The Bear's Embrace: A Story of Survival

The Bear's Embrace: A Story of Survival

by Patricia Van Tighem

Paperback(First Anchor Books Edition)

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On a chilly autumn morning in 1983, during a relaxing escape to the Canadian Rockies, Patricia Van Tighem and her husband were attacked by a grizzly bear. Although they survived, their ordeal was just beginning. For years Van Tighem endured numerous surgeries as doctors attempted to reconstruct her face and ease her pain. The nightmares that haunted her carried their own psychological burden. In many ways she had to redefine her sense of who she was. Yet she was resolved to recover–as a survivor, a wife and a mother.

Van Tighem’s tale is astonishing and beautifully written. Showing a resilience that has overcome even the most traumatic of events, The Bear’s Embrace is a truly inspiring testament to the power of the human spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721653
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2003
Edition description: First Anchor Books Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 612,966
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Patricia van Tighem’s story has been featured on National Geographic and BBC television. Trained as a nurse, she lives in a small town in the mountains of British Columbia with her husband and four children.

Read an Excerpt

The Hike

The sky is clear and blue,blue. The trees are yellow. The air is crisp,cool,full of autumn sunshine. I am content riding along in our little blue Volkswagen Rabbit with my hand on Trevor ’s knee. We are headed south on Highway Two to Waterton Lakes National Park.

Trevor hums under his breath,and I look over at his bearded profile.I am uncertain if we’ve made up after our disagreement last night. He planned to go rock climbing one day this September long weekend, maybe do a hike with me the next, but I wanted us to spend all three days together, backpacking. We haven’t hiked for such a long time.

Last night I sulked in the rocking chair,tipping myself abruptly back and forth.“I’ll go alone,then,” I said.Trevor sat in a calm pool of lamplight across the living room,his bushy dark head bent over a textbook.

“I need to get away somewhere this weekend.”He kept his head down.“Trevor!”

“I ’m listening.”Then,opening his arms,“Come here.”I moved to the big armchair and sat on his knee.“All right,”he said.I felt his sigh on my neck through tangled hair.“We can try out our new tent.”

We enjoyed packing up.Trevor went out at the last minute for groceries and brought back all of my favourite backpacking junk foods. Now he’s singing beside me in the car. I love his voice. On one of our first dates,we went out Christmas carolling, and hearing him sing then strengthened my determination to hang on to him.He looks over and smiles. “Hi,my love.”

There are shorn yellow fields on either side of us. Farmhouses dot the little gravel roads that run off from the highway. In the distance,the mountains show clear in the late afternoon light. Trevor and I have escaped to those mountains many times since we met five years ago. We used to get away to hike or ski or ramble almost every weekend.But recently,with both of us working shifts,it ’s been hard to organize time away.I settle into the seat and close my eyes,enjoying the warmth of the sun.Trevor gives my hand a brief squeeze.

“This was a good idea,Trish,”he says.His voice is teasing, daring my “I told you so” to pop out. I don’t rise to the bait.I canhear him laugh.

Trevor is still wearing his good pants and sports jacket. He’s in his third year of medical school and partway through his pediatrics rotation at Children’s Hospital in Calgary. I’m a nurse. I don’t know if I feel like one yet,though I graduated a year ago and have worked since then on a busy surgical floor. I find it frustrating and difficult.There are many cancers and deaths to deal with, and not enough time to give patients the attention they deserve. I want to give this weekend my all and shake off the tense Patricia,leaving the pulls and pressures of nursing behind. Trevor and I will stop in the little foothills town of Pincher Creek for supper,then stay tonight at a lodge in Waterton. We’ve left our plans for tomorrow wide open.We’ll wake when we want to and take our time with breakfast and discuss where we ’d like to hike.We ’re driving into dark storm clouds now,and a spattering of rain hits our windshield.It ’s strange how fast the weather can change.

