Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Under the Volcano
on Hawaii’s Big Island, JUDY PANKO REIS suffered an unspeakable crime.
Decades later, she sees that out of even the darkest violence a new life
of service and transformation can emerge.
Waking Up Inside
the Tent (1980)
Under the gleam of
a half-sliced moon, Phil noses our Mazda rental past fields of wild orchids
into MacKenzie State Park. A hidden Hawaiian gem mounted on the cliffs of the
Pacific, the park is tucked away outside the forested perimeter of the volcano
Kilauea, the legendary home of Pelé, the fire goddess. The mixed fragrances of
pine and brine welcome us to a night of camping on the Big Island.
I am focused on my
sketches of Pelé—her purple crater and golden veins—as she is depicted in the
travel journal spread across my knees. I decide my gushing words and bold
images capture the aura of the volcano and my awe of Pelé, the legend of
islanders consider her a transformative figure who wields the dual powers of
creation (island building) and destruction (home and landscape demolition). She
hurls fire into water, spewing love and jealous anger in protection of her
sacred land. For me, Pelé exemplifies a radiant female force of nature that
blends polarities. I seek her guidance in my quest to reconcile the lighter
aspects of the world with its darker shadow elements.
grows. I squeeze Phil’s sinewy fingers and run my hand through his curly hair.
“It’s incredible here, isn’t it?” I whisper. “I can’t wait to get to Volcano
House.” In Volcanoes National Park, I plan to study Pelé’s handiwork and
temperament, to harness her creativity so I can awaken more enlightened parts
of myself in the coming year. Phil grins, crinkling his eyes. “Tomorrow night
at Volcano House will be awesome.”
descends over the dozens of scattered tents and vehicles dotting the campsite,
we discuss our upcoming wedding and Philip’s future medical-career
possibilities on the Big Island. He unzips the entry flap of the nylon tent, nodding
hello to other campers. We crawl inside and pull off our shoes, emptying
streams of sand onto the floor. In no time, our thoughts about Pelé’s
transformative powers tumble out. We discuss how her firestorms decimated
vegetation and then midwifed the birth of brilliant new spectrums of scarlet,
yellow, and purple species of plant and animal life. How her explosions
sculpted lush islands and reshaped the park’s jagged coastline.
Slipping into our
sleeping bags, we celebrate the thought that our presence on the island draws
us into Pelé’s self-perpetuating cycle of physical and spiritual regeneration.
She is the progenitor of this splendor that regales all living creatures in her
court—including a pair of lovers on this Wednesday night, the twenty-third of
Outside our tent, a
restless wind roars through the giant ironwood trees. Sounds of thunderous
waves hammer the rocks.
Before closing my
eyes, I whisper to Phil that I feel Pelé has beckoned me here and I’m counting
the minutes until we reach Volcano House the next day. He kisses me goodnight.
In blissful fatigue, we surrender our awe to the night.
In the distance, Pelé sleeps.
Trapped in a
luminous orange cave, I rouse from slumber. Threads of orange daylight filter
into my mucus-filled eyes. I feel pudding-thick blood clots slither down my
cheeks into my mouth. The saline taste forces a gag. I choke down the stench of
erupting vomit. Instantaneously, the contents of my bowels and
bladder surge onto the floor of the cave. I heave torrents. Animal sounds
of my retching echo through the cave. The avalanche of vomit mixes in
a sea of body fluids that gush around me. Where am I?
In a haze, I recall pitching the tent with
Philip the day before. Or was it two days ago? A lucid part of me takes
control. I am… in a tent camping on the Big Island of Hawaii. My
head explodes with pain that radiates through every nerve of my body. My heart
pounding, I reach for my head to soothe the agony. Withdrawing my fingers, I
see they are bathed in the crimson of fresh blood.
I turn to awaken
Philip. He is still beside me in his sleeping bag. I urgently need his
physician’s skills. I lunge toward him desperately and cry, “Philip, wake up,
wake up, I’m hurt, I’m bleeding, I’m sick.” I heave, tears leak
from my eyes. “Phil… wake up.” I grope through the orange folds of
the collapsed tent that entombs us. “Give me your hand, Phil.” I extend a
bloody hand to reach the flesh of his palm. He is inert.
A prism of light
pours into the tent as I hear what I think is Phil’s voice. I say, “Phil, I’m
thirsty, please help me.” Instead I hear, “What’s your name… phone number
for a family member… who did this to you?” I rattle off my name and my parents’
phone number in Illinois. “Judy, try to stay awake—rescue is here,” says a male
On April 25, 1980,
Honolulu newspapers deliver these headlines: “Honolulu Doctor Slain,” “Two
Beaten at Park.” The papers say the park had a history of thrill beatings, but
no current suspects. A passerby walking his dog in the late afternoon had found
us as I struggled, murmuring Phil’s name, to free myself from the collapsed
Later that week,
Phil’s corpse is slipped into a black nylon bag and shipped to his family in
Queens, New York.
Because of the
shortage of neurosurgeons on the Big Island, I am helicoptered to Straub
hospital on Oahu to repair what remains of the right hemisphere of my brain. It
is the same hospital where Phil had been practicing as a first-year medical
resident before we left on our trip to the Big Island.
hospital bed, my parents wear worried eyes and crumpled clothes. I vaguely hear
a nurse explain my physical losses.
My father’s voice
quivers in response: “Are they permanent?”
“It’s too soon to
The room is abloom
with garlands of leis, tropical bouquets, and cards from Hawaiian residents
offering apologies for the crime.
neurosurgeon inspects the tracks of sutures in my head, he turns to my folks
and says, “You can take her home now.” Their collective gasp jolts the room.
Patricia, a social
worker friend of Phil’s, swoops into the room in a blaze of light that pierces
our confusion and dread. Waving a file bulging with admission papers for a
rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, she says, “If this place can’t teach Judy
how to sit up, read, dress, and feed herself, no one can. You’re lucky they’re
in Chicago.” With a compassionate smile, she strokes my face and then embraces
visiting before we depart, tell me that my travel journal helped them retrace
our steps. But it ends with our visit to Kilauea the day of the assault. My
musings and sketches of Pelé are remarkable, the big copper-skinned native
Hawaiian sergeant says, but offer no clues to the crime. In denial of Phil’s
death and my multiple disabilities, I focus on the officer’s compliment of my
artwork. He glares at my crushed skull and says that Phil’s murder and my
assault are tearing him up.
In the distance,
An adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois
Chicago’s College of Nursing, Judy Panko Reis lectures and writes on women’s
health, violence, and disability. More than a decade ago, she was introduced to