My daughter, Akela, entered the world on the plywood living room floor between the woodstove and bathtub—naturally, like a bear cub born in a den. However, our den, on the fringe of wilderness, had hot running water and lights, thanks to an on-demand propane water heater and solar electricity. Only weeks before her birth, we had expanded our rustic one-room cabin with the addition of a separate bedroom and loft. The view from the new bedroom overlooked golden yarrow, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, sweet William—and the lawn, meadow, and encircling forest. Still, with all that beauty to envelop her, Akela was not ready to experience its wildness. She preferred the warmth and safety of the womb and seemed quite content to stay there.
We planned a home birth. I was two weeks past my due date, and the midwife recommended I drink castor oil-root beer milkshakes to induce labor—the combination of carbonation and ice cream cut the heaviness of the oil, making the drink bearable. But despite healthy prenatal checkups and a smooth five and a half-hour labor, Akela arrived limp and gray, an Apgar score of one out of ten. A total Apgar score of three or below requires immediate resuscitation. Akela scored a one because she had a heartbeat, but it was low and getting lower. Ruth, the midwife, held her tiny, wet body, gently jostling her to encourage a response, but as the seconds ticked by and Akela did not breathe, Ruth gave her mouth to mouth. Two little puffs. Akela’s body brightened with a pink hue just like a desert sunrise spreading from horizon towards the fading stars. She cried then, forced to accept her place in the world.
For the first week, her eyes were vague as I held her. It felt like her spirit hovered outside her body, caught between the worlds. But it was a strong spirit. I could feel it.
Now, Akela is muscular, strong, fierce. As a gymnast, she pushes her body past comfort and tolerates pain in the process of attaining perfection. Hard workouts exhilarate her—the ache of 50 push-ups, the soreness of 200 crunches, the burn of leg lunges across four lengths of gym floor. At twelve years old, she relishes testing her capabilities and moving beyond the realm of standard expectation. She is competitive—not only with others, but with herself.
Unlike her older sister Lily and me, who complain about any bump or scrape, Akela has a high threshold to pain and tends not to say when she is hurting but, instead, becomes quiet and inward. There have been exceptions, like the time she wiped out on her bicycle while riding down our gravel driveway which meandered between oak trees. She got to the curve in the road before gliding down into the meadow, and the tires skidded on the loose rocks, sending her crashing into them bare-legged. She got a gash on her knee which left a scar. She cried then—wailed in fact. She must have been five or six. There was also the time she picked up a young garter snake slithering through the lawn (she commonly handled critters: snakes, frogs, praying mantises). The snake bit her on the thumb and wouldn’t let go. Akela stood with her arm outstretched, trying to shake the snake loose, but it held on, its tiny jaw clamped tight. Akela screamed. Although, it was her bulging eyes pleading me to rid her hand of its new writhing appendage that told me she suffered more from terror than pain. She was nine.
My children were raised in the country most of their lives. We lived a “back-to-the-land” lifestyle on twenty-eight acres of mostly forested hillside, with a sloping meadow and pockets of clearings nestled among firs and cedars, a smattering of pines, solid oaks, and madrone trees with ruddy, peeling bark. Fifteen years before we bought the land, it had been selectively logged, but the remaining trees flourished, creating a healthy forest nurturing ferns, wild irises, and ceanothus, foxes, skunks, and raccoons, owls, pileated woodpeckers, deer, and cougar. The land sits on the north side of Grayback Mountain in the Siskiyou Mountain range, five miles as the hawk glides from Oregon Caves National Monument. Driving up the road, past our driveway, one would continue upwards, in a steep climb up the mountain into old-growth forest and, unfortunately, some clear-cuts. Often I took this drive, alone or with the girls and our dog, to walk on empty forest service roads, looking down on the valley and soaking in the quiet. There is a stillness up there on the mountain, the only sound a rustling breeze, the murmur of a distant creek, the flapping wings of a surprised pheasant—or the crunching of my own footfall.