On a hot evening a week before our hike,I stand facing the mirror that stretches across the counter in our Calgary bathroom.The room has the cheap beige countertop of student housing,and cheap beige flooring.There is a green-and-black framed print on the wall,“Recipe for a Happy Marriage,” received as a gift at our wedding three years ago. I’m in my white nursing uniform,a shift just completed.

I am twenty-four. My hair is blonde and brown,like a taffy pull. My teeth are well aligned after teen years in braces. All my life,I’ve been told that my blue eyes are lovely. I think so too,shy approval coming from deep inside. My nose would be better if it were smaller and straighter. My mother’s nose. My grandfather’s nose.I smile at myself just to see how I look. Some people have such marvellous smiles,smiles that wash over you and warm you.I wonder if my smile is like that. Trevor says it is. So does my mother.

I’m proud of how I look,but I struggle with that pride. As a Catholic,I’ve been taught that pride is a vice.Not good.Not right.I remember how my instructor would wring her hands in ballet class.“Such proportion,such legs. If you would only stand up tall! Look proud!”A small part of me was flattered.A little smile would come,but I could never allow myself to take her words to heart.It is easier now that Trevor adores my tallness. “What are you doing,Trish?” Trevor calls.“Come to bed.”

“Just changing.I ’m coming.”

I unzip my uniform and let it fall in a puddle at my feet.I stand tall and slim and fit in bra and panties. My eyes linger for a moment on my unblemished body. My patients have had breasts removed,tumours investigated,bowels totally resected.I hug myself and shiver.

I flick off the light and pull on an old flannel nightie,blue,with no softness left in the fabric. Trevor calls me again. He has turned his reading light out,done with studying for tonight. He’s preparing for exams,squeezing his reading in between classes and labs and tutorials and hospital ward rotations. He likes children, loves the time he spends in pediatrics.“Can your husband come out and play?”our little neighbour Jason asks me whenever he sees our front door open.

“Did I take too long? Are you asleep already?”

“No,I’m still awake.Barely.”

“I can’t stop thinking about work,” I say,climbing into bed. Trevor puts his arm out and draws me to him.“I’m glad I’m changing floors.If there were more of us in surgery,more nurses, we would have time to really care for our patients.It drives me nuts.There’s a woman in now who had a breast removed for cancer.She ’s only thirty-eight,and they did a radical mastectomy.She has a scar from her chest to her shoulder and a lot of pain.We should be able to sit with her,hold her hand when she ’s crying,but instead we only have time for the basics:check her dressings,empty her urine bag,empty the drain under her incision.”

Trevor rolls onto his side and kisses my face over and over. “You are a very good nurse.You get all the things done that need doing,but you give the other stuff,too.All you have to do is smile at a post-op patient,and you lighten her load.” I whisper into the dark.“There ’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.”


Trevor ’s breathing is becoming slow and regular. “I’m working shifts and you ’re working shifts and we get so grumpy with each other sometimes,”I say.

“I want us to make it. Remember how we promised to grow old and wrinkly together? I want that to happen.”

There’s no answer,and I curl myself around my sleeping hus-band.When I close my eyes,I see visions of scars.In addition to two people with bowel resections and three women with mastectomies,my patients right now include two people who’ve had their gallbladders out and one who received an emergency appendectomy.My last shift passes through my mind as though on a screen.Me trying to answer three patients’bells that have all gone off at once.Two people want painkillers and the third has a leaking incision drain.I hurry to change his linens and redo the dressing,knowing that two other patients are waiting at their bedsides for me to help them finish up their morning wash. I push the images from my mind,rolling away from Trevor. I will talk with him in the morning about getting away.We will do something together.

Crypt Lake Trail sounds like a wonderful hike.According to our guidebook,it’s only about five miles long,but we’ll gain two thousand feet.We have to take a boat trip across Waterton Lake to reach the trailhead,and there’s a tunnel through a rock area somewhere along the way.The trail should satisfy the adventure needs of my kayaking,mountain-climbing,glacier-skiing husband and provide a challenge for me,his cautious wife.

