My list called for 24 apples. Those, plus the six back in the fridge would be enough for the next month. Then I would come to town again for water and a few fresh items: potatoes, carrots and more apples.
As everyone knows, a daily apple is health insurance but also, apples keep well in unreliable refrigeration. I can’t say that I always look forward to the suppertime apple, sometimes it’s mushy but I still get it down. Organic apples are the best – especially now in September before the new crop is in.
To my surprise, the Lakeview Safeway had organic apples along with carrots and potatoes in their produce section. There wasn’t much else, but living alone in the Oregon high desert is not intended to be a gustatory experience: breakfast; oats, chia and aseptic milk soaked overnight, dinner; rice, dhal, dehydrated tomatoes, kale and peppers from last years garden and supper; rye crisp-bread, butter, cheese, pickles and an apple.
When the time comes for a trip to town, it’s an all day event. It always requires a trip to the Laundromat, and during the wash and dry cycles, running around to the hardware store, post office, filling propane and gas cans and eighteen three-gallon water bottles. The last stop is the Safeway. By then, I’m in a rush to get back to camp. Being in a rush is a perfect setup for bad behavior – we get important. So is sticking out in the crowd. What’s left of my hair had gotten sunburned and long, the day’s tee shirt was a favorite shade of magenta, a good color with the purple bandana, but hardly common. Hat was from an Amish store back in Iowa, not properly Western. Pants, though not jeans were close enough to every one else’s and boots were authentic for southeastern Oregon, though they do have steel heel-plates that are a bit noisy on Safeway’s asphalt tile floor. Skin, hair, clothing and glasses were covered with a thick layer of road-dust from the drive in.
I could hear the click of my heels and feel my unique importance as I kept to my rushed agenda, seriously checking off items on the To-Do List. Last on the grocery section was to push the cart to the bins of organic apples; Honeycrisp and Gala. Honeycrisp is the new expensive darling and sometimes a very good apple. I got two for treats and put them in their bag. Then I got twenty-two from the Gala bin, checked out and headed back to my hidden camp.
Almost a month later, in early October, the apple supply was down to three or four. One had been alone for a while in a plastic bag at the bottom of the trailer’s tiny fridge. I got it out for supper and noticed it was a bit wet – maybe slimy – I thought maybe I should wash it but ignored the thought, ‘after all it’s organic and I shouldn’t waste water.’
At 2 AM the next morning, I was awakened by stomach cramps. I got back to sleep for an hour and then woke up again. The cramps were worse. By daylight, I thought I felt somewhat better and force-fed myself breakfast. Then I went for a morning walk. I cut the walk short and went back to lie down. The cramps got worse. Then came vomiting, fever, and repeating bouts of dry heaves. Since I hadn’t been sick in years, I started wondering what could be happening. While unlikely, there is a nasty sometimes-fatal flu passed on by desert rodents. I had been hand feeding chipmunks and kangaroo rats. But I’d never heard of that flu being in Oregon. Flu from human contact was a possibility but it would have had an unreasonably long incubation time since I hadn’t seen anyone for a month. Food poisoning could be a possibility but I was eating what I always eat – same thing every day.
As symptoms became more intense, I became alarmed. Grateful that I could get a weak cell phone signal, I called the hospital in Burns and though the signal kept breaking up, managed to talk to a nurse. She wouldn’t diagnose but did say I should come in to the ER. When I told her I was alone and four hours drive from the hospital, she warned me that if it got much worse and I became dehydrated it might be difficult or even impossible to maintain the normal consciousness necessary for driving.
It did get worse. A lot worse. I tried drinking sips of water and even the water wouldn’t stay down. I was dizzy and my thoughts were increasingly bizarre. I got to thinking, ‘This is it. You’re at the end, make sure to creep outside and find a proper place to lie down, otherwise by the time someone comes here, the inside of the trailer will be a horrible mess.’ Then I thought clearly, ‘Nonsense, this isn’t your time, if you’re sick, drive out. But where to?’ I was confused.
