Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  If my father doesn't wake up, I realize, I will have to go back to living with my mother.

  Suddenly the door to my hospital room opens and the two policemen who were here yesterday walk in. "Cara," the tall one says. "Glad to see you're awake. I'm Officer Dumont, and this is Officer Whigby. We'd like to talk to you for a few minutes--"

  My mother steps between them and the hospital bed. "Cara's barely out of surgery. She needs to rest."

  "With all due respect, ma'am, we aren't leaving this time without speaking to your daughter." Officer Dumont sits down in the chair beside the bed. "Cara, do you mind answering a few questions about the car accident?"

  I look at my mother, and then at the cop. "I guess . . ."

  "Do you remember the crash?"

  I remember every second of it. "Not so much," I murmur.

  "Who was driving the truck?"

  "My father," I say.

  "Your father."

  "That's right."

  "Where were you headed?"

  "Home--he picked me up from a friend's house."

  My mother folds her arms. "I'm sorry . . . but when did a car accident become a criminal offense?"

  The officer looks up over his notepad at her. "Ma'am, we're just trying to piece together what happened." He turns to me. "How come the truck swerved off the road?"

  "There was a deer," I say. "It ran out in front of us."

  This is true, actually. I'm just leaving out what happened before that.

  "Had your father been drinking?"

  "My father never drinks," I say. "The wolves can smell alcohol in your system."

  "How about you? Were you drinking?"

  My face goes red. "No."

  Officer Whigby, who's been pretty quiet, takes a step forward. "You know, Cara, if you just tell us the truth, this will be a lot easier."

  "My daughter doesn't drink," my mom says, angry. "She's only seventeen."

  "Unfortunately, ma'am, the two aren't mutually exclusive." Whigby pulls out a piece of paper and hands it to her. It's a lab report.

  "Your daughter's blood alcohol content was .20 when she was admitted," Officer Whigby says. "And unlike your daughter, blood tests don't lie." He turns to me. "So, Cara . . . what else are you hiding?"


  My adopted brothers in the Abenaki tribe believe that their lives are inextricably tied to those of wolves. Years ago, when I first went to Canada to study the way Native American naturalists tracked the wild wolves along the St. Lawrence corridor, I learned that they see the wolf as a teacher--in the way he hunts, raises his children, and defends his family. In the past it was not unheard of for Abenaki shamans to slip into the body of a wolf, and vice versa. The French called the Eastern Abenaki in Maine and New Hampshire the Natio Luporem, the Wolf Nation.

  The Abenaki also believe that there are some people who live between the animal world and the human world, never fully belonging to either one.

  Joseph Obomsawin, the elder I lived with there, says that those who turn to animals do so because humans have let them down.

  That would fit for me, I suppose. I grew up with parents who were so much older than my friends' parents that I would never think of inviting a friend home from school; I would purposely forget to tell my parents about open houses or basketball games because I was always embarrassed to find kids staring openly at my dad's white hair, my mother's soft wrinkles.

  Since I didn't have a thriving social network as a kid, I spent a great deal of time alone in the woods. My father had taught me the name of every indigenous tree; what was poisonous, what was edible. He took me hunting for ducks when the moon was still high in the sky and our breath turned silver in front of us as we waited. It was there I learned to be so still that the deer would come into the clearing to feed, even if I were sitting on its edge. And it was there that I started to be able to tell the deer apart, to know which ones traveled together and which ones returned the next year with their offspring.

  I cannot remember a time I didn't feel connected to animals--from watching a fox play with her kits to tracking a porcupine to letting the circus animals out of captivity. But the most amazing animal encounter I have ever had came when I was twelve years old, just moments before the most disappointing human interaction of my life. I was in the woods behind our home when I saw a female moose lying beneath the ferns with a newborn calf. I knew the cow; I'd seen her once or twice. I backed away--my dad had taught me never to get near a new mother and its young--but to my surprise the moose stood up and nudged her calf forward, until it settled, skin and bones, in my lap.

  I sat there for an hour with the calf until the most majestic moose I'd ever seen entered the clearing. His rack was colossal, and he stood like a statue until the cow moose got to her feet, too, and the calf. Then the three of them disappeared silently into the woods behind me.

  Amazed, I ran back home to tell my parents what had happened--certain they wouldn't believe me--and found them sitting in the kitchen at the table with a woman I didn't recognize. But when she turned around, I could see myself written all over her features.

  "Luke," my dad said. "This is Kiera. Your real mother."

  He was not my dad but my grandfather. The woman I'd called Mom my whole life was my grandmother. My biological mother was their child--who, at seventeen, had been thrown in jail for selling heroin with her then-boyfriend. She found out two months later that she was pregnant.

  When she gave birth to me at the local hospital, she'd been shackled to the bed.

  It was decided that my grandparents would raise me. And that, rather than my having to grow up with the stigma of having an incarcerated mother, they'd move from Minnesota to New Hampshire, where nobody knew them. They'd start fresh, saying I was their miracle baby.

  When the prison term ended, Kiera postponed reuniting with her family, deciding instead to get herself employed and settled. Now, four years later, she was the front desk manager at a hotel in Cleveland. She was ready to pick up the pieces of her life that she had left behind. Including me.