To the west some twenty miles rests the 179,755 acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1964 and named for the rare, pre-ice age flowering plant Kalmiopsis leachiana, discovered by Lilla Leech in 1930. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness, renowned for its plant diversity, unique geology, wild sections of the Illinois, Chetco, and North Fork Smith Rivers, boasts an expanse of coveted roadless old-growth forest. That is it did until 2002 when lightning caused the Biscuit Fire—Oregon’s largest fire in recorded history—to rage nearly 500,000 acres, including all of the Kalmiopsis. During that summer we mostly stayed inside, for the smoke was so dense we could smell it from within the house even with the doors and windows closed. Smoke seeped through the cracks of our unsealed cabin, a mild stench of burnt permeating the walls. It was mid-July and very difficult to stay indoors, but the alternative—to go out—was more unpleasant. At times the smoke was so thick you could barely see the trees in the forest, like driving through fog and not knowing when a deer might be standing in the road ahead, only this fog was brown-tinged and roasted.
Seventy-five percent of vegetation was killed in the Biscuit Fire, including thousands of old-growth trees, and much wildlife habitat was lost. It pained me to think of all those hundreds-of-years-old conical spires burning to a crisp and the birds and animals fleeing in fright—despite my belief that fire is part of the natural process, an essential ecological step in long-term forest health. Nature, I believed, was meant to be left to its own design, a domain independent from humans, not to be tampered with. Although wilderness turns on itself, it also has an incredible capacity to heal itself. A forest may burn uncontrollably, but with time new seedlings sprout, regenerating the damaged ecosystem, as evidenced in the Kalmiopsis—pine trees have sprouted under the protection of the burned timber stand and many plants continue to thrive. Still, after the fire, a years-long battle ensued in the courts over the salvage timber sale. Some wanted to harvest the standing dead timber and replant. Others, like me, wanted the wilderness to be left to its own natural process of recovery.
I once heard someone say he considered his body a wilderness. Wildness lives in our external environment, functioning independently and without the aid of humans. Complex integrated ecosystems work to support each other and maintain balance. Similarly, within our bodies a myriad of functions occur simultaneously without conscious thought. We walk through life—or run or skip or trudge—and most often we never question how our bodies operate, hour after hour, day after day, year after year—until something malfunctions and we are forced to acknowledge our fragility. We take our bodies for granted much the way we have come to take for granted fresh water, clean air, nutritious food.
Five years after the Biscuit Fire, when we had relocated to town, Akela came home from dinner out with a friend at a local pizza parlor and said, “My stomach hurts.” She went straight to bed. Only a couple days earlier she had recovered from the flu, and I worried that I had let her go out too soon, maybe she was having a relapse. She slept till noon the next day. When she awoke, she continued to complain about her stomach and began to vomit. Her temperature rose to 101 degrees. Because a stomach flu was circulating the community, I felt certain that with her immunity down, she had fallen victim. I called the emergency room, describing her symptoms, only to have a nurse confirm my speculation. But the nurse and I were wrong.
Her body was no longer a pristine mountain to be weathered by time but an erupting volcano. The small opening between her appendix and her colon became blocked, causing increased pressure and inflammation until her appendix perforated, sending a profusion of bacteria-laced fluids into her abdomen and bloodstream. But we did not know it had happened until two days later when we rushed her to the emergency room, her hands and feet cold, her skin sallow, her temperature ninety-four degrees.