I got in the truck and started driving. At the top of the ridge just above my camp, the last possible spot before the ridge irrevocably blocks the cell phone signal, my phone rang. It was a long-time friend and Amma buddy calling to say hi and see how I was doing out in the desert. At that moment, cell phone in hand, I stopped the truck and got out for another wave of dry heaves. When they stopped, I explained I was sick but trying to drive to town. “What town?” “I don’t know.” “You’ve got to know.” ”I’ll try to call when I get to the gravel’ (the only other place to pick up a signal for the next few hours).
I drove in an increasingly thick mental fog with the cramps almost continuous. Fortunately, I knew the road as I’d been clearing it of rocks all summer. When I got to the main gravel road, I turned toward Lakeview without thinking. Then I stopped and called. I knew I couldn’t drive the three hours to town but felt I could make it to the Antelope Refuge where two people live this time of year. Surely, they would help me.
I was having trouble seeing and keeping focus during the waves of pain so, I drove very slowly. When I finally got there, they were expecting me as my friend had already called. I sat outside with the heaves. The person in charge told me they were not permitted to transport me to Lakeview (Federal law) but he could take me to the town of Plush and would call the Sherriff to have an ambulance meet us there. That help he could give. He was a kind person and I remember thinking it was good that someone like him would be looking after the antelope herds for the next few years.
Finally, strapped into a sitting position in the ambulance, moving on pavement from Plush to the Lakeview hospital I could close my eyes and meditate. Even with the recurring waves of pain, meditation was deep. In fact, the medical attendant monitoring my vitals became concerned as she watched my heart rate go down to 48 and blood pressure drop precipitously. I didn’t want to talk but whispered in answer to her questioning, “It’s okay, it’s deliberate.” Deliberate slowing of heart rate doesn’t fly in Lake County and several times she tried unsuccessfully to do an EKG.
Meanwhile, inside, Amma became my entire world and any concern for personal safety dissolved. Then, in a sudden flash, I was back in the Safeway a month ago. Again, I could hear the click of my heels and feel myself, the self-important director of my little world. Again, I pushed my agenda and my shopping cart down the isle to the bins of organic apples; Honeycrisp and Gala.
I decided to get two of the more expensive Honeycrisp for treats and so put them in a bag. Counting out the 22 Gala, I emptied the Gala bin to the last apple. But in doing so I also included one Honeycrisp that had gotten mixed into the Gala bin. I noticed this and thought ‘Hey, you should put that in your Honeycrisp bag.’ Then I thought, ‘Don’t bother, Safeway should keep things separate, if they can’t it’s their problem.’ Catching myself, I thought, ‘Nonsense, put it where it belongs, pay the extra few cents. You know better.’ While tying up the bags, I answered myself, ‘Naah, just keep moving.’ Don’t worry about the Safeway.’ Then, ‘What are you thinking? You’re cheating on that apple. It can’t be good. You’ll probably get food poisoning from it.’
Aiaaah! Food poisoning!
The mental re-run went on; I pushed down the aisle to the checkout and while other things were being priced and bagged, again thought, ‘That apple, it’s not right. What’s got into you? You don’t do this. You correct the checkers when they under-charge.’ Fix it!’ My answer, ‘Now it’s too late, too embarrassing to dig around, find that apple and switch it out to the Honeycrisp bag. I’d have to explain to the checker and I’d look bad.’ As I pushed my cartload of stuff out the door into the parking lot, I felt crummy and thought, ‘That was not good.’
The mental re-run probably took less than a minute – by the time I got to the end, I was happily laughing out loud and thinking, ‘Amma, you are unbelievable! I know I’m stubborn and a slow learner and yes, it does take a two-by-four to the side of the head. Thank you, I get it.’
