On Christmas morning 2008, a year and a half after she was given only a slim chance to live, Carmen Tarleton awoke early. Her sister, Kesstan Blandin, lay in bed next to her, as she had every morning since Carmen returned from the hospital. Her two teenage daughters slept in their own rooms.
The morning was peaceful, but Carmen had a nasty fever. Ever since the attack, her body temperature had fluctuated wildly. With almost all of her skin ruined by chemicals, she could no longer sweat -- the body's way of cooling down -- and she had little protection against the cold.
A few weeks before, she had undergone one of the more than 40 skin graft operations that doctors would eventually perform on her. This time, they had taken a strip of skin from her lower back, one of the few places on her body that escaped the chemicals, and sewn it onto the top of her head to try to heal a large open wound. Both places hurt that morning.
I am miserable, she thought. But it was Christmas, and she was doing her best to be excited with her daughters, Hannah, 14, and Liza, 16.
But as she sat on her couch in the softest pajamas she owned, Carmen couldn't see the lights on the tree or the look on her daughters' faces as they opened their new iPods and clothes.
Carmen, then 40, was blind.
A year earlier, Carmen had just arrived home from a six-month stay in a Boston hospital, and had been far too weak to do her own Christmas shopping. Family members, community donors and former co-workers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center bought presents for Hannah and Liza.
This year, Carmen had insisted -- over the warnings of her doctors and family -- that she would shop for her children. So she and Kesstan drove to Route 12A in West Lebanon one December evening, stopping at a couple big-box stores and filling their cart, as Carmen, a single mother, had done so many times before.
During the drive, the jostling of the car sent waves of pain through her body, and the trip left her tired. But, she would later say, the physical pain was worth it.
"I always pay a price if I overdo it, but there are some things I need to do because it helps in other recoveries," Carmen reflected.
"My recovery hasn't just been my physical recovery. It has also been ... my mental and psychological recovery."
Shopping for her daughters' gifts, Carmen said, meant that her recovery was beginning to draw to a close.
She was trying to move on from a horror almost too grotesque to believe.
On June 10, 2007, in the middle of the night, Carmen's estranged husband, Herbert Rodgers, broke into her Thetford home, beat her with a baseball bat and, with her two daughters in the house, poured industrial strength lye all over her body.
He thought she was seeing another man.
Carmen's head, neck, chest, stomach, arms, legs and thighs -- more than 80 percent of her body -- were covered in chemical burns, eating away almost everything recognizable, leaving what was left a ghostly white.
Her lips were blackened, her left ear burned off, and the tip of her nose destroyed. The membranes of her eyes seeped out.
Doctors said her injuries were the worst they had ever seen, and gave her little chance of surviving. Television reporters told their viewers that images of Carmen would be disturbing for younger viewers. Some nurses assigned to her care asked to be reassigned.
In the more than two years since the attack, Carmen has survived. Through a fierce will to live, to wake up and do what needed to be done and laugh and cry and then wake up and do it again, she has moved on.
"The great thing about Carmen, and the reason I believed she would turn this into something meaningful, is Carmen is one of the most simple and pragmatic people I know," said Kesstan, who devoted more than a year of her own life to help her sister heal.
"You can only idealize her for so long, because her practicalness and realness will come through. What served her so well in this is her pragmatic ability to put one thing, one foot, in front of the other. She is very grounded in the world."
For the past 12 months, the Valley News has followed Carmen's ongoing recovery from the 2007 attack, from hospital trips to courtroom visits to a daily routine that would slowly become more normal.
After the attack, Carmen underwent more than 50 surgeries, most of them aimed at two goals: Repairing her skin, and -- in a long shot that Carmen nervously embraced -- restoring her vision.
But while medical concerns were inescapable, they played but one part in her life.
Carmen resumed her role as a single parent to two teenage daughters, and grew closer to her older sister. And she has struggled to accept her role as a symbol of ... the miracles of modern medicine? Female empowerment? The human will to endure the unimaginable?
She's not sure about all that.
'Something Grave Had Happened'
Cell phone reception was spotty as Kesstan Blandin drove up Interstate 89, but there was no urgent need to call anyone. She had taken a red eye flight from Los Angeles to Manchester the night before, June 9, 2007, and was not on a tight schedule.
An Upper Valley native, Kesstan had just finished graduate school in Santa Barbara, Calif., and, as she had she had done at other junctures in her life, had decided to get rid of most of her belongings and move somewhere else.
Unattached and with no children, Kesstan's only responsibility was writing her psychology dissertation, and she could do that anywhere. She chose Portland, Maine: It reminded her of a city in Ireland she had recently visited, and it would put her within driving distance of Thetford, where her sister Carmen Tarleton -- one year her junior -- lived with her two nieces.
In recent weeks, Kesstan had given away most of her furniture and CDs, her computer and her dishes.
She kept about six boxes of clothes, books and personal mementos, and had them shipped to Carmen's house, where she planned to spend the summer catching up with her sister and nieces before settling into Portland.
Around 8 a.m., on June 10, 2007, she had landed in Manchester, hopped into a rental car and headed to Thetford.
She called Carmen's house from the car. No one picked up. Kesstan assumed everyone was still sleeping, and left a voice message.
"My plane landed and I'm on the road," she said. "I will be there soon."
She drove on, alone with her thoughts and the radio, and soon got a phone call. It wasn't from Carmen or the girls. It was her sister-in-law, Jean Blandin, who lived in Grantham.
"Carmen is on her way to Boston," Jean said. "Herb attacked her with some sort of acid. I don't know anything else."
Jean also mentioned Carmen's eye. Something had gotten into it, she said.
It was as if every other word she heard was in a foreign language, Kesstan would later recall. "It took a few minutes to sink in that something grave had happened."
Kesstan pulled off the highway in Grantham, and went to Jean's home. The two women drove to Boston, checked into a Howard Johnson's hotel downtown near Brigham and Women's Hospital, where they were told Carmen was being treated. Family members, including Carmen's brother, Donovan, and her mother, Joan, began flying in from across the country and eventually congregated at the hospital.
Kesstan, Joan and Donovan walked inside the hospital, stepped into the elevator and rode to the seventh floor, the burn trauma intensive care unit. A trauma doctor greeted them in a waiting room. He sat down, leaned forward, rested his chin in his right hand.
"Wow," he muttered. "I have never seen anything like this in my life."
A Slim Chance
The doctor began to describe Carmen's injuries to her family.
Lye, he told them, burns for 72 hours before it stops, and it had been less than two days. The chemical that had been absorbed by Carmen's skin could eat straight through her flesh, into her bones, by the time it was done. Doctors could do little for her until it stopped, he said -- they couldn't even conduct an exploratory surgery to assess the damage.
"Should I go in there and say goodbye to my sister?" Kesstan asked.
"The chances of her surviving are slim," he replied.
Joan, Donovan and Kesstan donned gowns and caps, masks and plastic gloves and slowly approached the room where Carmen was being kept under sedation.
Kesstan walked slightly ahead, and gently pushed open the double doors.
"I felt like when those doors parted, part of the world parted for me," Kesstan would say later.
A gown and bandages covered much of the body that lay in front of her, and the parts that weren't, covered were black. Kesstan recognized only her sister's hands, and her teeth.
Kesstan walked to the right side of the bed, and took Carmen's right hand.
"We're here for you," she said into Carmen's right ear, the only one remaining.
Carmen squeezed Kesstan's hand and started shaking her legs. She had heard.
"There is my life before that moment," Kesstan said, "and there is my life after that moment."