Connor "Bear" McKemey doesn't have time to dwell in the past. He won't let a fire that nearly took his life, and left his body badly burned, define who he is.
"I only have one life," Connor, a 15-year-old Fort Mill High School sophomore, said. "I don't want to waste it. I just want to live the best life I can possibly live."
That means the youth who survived severe burns when an outdoor fireplace erupted at his home days before Christmas 2008 is taking charge of his life.
"You have to own it," he said.
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Connor, who was comatose for two months, faced surgery after surgery before returning to his Tega Cay home to a hero's welcome. He learned how to walk again and, in 2009, returned to the basketball court and lacrosse field to play his favorite sports. This year, Connor is perfecting his life skills.
"It's hard to believe," said Karin McKemey, his mother. "Time flies."
Connor has come a long way in the two years since the fire.
"I see a little boy who was 120 pounds and couldn't hold his head up a year and a half ago (grow) to a 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore," Karin said.
Two years ago, more than 89 percent of Connor's body suffered burns. Now, the teen with a smile that lights up the room won't let his life be dictated by the scars that remain.
"I'm so proud he looks beyond that and not let it impact him negatively," said George McKemey of his son. "He just kind of said, 'I own it. It's no big deal. I'll deal with it.' And he has. He has no qualms about the scars."
Connor's oldest brother, Tripp, has noticed a difference, too.
"Last year was a lot of adjusting," Tripp, 17, a Fort Mill High School senior, said. "This year is a vast improvement. Everything is kind of laid back. He's kind of moved on. It's more of the old Connor."
From Connor, younger brother Quinn learned a lesson: Don't take life for granted.
"I'm thankful for him because he's here today," Quinn, 14, a freshman at Fort Mill High School, said of Connor. "He's a great brother."
Two years after the fire, with Connor leading the way the McKemey family is healed.
"It's nice to have other things to worry about," George said. "The oldest one going off to college. That kind of trauma instead of worrying about 'how's Connor? How many surgeries is he going to have to have?'"
In the months following the fire, Connor underwent about 35 surgeries. Like last year, this year has been big for Connor.
"The big surgery was in June," Karin, a Fort Mill High School teacher, said. "They did a neck release."
The June 29 surgery involved skin grafting. After the surgery, Connor went home bandaged for two weeks.
"At first, I was a little nervous," Connor said. "I knew that whatever he (the doctor) did is going to get better in time. Everything gets better in time."
The outcome was not what his mother expected.
"I burst into tears because it looked horrible," she recalled. "I guess I thought everything would be fixed."
About 15 minutes later, Connor taught his crying mother a valuable lesson.
"He said, 'What is your problem?' I said, 'I just thought it would look better. I just don't want people to judge you based on your scars.' He said, 'Well, you're just going to have to get over that.'"
Then Connor showed his mother just how much he'd grown up.
"He said, 'I can't control what other people think of me. I can't get wrapped up in their opinions. I can just be the best person I can be, and they'll just have to deal with it,'" his mother recalled.
While sitting in the SUV, Connor pulled down the mirror and peeked at the area once covered by bandages.
"It was pretty bad at first," he said.
"A couple days later, it looked a lot better."
In addition to the skin grafting, doctors also worked on one of Connor's thumbs, badly damaged, along with other digits, as a result of the fire.
"It was half a thumb," Karin said. "Now, he has a thumb."
Connor added, "Everyday life is a lot easier with my thumb now than before."
Connor still shoots hoops with his dad and is a force to be reckoned with on the lacrosse field. His coming of age status was marked recently with a celebrated rite of passage.
"He has his driver's license," Karin said. "We all tease him, 'Keep all seven fingers on the wheel.' He rolls his eyes and laughs."
A mother laughed at the memory before pausing to reflect on what she almost lost. Two years ago, she jumped out a window and wrapped her body around Connor's burning body, extinguishing the fire.
"Life is precious, and it's as full as you make it," she said.
As for Connor, he is done with standing still.
"Never give up," he said. "No matter how bad a situation is, there is always going to be a better side."