With the laughter, my eyes opened. The two ambulance attendants were looking at me alarmed. ‘What kind of a nut did they have here?’ Instantly, I felt perfectly fine. Never better! No cramps, no pain, nothing. All I wanted was a drink of water and a walk in the fresh air. Then they reported that the vital signs they were monitoring were suddenly normal and they relaxed too. Ten minutes later after small talk, everyone was at ease and we got to the hospital. I walked inside happily, was greeted by the questioning ER staff and asked to sign a paper stating that I had refused admission of my own free will.
The only problem now was that it was late in the day and my truck was three hours drive behind me on gravel roads that get maybe three or four cars a day this time of year. How would I get back? Could I hitchhike? But of course, there are no problems for Her who orchestrates the flow of life. I probably didn’t even need to mention my stranded condition, but the moment I started in, the ER nurse interrupted and matter-of-factly said, “Oh, my husband is coming in from a ranch out that way to take me to dinner. He’ll give you a ride back to your truck.” Given there are maybe five ranch dwellings in hundreds of square miles out that way, what are the chances of that? A bit stunned, I thanked her, and inside, was again awed by how completely Amma takes care of her children.
I got water, walked for a few miles, had a Grilled Cheese sandwich, French fries and tea (Lakeview’s offering for vegetarians), went back to the Safeway where I bought some fresh milk and a bunch of unripe bananas that I hoped would keep for awhile and then watched the sunset until my ride came. I was back in the high country and in my own bed before eleven.
A few months later, at public darshan in Detroit I gave Amma a shiny apple to be funny and received one of Her enigmatic looks. At Devi Bhava, when I got up from Her huge embrace, She asked, “How is your health?” “Fine,” I said, but thought, ‘Why is she asking me that? I’m perfectly healthy.’ I am so slow! But walking away, I got it and enjoyed a good laugh.
When I finally got the ambulance bill, it seemed very high. I called and left a message asking for an itemization and requested that the bill be submitted to Medicare. They never replied by phone or in writing. A month later, I called again. The woman was scattered but nice – apparently my bill had fallen through some kind of administrative crack and been forgotten. She was a bit surprised that I was calling back so insistent on paying what I owe.
I had thought this was over. But as time went on, nagging doubts surfaced. My overly active mind gets caught in the trap that lies between scientific rationality and faith. Part of me (and this is the part I like and seek to encourage) knows that Amma is whom I believe Her to be and that even though I don’t see or understand the mechanisms, the “cause and effect” relationship of the above events is an honest and proper description of the experience. But the other part of me – my mind and ego, seeking to protect itself and remain in control – is willing, and quite able, to provide a scientific statistical explanations for such events. It likes to throw up doubt that undermines the real truth and thereby thinks itself safe from its limitations.
Of course, a statistical approach to reality is a useful and persuasive tool. We use the tool every day. Unfortunately, it seems to leave little room for faith in anything other than itself. Certainly, in this case, it provides protection from that which my heart readily accepts and knows to be true. My heart is right and even my mind, at least when it’s quiet, knows that the heart is always the real winner. It would be nice to quiet this mind with its unfortunate habits once and for all. I’m tired of its self-serving doubt.
About six months later, in April of the following year, I was able to return to the high desert. My last stop before setting up camp in an even more remote site was a trip to the Lakeview Safeway. Walking down the produce aisle in quiet shoes, unremarkable clothing and with a recent haircut, I came to the organic apple bins. This time I needed exactly 15 apples. Again, I selected Gala, as Honeycrisp were almost twice the price. Counting, eight into the first bag and then six into the second, I reached to the very back of the bin, hidden from view by celery and pulled out the last apple in the bin. It was not a Gala. It was a Fuji. Instantly it got its own bag.
What were the chances for this repeat performance? My statistical guess is, “impressively small – though possible.” But if, as I believe, it came from One who truly looks after Her children, from One who never tires of delivering life’s lessons, it is straightforward, an event to clean up the details. And, a bundle of doubts have disappeared, hopefully, for good.
© B. Witham 2013