The ct-scan showed an abnormal amount of fluid in her abdomen, evidence that something had ruptured. But due to the excess of fluid, the doctors could not determine what. Her liver and kidneys were barely functioning. Even though I encouraged her to drink lots of water, she was completely dehydrated. All the water proved futile. More fluids leaked into her abdomen than she was able to ingest to hydrate her organs. The surgeon said they would need to do exploratory surgery, but when he tried to pull together a team, no one would back him. Her condition was too critical, and they were not versed in pediatrics. Akela was transported by Mercy Flights to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
There was room for only one of us to fly with Akela. Accompanying her terrified me. I feared I would have a complete emotional breakdown and be a burden rather than support, so when my husband Steve insisted on going with her, I did not argue and arranged passage on a commercial plane. It was nearing the end of the day, and there was only one remaining flight to Portland. I had to pack, make sure our older daughter Lily was cared for, and then drive twenty miles to the airport, all within an hour. My adrenaline kicked in, and I engaged in full function mode as I completed all my necessary tasks. The possibility of missing that plane and being five hours late arriving at OHSU—the time it would take to drive—was so emotionally debilitating I could not bear to give it a second thought, but it was there, needling me, whispering my worst fear: If I don’t get there in time and Akela doesn’t survive, I will never survive.
As I drove, with my mother silent in the passenger seat, all my attention focused on getting there, not missing that flight. My Subaru veered around cars, zooming back and forth between semis and other vehicles. Occasionally I glanced in the rearview mirror, but mostly my eyes were directed forward, concentrating on what lay ahead. So focused was I that I did not notice passing Mt. Grizzly or the brown, snow-topped hills enveloping the Rogue Valley or the horses mulling in their pastures along the highway. I did not notice that the sun was setting or that the temperature was dropping. I was oblivious to the revving of the car’s engine and the whooshing of the wind as it collided with my window. I did not notice as my car passed through Talent into Phoenix and on into Medford that all around me life was carrying on, just like any other day, people leaving work, going shopping, driving home.
Over the phone the travel agent had said, “You must arrive at least a half an hour early to get your ticket, or the counter will be closed.” I arrived fifteen minutes late, and although the counter was still open, I was prepared to defend my territory on that plane if I were denied access. Nothing was going to prevent me from getting to my daughter. Nothing.
Boarding pass in hand, I took off my shoes, passed through security, and joined the group waiting for the flight to Portland. Within two minutes the gate opened for boarding. Normally I get sick on airplanes and have mild anxiety. But there was no room for that on this flight. I just sat, numb yet terrified. Steve and Akela had already boarded the Mercy Flights plane and awaited takeoff. As my aircraft departed, Steve watched, telling a nearly unconscious Akela “There goes your mom.”
When I arrived at the hospital, as Akela lay there, in the pediatric intensive care unit, hooked to monitors and intravenous fluids, with a swarm of doctors and nurses gathered around her, asking me endless questions and offering possible scenarios of diagnosis while preparing to do exploratory surgery, one thing was occurring that I wasn’t even aware of: My body kept functioning. My heart kept pumping blood. My lungs kept taking in oxygen. My brain kept sending messages to neurons. In that moment, I never questioned how my body knew exactly what to do. All I questioned was whether my daughter would recover, whether her body was strong enough to fight off the infection, whether it was too late.
Reddish-purple, bluish-black, greenish-yellow. Those were the colors of her arms. The patches melded into each other, different stages of bruising progression, holes from needle pricks dotted throughout. Her veins had had enough. They were barely visible, receding the way the tide sucks a wave back to the ocean. Still, she was in need of an IV, and the nurses were unsuccessful in locating a suitable spot to insert one. This was her second round at OHSU. She had been released two days earlier, appearing to be healthy and on the mend, after spending eight days there recovering from surgery. But complications had arisen.
Dr. Harrison, her surgeon, had warned us of the possibility she might develop an abscess. “If she gets a fever, take her to the hospital immediately,” he had said. “She will need to have it drained.” Unbelievable. We had been home barely twenty-four hours when Akela spiked a fever of 101 degrees and had to be taken to the emergency room. Another round of doctors and nurses. Another batch of gut-wrenching contrast material she had to drink on an empty stomach. Another CT scan. Why hadn’t they kept her at OHSU another day? She appeared to be healing. Why didn’t they do a CT scan to make sure she was okay before releasing her? That is not how CT scans are used; they are expensive and expose the body to excessive amounts of radiation.
