit of a Child

By Eric Thompson

What is the miracle that is a child? I was a child once, and on days where the ornery codgers swap lies and bristle with each other, I suppose I still am. I don't remember being adorable, precious or any of those things that abandoned me when puberty invaded. Most of all, I don't remember being a miracle.

Yet, there is perhaps no more valuable resource for pertinent knowledge and far-reaching truth than that which is child. It's something in the way they can make a stuffed tiger with one button eye seem alive and loved. It's the skill they possess to make a perfectly inhabitable house out of couch cushions and a few blankets. It's the naive questions they ask that you know the answer to but don't know the answer to. It's catching bugs. It's making mud pies. In short, it's just being a kid.

The doctors said that Bradley Jolley would never live to know what happened to him. Forty-five percent of his body was covered in third degree burns and the rest-well, the rest was dying from fear and pain. He had been life-flighted from his home in Lovell, Wyoming, to the burn treatment center in Salt Lake City where emergency staff rushed to save the life of what would inevitably be another statistic. When they tried to cut away his clothing to apply urgent care, they found much of it melted into his skin.
Bradley was only 7 years old, and tragically, he was a victim of nothing more than his own childish curiosity. He had been playing with matches by his house when a gas can exploded, engulfing him in flames. His sister, Lana, had been on the phone when she heard the screaming. She rushed out with a blanket and smothered the flames. But the fire burned and burned.
And burned.

The doctors said it was a miracle. There hadn't been many miracles like that in this family. It seemed someone was always dying young from some disease or accident, and when it seemed that fate had dealt the most fatal hand of all, the miracle came through. Maybe it was faithful prayer, or the love and contributions of concerned community members. The family seems content to give credit to the perennial giver of miracles; that being the good Lord and his good will. More than likely, it was a harmonious combination of the three that inexplicably saved Bradley Jolley's life. Nothing bonds people like necessity, and the Jolleys and their extended family hugged and drew breath. What the miracle didn't save was his skin, or his pleasant dreams, or that aforementioned something that made him a child. It seemed that the occurrence of one miracle had brought about the need for more. Bradley was alive and nothing more.

Red balloons sent him into a panic. The sight of any warm color set him trembling with fear and remembered pain. The fire had burned more than just skin. Many muscles and tissues were rendered nearly useless, having been burnt away or deadened. Skin was grafted as doctors began the laborious process of reconstructing a little boy. In order for the grafts to be of any use, he was ordered to undergo agonizing stretching exercises, something that we who stretch muscle instead of scar tissue can't truly comprehend; hours and days and weeks and months of excruciating pain for the sake of easing pain. He begged his mom to stop. With tears in her eyes, she refused. Some miracle.

And indeed, it was.

It wasn't long after the accident, after the danger of death had subsided enough to bring fruitful sleep back to the Jolley family, that 7-year-old Bradley told his mom about the time that he had died. He told her how he watched as the doctors worked feverishly to save his life. He told her how he left and played with his grandpa's brother in the clouds (a boy who had died at the same age over half a century earlier). He told her how he met Jesus, who played with him and talked with him and eventually told him that he had to go back. He didn't want to come back, but his mother was calling him, and according to Jesus, there was more for him to do.

According to a national association of atheists, represented by one of their leadership, the experience was somewhere between a pleasant dream and a childish scheme. Their opinion was broadcast before a live studio audience on national television as a part of the craze of syndicated talk shows. Bradley was there with his mom, the one to whom the account had been given in child-like confidentiality. She had told the story to friends and family as the confirmation of a good return on a demanding investment of faith on all their parts. Never did she expect her little boy to be invited to share his near-death experience with all of America.
The miracles were called into question. Reasonable men reasoned away as defensive men defended, and in the wake of their cries and convictions, eight year-old Bradley Jolley sat in awkward silence-a little boy from Wyoming who, one day, nearly killed himself doing what he was best at being a kid.

"Bradley? These men don't believe you," she said, "They say that what you said never happened, that you imagined it all. What do you think about that?"

And on that day, though America watched, they probably never considered, that the greatest miracle in Bradley Jolley's life occurred right in front of their eyes. It's the greatest miracle in anyone's life, and save perhaps a scant few, it is the universal miracle of everyone's life the miracle that is a child.

Bradley shrugged his shoulders and opened his oddly puckered mouth and said, "I don't care what they think."
Applause erupted. Somewhere, a button-eyed tiger fluffed the couch cushions and got out extra blankets and mudpies. The flames had burned the body, but not the spirit of the boy. The doctors had been wrong. Life wasn't a miracle for Bradley Jolley. Bradley Jolley was a miracle for life.