  I don't remember much of that day, except that I didn't want to hug her, and that when she started talking about Cleveland I stood up and ran out the kitchen door into the woods again. The moose were gone, but I had learned from animals how to make myself scarce when necessary, how to blend in with the surroundings. So when my grandfather came looking for me, calling my name, he walked right past the copse of brush where I was hiding, where I stayed until I fell asleep.

  The next morning, when I went back home, stiff and damp with cold, Kiera the impostor was gone. My parents, who were now my grandparents, were sitting at the table eating fried eggs. My grandmother offered me a plate with two eggs sunny-side up and a slice of toast. We did not talk about my mother's visit, or where she'd gone. My grandfather said that, for now, I'd be staying put, and that was that.

  I began to wonder if I'd dreamed that encounter, or the one with the moose calf, or both.

  After that, I had sporadic contact with my mother. She'd send me a pair of slippers every Christmas that were always too small. She came to my grandfather's funeral and my college graduation and two years after that died of ovarian cancer.

  Years later when I went to live with the wolves, I would feel different about my mother. I would realize that what she did was no different from what any wolf mother does: put her child into the protective care of the elders, who can use their vast knowledge to teach the next generation everything it needs to know. But at that moment, sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast in an uncomfortable silence, all I knew was that no animal in my life had ever lied to me; whereas the humans, I could no longer trust.


  There are stages of shock.

  The first one comes when you walk into the hospital room and you see your father, still as a corpse, hooked up to a bunch of machines and monitors. There's the total disconnect when you try to reconcile that picture with the one in your head: the same man playing tag with
a bunch of wolf pups; the same man who stood eye to eye with you and dared you to challenge him.

  Then there's hope. Every flicker of sunlight over the sheets, every hiccup in the ventilator's even sigh, every trick of your tired eyes has you jumping out of your seat, certain that you've just witnessed a twitch, a flutter, a rise to consciousness.

  Except, you haven't.

  This is followed by denial. Any moment now, you are going to wake up in your own bed cursing the crazy nightmares that always follow a tequila bender. It's laughable, really, theater of the absurd: the image of you playing nursemaid to a father you cut out of your life years ago. Then again, you know that you had no tequila last night. That you are not in your own bed but in a hospital.

  That leads to catatonia, as you become just as unresponsive as the patient. Nurses and doctors and technicians and social workers parade in and out, but you lose track of the number of visits. These nurses and doctors and technicians and social workers all know your name, which is how you realize that this has become a routine. You stop whispering--an instinct, since patients need their rest--because you realize your father can't hear you, and not just because ice water is being injected into his left ear.

  It's part of a test, one of an endless series of tests, to measure eye movements. The way it's been explained to me, if you change the temperature of the inner ear, it should cause reflexive eye movements. In people who are conscious, it can be used to check for damage to the ear nerves that can cause balance problems. In people who are not conscious, it can be used to check for brain stem function.

  "So?" I ask the neurology resident who's performing the test. "Is it good news or bad news?"

  She doesn't look at me. "Dr. Saint-Clare will be able to tell you more," she says, making notes on my father's chart.

  She leaves a nurse to wipe my father's face and neck dry. The nurse is the fifteenth one I've met since I've been here. She's got intricately twisted braids swirled into a style on top of her head that makes me wonder how she sleeps at night, and her name is Hattie. Sometimes she hums spirituals when she's taking care of my father: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "I'll Take You There." "You know," she says, "it wouldn't hurt to talk to him."

  "Can he hear me?"

  Hattie shrugs. "Different doctors believe different things. Me, I think you've got nothing to lose."

  That is because she doesn't know my father. Our last conversation had been far from a positive one; there's every chance that just the sound of my voice will trigger some angry response.

  Then again, at this point, any response would do.

  For twenty-four hours I have been living in this room, sleeping upright in a chair, maintaining a vigil. My neck hurts and my shoulders ache. My limbs seem jerky, unfamiliar; the skin of my face is slack as rubber. None of this feels real: not my own exhausted body, not being back here, not having my father comatose four feet away from me. Any minute now, I expect to wake up.

  Or my father to.

  I have subsisted on coffee and hope, making bets with myself: If I'm still here, there must be a chance for recovery. If the doctors keep finding new tests, they must believe he's going to get better. If I stay awake just five more minutes watching him, he will surely open his eyes.

  When I was a kid, I used to get so scared of the monster that lived in my closet that sometimes I'd hyperventilate, or break out in hives. It was my father who told me to just get the hell out of bed and open the damn door. Not knowing, he said, is a thousand times more horrible than facing your fear.

  Of course, when I was a kid and I bravely opened the closet door, there was nothing upsetting inside.

  "Um," I say, when Hattie leaves. "It's me, Dad. Edward."

  My father doesn't move.

  "Cara came to see you," I tell him. "She got banged up a little in the crash, but she's going to be fine." I don't mention that she left in tears, or that I've been too much of a coward to go to her room and have more than a superficial discussion with her. She's like the only person in the village willing to point out that the emperor's not wearing any clothes--or in my case, that the role of dutiful son has been woefully miscast.