It was a sleepy Sunday night around ten o’clock when we took her into our local emergency room. Akela was the only patient in the ER, yet they still didn’t quite know what to do with her. They performed a CT scan, and believing her not to be in immediate danger, she was admitted to the hospital, put on an IV with lactated ringers and full-spectrum antibiotics, and placed in a room at the end of the hall of the original wing of the hospital, an old room with low particle board ceilings, stored unused equipment, two hospital beds, a chair that folds out into a makeshift bed, and a window which overlooked the parking lot but was covered in heavy drapery.
Late the next afternoon, the surgeon entered the room and introduced himself. As he looked down his nose at me, I got the distinct feeling his downward gaze had little to do with my shortness of height. There was no handshake, very few questions. My stomach tightened. I was the only parent present.
“She has two abscesses,” he said. “They need to be drained. I’ll go in through her back and drain them through a tube inserted in her rectum. It’s a simple procedure.” This doctor didn’t mess around. He was all business, straight to the point. Then he said, “If I was on duty when she had come in the first time, I could have done the surgery. It would have been a very simple operation. There really was no reason for her to be sent to Portland. The people on duty didn’t know what they were doing.”
The people on duty didn’t know what they were doing? They erred on the side of caution, acknowledging the fact that operating on a twelve-year-old is different from operating on an adult. They realized their limitations and, assessing her condition, made the best possible decision which was to send her to a pediatric hospital. They did not want to risk losing her on account of their egos. This man had never seen Akela. He didn’t even look at her now. He had only diagnosed her CT scan and read her chart, of which I doubted he had given it more than a glance. I wonder if he saw her as a commodity, like the trees in the Kalmiopsis, harvest them and add an extra ten grand to the bank account. Doctors like this were part of the reason I avoided traditional medicine. My jaw and neck tensed. I gritted my teeth. If I were a wolf, my hackles would have stood on end. “She was very ill,” I said. “She had sepsis, and her organs were shutting down.”
“All she needed was to be operated on and cleaned out. I could have done it.” This repeated assertion of his competence—not to mention the incompetence of his colleagues—and disregard for the seriousness of Akela’s condition grated me like a bulldozer scraping granite. “It really was no big deal. Appendicitis happens all the time. She probably wasn’t even in the ICU.” This last part was an assumption not a question.
No big deal. My kid just had kidney and liver failure. Her blood was saturated with bacteria. “She was in the ICU for two days,” I said. “She nearly died.”
He left without speaking to Akela.
When he came back, Steve was present. The surgeon approached Akela. No introduction as to who he was. No “How are you doing?” He sat on her bed, his weight lowering the side of the mattress, torquing her spine and buckling her stomach at an angle like earth during a quake.
“Ow, get off the bed, get off the bed,” she cried in pain.
He continued to sit, and just stared at her.
“Get off the bed, it hurts.”
Steve and I exchanged deliberate glances which informed us we were not only on the same page, but we were at the very same paragraph, the very same sentence, which read: This is not going to work; we’ve got to find an alternative.
With what little energy she had, Akela yelled “Get off the bed!” She glared.
Casually, slowly, he rose. “This is how it’s going to work,” he said to her. “I’m going to get your abscesses taken care of. I’m going to try to do it in the least invasive way possible. But I may have to cut you open again and go in through your original incision.”
“I don’t want to be cut open again. I don’t want another surgery,” she said, tears surfacing. The stress of the last ten days was winning the struggle. When the surgeon left the room, she said, “I hate him.”