The day is sunny and clear,but the wind off the lake is cold, and we’ve got our coats zipped up to the top.The lake stretches miles away to the right,with steep mountains on either side.The evergreen forest is mixed with deciduous trees that give it a blast of autumn colour.It’s difficult to believe that it ’s supposed to snow tonight.Trevor wonders if I wouldn ’t rather stay at the lodge again tonight,but I want to backpack our gear in and camp.

“That’s what we’re here for,isn’t it? We can snuggle up together.It will be fun.” I’m happy and full of energy as we wait to board the boat.Bundled in his sweater and pile jacket,Trevor wraps his arms tightly around me for a feet-off-the-ground hug. The trip is choppy and chilly,with people packed around us on the open wooden seats.The boat drops us at a crude wooden dock with two other hikers,then chugs off to continue its sight-seeing tour of the lake.Dark green trees surround us,crowding the narrow shoreline and rising steeply from the water.

We adjust our packs and set off at an easy pace,talking and teasing and laughing our way up the gradual switchbacks.The other two hikers have disappeared with purposeful strides ahead of us.The water is far below us now,mirroring the cloudless blue of the sky.

“Hold on a minute,Trevor.I want to get a photo of you against the lake and the mountains on the other side.”

“It won’t work.If you focus in on me, the other side will just be a blur of colour.”

“I want to try.The sun is so bright.It would be a good pic-ture.” Looking through the viewfinder,I see Trevor tilting his head and putting on a fixed smile.



I am laughing,imitating him.“In every picture we have of you,you ’re tilting your head and smiling that tiny smile.”

Trevor laughs too,his face clear and happy in the afternoon light. Click.

“That was much better.”I jump aside quickly to avoid Trevor’s grinning lunge.He dives for me and we struggle,tickling each other through our bulky outdoor clothes.The ground beneath us is rocky and hard,cushioned in places by fallen aspen leaves. Then the trail climbs sharply uphill,into thick evergreen growth, and all of a sudden I feel apprehensive.

“Come on,Paranoia Pearl.Quit looking for bears at every corner,and let ’s go.”

“Let ’s sit for another minute.That hill looks awfully steep.”

We haul ourselves onto a large rock.

“Remember how we met? I can’t believe it ’s only been five years.”I pick up a branch of pine needles,caressing it to release the scent.“I feel like we were meant to be together.We ’re incredibly different,but we want so many of the same things.A house with a bay window.Babies.Taking our children backpacking, when we’ve got some.I sure hope we’re not one of those couples who can’t have kids.”

Trevor’s hand comes up to stroke my cheek.High above us the wind pulls at the tops of the pines.

I was just home from an exchange program called Canada World Youth when Trevor and I first met in 1978.Four months in the Ivory Coast,then back to the culture shock of Calgary. During a visit with friends from my African group and people who had been with Canada World Youth in Guatemala,we planned a get-together,reviewing a list of participants to phone. Trevor’s name leapt out at me,as though it was the only name on the paper.I couldn’t stop asking questions about him.Later,our paths crossed at a debriefing meeting for the Calgary-area participants.In a tiny front hallway jammed with winter coats and boots,we squeezed past each other,belly to belly.He was arriving.I was leaving.He went inside and asked about me.I went outside and asked about him.Who was the tall,blue-eyed blonde? Who was the dark-haired man with such wonderful eyes?

That’s Trevor Janz,my friends told me.The name on the list.

I was amazed.

“We’d better get a move on,”Trevor says now.“That climb ahead of us isn’t going to go away.”

With a parting kiss,I step ahead of him onto the narrow trail, nodding hello to a family of four on their way out.We hike until we reach Burnt Rock Falls,halfway along the trail.There Trevor steals the camera out of my pack while I crouch to retie my long red bootlaces,and takes my picture.Our disagreement of Thursday evening seems long ago.