  I try humor. "If you missed me, you know, you didn't have to go to this extreme. You could have just invited me home for Thanksgiving."

  But neither of us finds this funny.

  The door opens again, and Dr. Saint-Clare enters. "How's he doing?"

  "Aren't you supposed to be able to tell me that?" I ask.

  "Well, we're still monitoring his condition, which appears to be unchanged."

  Unchanged, I remind myself, must be good. "You know this from injecting water in his ear?"

  "Actually, yes," the doctor says. "What we're looking for in the ice-water caloric test is a vestibulo-ocular reflex. If both eyes deviate toward the ear with the water in it, the brain stem is functioning normally and consciousness is mildly impaired. Likewise, nystagmus away from the water suggests consciousness. But your father's eyes didn't move at all, which suggests severe dysfunction of the pons and the midbrain."

  Suddenly I am tired of the medical jargon, of the parade of experts who come in to do tests on my father, who doesn't respond. Get the hell out of bed and open the damn door. "Just say it," I mutter.

  "I'm sorry?"

  I force myself to meet Dr. Saint-Clare's eyes. "He isn't going to wake up, is he?"

  "Well." The neurologist sits down in a chair across from me. "Consciousness has two components," he explains. "There's wakefulness, and there's awareness. You and I are both awake and aware. Someone in a coma is neither. After a few days in a coma, a patient might go one of several routes. He might lose all brain function, and become what we call brain-dead. It's quite rare, but he might develop locked-in syndrome, which would mean he has both wakefulness and awareness . . . but is unable to move or speak. Or he might evolve into a vegetative state--which would mean there's wakefulness . . . but no awareness of himself or where he is. In other words, his eyes may open and he will have sleep cycles, but he won't respond to stimuli. From there, a patient might either improve into a minimally conscious state, in which there's wakefulness and brief interludes of awareness, and eventually regain full consciousness. Alternately, he might remain in what we call a permanent vegetative state, never regaining awareness."

  "So you're saying my father might wake up . . ."

  ". . . but the chances of him regaining awareness are extremely slim."

  A vegetative state. "How do you know?"

  "The odds are against him. In patients who've suffered traumatic brain stem injury, like your father, the outcome isn't good."

  I wait for these words to hit me with the force of a bullet: he is talking about my father. But it's been so long since I let myself feel anything for my dad that, actually, I'm numb. I listen to Dr. Saint-Clare speak, I acknowledge that I was expecting to hear this news from him, I accept it as fact. Ironically, I realize, this does make me the best person to keep the bedside vigil for him. "So what happens?" I ask. "Do we wait?"

  "For a bit. We keep testing him to see if there's any change."

  "If he doesn't ever improve, does he stay here forever?"

  "No. There are rehab centers and nursing homes that care for people in vegetative states. Some patients who've made their wishes known to discontinue life support will go into hospice and have their feeding tubes removed. Those who want to be organ donors might meet the protocol for DCD, donation after cardiac death."

  It feels like we are talking about a stranger. But then again, I guess we are. I don't really know my father any better than this neurosurgeon does.

  Dr. Saint-Clare stands up. "We'll keep monitoring him."

  "What should I do in the meantime?"

  He puts his hands in the pockets of his white coat. "Get some sleep," he says. "You look like hell."

  When he leaves the room, I pull my chair a little closer to my father's bed. If you had told me when I was eighteen that I would be back in Beresford, I would
have laughed in your face. Back then, all I knew was that I had to get away from here as fast as possible. As a teenager, I never realized that the thing I was running from would still be here, waiting, no matter how far I ran.

  Mistakes are like the memories you hide in an attic: old love letters from relationships that tanked, photos of dead relatives, toys from a childhood you miss. Out of sight is out of mind, but somewhere deep inside you know they still exist. And you also know that you're avoiding them.

  If I were Hattie the nurse, I'd pray for my father. But I've never been religious. My father worshipped at the temple of nature, and my mother threw religion at me like a bucket of paint, but none of it ever stuck.

  I find myself thinking of the first week I was in Thailand, when I noticed little decorative houses on pedestals in front of hotels, in the corners of restaurants, in front of local bars, in the middle of the woods, and in the yard of every house. Some were permanent, made of brick and wood. Some were temporary. Each house was filled with statues, furniture, figures of people or animals. On the balconies were incense holders, candlesticks, flower vases.

  Most Thai are Buddhists, but bits of the old beliefs still creep through every now and then, like these spirit houses. Even now, the Thai feel that spirits need shelter when they aren't in the heavens, in caves, or trees, or waterfalls. The Guardian Spirits of the Land offer different types of protection: from helping in business affairs to safeguarding the home, from protecting animals, forests, water, and barns to watching over temples and forts. In the six years I've been in Thailand, I've seen spirit house offerings ranging from flowers and bananas and rice to cigarettes and live chickens.

  Here's the interesting thing about spirit houses: when a family moves, there's a special ceremony to transfer the spirit from its original spirit house to its new place of residence. Only after that can you get rid of the place the spirit used to call its home.

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