The doctor on duty and several nurses told us that this man did not have a good bedside manner, but he was an excellent surgeon—the best. Either he knew this to be true, or he simply believed it. Whichever way, his actions left us convinced: There was no way that man was going to touch our daughter. In us, his demeanor did not nurture trust but rather a belief that overzealous confidence could lead to fallibility. It was eight o’clock at night, and snow was beginning to weight down tree branches and turn the roads white. Still, Steve called Dr. Harrison and explained the situation—that we didn’t like the surgeon, that we felt safer with him, Dr. Harrison, that this hospital really wasn’t conducive to children the way Doernbecher was.
“You’re welcome to come back up here,” Dr. Harrison said. “I don’t know if we can do it any better than they can there, but you can bring her back. We’d be happy to see her.”
So here we were at Doernbecher once again, preparing for surgery #2 to drain both abscesses, one the size of a grapefruit adhered to her uterus, the other stuck to her bladder. Unsuccessful with inserting an IV, the nurses called in a specialist from the PICU. She scanned both Akela’s arms and hands, settling with a vein on her wrist. She rubbed antiseptic on it, prepared the syringe, and in one smooth shot IV #14 slid into place.
For the next five days straight I confined myself within the hospital walls, remaining on vigil at Akela’s bedside. The wilderness of her body raged from the volcanic eruption of a ruptured appendix, the spreading fire of septic shock and ensuing dehydration, the threatened ecosystem of mild kidney and liver failure, the firefighter response of exploratory abdominal surgery, the natural complication of abscesses, and the backup team implementation of a second surgery which left her with two tubes sticking out of her belly—all within a span of two weeks. My husband and I watched as she withered away into near nothingness, skin on bones with a wounded, fragile spirit. There is only so much a parent can take before cracking from mental and emotional stress. I was at breaking point. I had to get out. My sanity demanded it. So while Akela lay napping, I slipped from her room.
I escaped out the grand hospital entrance—high ceiling, tiled floor, and circular driveway— through the parking lot, up an outdoor stairway, and onto the street. The season had been transforming from winter to spring without my knowing. Daffodils were blooming, and narcissus and crocus—bright spots of color in a crisp and bare landscape of pavement-lined yards and leafless trees. I swept around the U-shaped road, past buildings labeled “School of Nursing” and “Campus Services,” then followed a side road that bent around to the entrance of the Veterans Hospital. I needed earth: dirt, plants, trees. A winding foot path beckoned me across the street.
The beginning of the path was lined with planted trees and roses. Each had a plaque, a memorial marker designating for whom that tree or rose had been planted. Some had been hospital employees, others were patients—all people gone from the physical world, all people loved and honored. “Memorial Lane,” I called it as I passed the dedicated quotations. How sad to lose someone you love, I thought and hurried along, fearful to linger.
The path was not long, not hidden or private, yet it conjured the feeling of escape. Winding snake-like among dense firs and rhododendron, the path offered solitude, relief, perspective. Along its edges, there were two benches—the type found in English gardens, wrought iron framing with a wooden seat. I chose the bench surrounded by plant life where sunshine filtered through openness at the end of the path, creeping stealthily among the shadows. It was the farthest from any buildings, the farthest from civilization, the farthest from my current reality. The bench was cold. Sunshine streamed on my face. I closed my eyes and breathed fresh outdoor air, not the recycled filtered air of the hospital. Sturdy, rooted, age-old beings towered over me, protecting me, gathering me in their embrace, if only for a moment.
Few instants in life a person finds herself wrapped fully in the present, ensconced in the crystalline now, every particle of her being, every atom of her molecular structure poised in the experience. These rare moments, fleeting glimpses of true presentness, tend to surface during extreme tribulations. And there in my mini forest, I found myself existing within timelessness: sitting, watching, breathing. I had caught the last minutes of afternoon sun and stolen peacefulness. When the light finally faded beyond my reach and responsibility weighed on me, the delicate thread connecting me to my daughter gave a gentle tug and called me back, away from the grounded trees, away from the sword ferns, back to the inside world of pain, illness, and prayer.