We stop again,farther along the way,at a jumble of enormous fallen boulders.The sun is being threatened by towering grey clouds,and it is cold as we sit finishing our snack.A low rumble from up the trail gets louder and louder,and soon a colourfully clad line of children traipses past.There are about twenty of them and a few adults,all wearing small daypacks.

“Where are you from?”I call loudly above their din.

“Red Deer!”

They vanish as quickly as they appeared,and Trevor and I are alone again.

It’s uphill from here.We walk quickly to get warm;the sun is gone for good today.The view is incredible,with mountains all around us and hundreds of feet of waterfall far across the valley. We puff our way up steep switchbacks.

I stop.I can smell something for a minute,then it ’s gone.

It’s unpleasant.I think of bears.

“Trevor,can you smell that?”Silence surrounds us.We stand sniffing into the wind.

“I don’t smell anything.Wait.Now I do.”Then it disappears again.Trevor shrugs.“It’s probably just that plant that gives off a pungent odour when you kick it.I can ’t remember what it ’s called.I don’t see any bear scats.”

With a glance up the trail,he strides away.I stand another moment and gaze around me.It doesn ’t look like bear habitat here,in such a narrow rocky valley.The scrunch of Trevor’s boots on the loose gravel trail is getting faint,and I hurry to catch up,the smell forgotten.

At the campsite,a kitchen shelter sits between widely spaced spruce trees.We leave our packs there and continue up the trail, crossing a creek and following the rocky path across grey scree. Ahead of us,through massive,dark rock slabs,a tunnel stretches for about twenty feet.We move through it on all fours. I don’t like the feel of rock pressing so closely on all sides of me,but I hold still for pictures,then scurry to the end and the open mountainside. Trevor lingers,examining the walls and musing about how the tunnel was formed.

Table of Contents

IThe Hike1
IIThe Hospital27
VThe Dark Planet209
VIThe Bear's Embrace263


A conversation with Patricia Van Tighem,

Q:Why write this book now?
A:In the time right after our attack I couldn’t get the imagery out of my head. I used to write all the time and I was in the habit of it, so I started to write initially about the actual mauling and then branched out in other directions (like the hospital) in order to stop the visions cycling through my head. A couple of years ago when I had the psychiatric admission to what I call in the book the “Fraser Unit,” the anger I felt at their treatment was a spur for me to change thingsÉ to change the way I was treating myself and also just to change the way I was in the world, I just didn’t want to be in that state anymore.

Q:The attack is just a small part of the book–it’s a survivor’s tale, it’s critical of the health system, it’s about getting the right answers in the health system, it’s educational, it’s a marriage handbook, it’s just so many things. But I think the reason a person will first pick it up is because they see a grizzly bear on the front and the story of an attack. Is that wrong?
A:People have asked me, “What do you think people’s fascination with bears is?” I think it is because it’s one of the last things in our society that we can’t control, it’s totally unpredictable. So there are people that swing to the side and say, “then get rid of them all.” Those are probably the same kind of people who want to build fences around their neighborhoods and make everything as secure and predictable aspossible. To me, they have a place here just like my daughter with Down Syndrome has a place here. I would never have chosen to say “we don’t want her in our life because it’s too much of a challenge, it’s unpredictable, we can’t be in control.”

Q:Speaking of your daughter with Down Syndrome, you talk about her quite a bit in the book.
A:It sounds cliché but she’s the one who teaches me about what’s true beauty and what’s truth. Those things that I have been aspiring for and it’s right there in this little package. That’s my concern when people want to control their lives too much and make things as predictable and safe as possible–what are they losing out on at the same time?

Q:The book is a very personal account, it’s like sneaking into your room and stealing your diary. After people read the book they will feel like they know you on a different level. Is that going to make it easier or more difficult for you to retain your “normal” lifestyle?
A:That was certainly one of my apprehensions after putting it out, wondering how people would respond to me. But the urge in me was greater to dissipate some of the stigma around these issues. There is a part of me that almost wants to say to the world–look, I went this low, I felt this awful, I did these things and at the end I have to ask, “Am I then terribly bad and don’t deserve to live and should just commit suicide?” Or do turn that around and say, “No, I have a value and a reason for being here and these things I am being judged by are not the things that should decide my value.” That strong feeling that there must be so many people out there that are feeling and going through the same kinds of things and might read this and say, “Hey, I’m not the only one who feels that way.” I have a feeling that a lot of people have that kind of harsh judgment that I was living.

Q:In the book, you teach people how to respond to people who may not look like everyone else.
A:People weren’t all that interested in me as an unwell person. I was very condescended to, I was very patronized. Even with the disfigurement now I often get that kind of response from people who don’t know me and those things angered me. I kind of wondered if I put the story out without telling people what to do. The process of writing the book was a tremendous healing process and purging for me.

Q:You still live in bear country in Western Canada–Why have you chosen to live in a place where bears can pass through your backyard?
A:In a strange way I felt more apprehensive in the city then I did living here with bears. I think people are more unpredictable and with bears there is no malicious element, they are not terrorizing us on purpose. Another thing too is that I have to comfort myself with statistics. It was so incredibly rare what happened to us in the first place and that’s one of the things that helped me get out hiking again.

Q:On a recent hike you saw a bear (for the second time in your life). What was your response?
A:Actually the bear in one way was a tremendous gift in that it didn’t act in any way aggressive; it was just minding its own business. It bothered me though, because it wasn’t scared of us, it didn’t take off and we were forced to bushwhack through the switchbacks.

Q:Is talking about the book part of the healing process?
A:I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but based on the response I have had (from the Canadian media) so far, I realize that could be a bonus of it. It’s a paradoxical thing because all through the book I craved other people’s evaluations of me, for them to have me in high esteem so that I could feel like a worthy person. By the end of the book and now I don’t need that anymore.

Q:What do you think people will be thinking when they finish the book and put it down?
A:I can tell you, I was afraid of what people would be thinking. That it was a litany of woes. That it was just too much. But I think what I hoped people might feel is an element of hope. I didn’t want to end (the book) with “everything is all better now” because it isn’t. But, just an awareness of the ebb and flow of life–the tough things visit and they lift and we learn and hope and grow along the way. Hope sounds too clich?, but that’s what I was getting at.

Q:You learn a lot from reading the book, but what should people know about Patricia?
A:I guess just that I am very human. There is nothing special about me, I don’t feel because of the grizzly bear attack or because of writing the book or because of going through a lot of really difficult things, I’m any more special than anybody else. I am just a regular human being and have done what I could do with the circumstances as they came.

Q:Some people may think when the read this: How could one persona have so many bad things happen to them? Is life unfair?
A:I wouldn’t say life’s unfair. People will say this book is full of a lot of whacks, but lots of people’s stories are full of disasters and difficulties and lots of people just float through. I don’t know what the reason is, but strangely enough I wouldn’t change any of this. I wouldn’t ask to have had a different life.

Q:People will wonder once the book is out and you are actively promoting it: “Patricia is well now.” Are you well?
A:No. J.K. Rowling had a quote in her last book that blew me away. It said, “Before healing there has to be understanding, then knowledge, then acceptance, then you move to healing.” All of this put me into the understanding and knowledge end and pushed me into the acceptance end. I’m at that acceptance part which means accepting the fact that I am very sensitive and vulnerable to down times and it would be lovely if they hit less often, but just last week I was in the hospital again and very low. The same old stuff comes back and plays through my head even with all my knowledge. But now there is a part of me that can stay apart from that and now I know it won’t last and I just have to be gentle with myself. This (book) doesn’t mean everything is all fixed–certainly this (points to face) isn’t. I have had surgeries in the past and I will have them in the future. It is part of my life that I will still have physical ailments and emotional difficulties and I accept that as me now and I don’t fight it anymore.

From the Hardcover edition.

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