Today my twelve-year-old daughter wears a battle scar: a five-inch long, half-inch wide, raw, reddish-purple welt that runs vertically down her abdomen. The scar has horizontal ridges like teeth on a zipper, as though the gaping cavity had been merely zipped back together. On each side are two smaller scars a few inches out from the center and low, just above her bikini line, where tubes drained her two abscesses. They appear like the dimples on her cheeks, only one of them sticks out while the other goes in. These scars are fresh, only three months old. I tell her they will fade. They will not always stand as blazing announcements declaring her survival. Still I am not certain.
My eyes gravitate toward the middle scar, a mark so large and unexpected on the stomach of a child, as if my vision is the negatively charged end of a magnet drawn to her positively charged abdomen. The doctors told us she should wear a one-piece bathing suit so as not to let the sun darken the scar. Akela resists this cover up—she is a bikini girl through and through—yet she cooperates, knowing the importance of the healing process for “fitting in” and appearing to be a “normal kid,” not a freak of nature. But her time of normalcy has passed. A young girl does not fight a battle of suffering and remain the same. Some moments she does not seem to care if the scars are noticeable. She almost seems proud, as if they symbolize a major accomplishment. And they do.
“I know why it happened to me,” she said once she was recovering back at home, “because I was strong enough to survive it.”
“Yes,” I tell her. “You are right. You are very strong.”
There is a whole universe inside our bodies, a wild, untamed universe. Humans have tried to conquer the wilderness of outdoor nature, to wield it to serve and benefit our own desires. Similarly, we have tried to conquer our inner wilderness by manipulating and controlling disease and pain within our human shells. Akela had gone into septic shock. Bacteria multiplied in a pus-filled environment and spread throughout her blood stream, attacking every “normal” function of her body. Her inner wilderness was ablaze with a fire of catastrophic proportions, a fire out of control, consuming everything in its path. Her only chance at survival was the human urge to conquer and control the uncontrollable. They cut her open and hosed out her insides, sprayed and sprayed at the fire, attempting to extinguish it or at least to smolder it. Then they hooked her to a successive drip of three types of broad spectrum intravenous antibiotics: a human creation designed not only to control, but obliterate bacteria. And the process persisted. Oxygen was added to her intake of breath. Bile was pumped out of her stomach through a tube in her nose. Morphine dripped into her veins to manage the pain. Bolus after bolus of lactated ringers, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride supplemented her system. And ever so slowly, her wilderness recovered, not by any natural process of recovery, but by the commitment to dominate, subdue, and manage that wilderness.
Three and a half months after the onset of her appendicitis, Akela’s gymnastics team is having an end of year celebration and performance. Akela returned to workout barely four weeks ago, starting slowly, no tumbling, nothing but stretching and strength building. She hasn’t gained much weight back. Her leotard and gym shorts hang baggy and loose; there’s no muscle to grab onto, no curve to her butt, merely a straight slope from her back towards her feet. When she first returned, another girl’s mom, a nurse, was concerned and consulted the coach. The word anorexia may have been mentioned. This surprised me because at that point she looked much improved from what she had before. But I had the grisly memory of her depleted self; anything looked healthy compared to that.
Girls fly through the air, swinging on bars, vaulting over mats, running and tumbling on the floor. Akela can do only a few things: back-walkovers, handstand forward rolls, dance moves. She looks happy back in her element, her wan face smiling, content to participate in the thing she loves. At the finale, Akela surprises us and does a standing back-handspring. It is not perfect. But it is her. Doing it. Steve and I sit, overwhelmed, watching our daughter, her body, a wilderness that once needed intervention, now on the path to restoration.
Parents clap and cheer their children. They are not thinking about the randomness of nature. They are not thinking about how one bolt of lightning can consume a forest. They simply clap and cheer.
Laurie Easter writes from her home in Southern Oregon, where she lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, r.kv.r.y, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She has been awarded a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College. She can be contacted at www.laurieeaster.com. Laurie is happy to report that her daughter, Akela, is now a thriving college student studying in France.