Author Tags: Outdoors
It has been estimated that the chance of being attacked by a grizzly bear is one in two million; the chance that a charging grizzly will climb a tree are even less. But grizzlies have been known to attack when they are feeding on a carcass and the intrusion of people is perceived as a threat to their meal. In response, they will attempt to break the jawbone of the perceived threat. The Bear’s Embrace (Greystone, $29.95) by Patricia Van Tighem describes a harrowing, near fatal bear attack--and the harrowing, long-term aftermath.
In 1983 Patricia Van Tighen was a nurse struggling with limited time available for each patient; her husband Trevor was a medical student. Between labs, tutorials, shifts and exams, they explored the wilderness on weekends. That year Patricia Van Tighen was walking a few feet behind her singing husband as they hiked through Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park when an especially agitated grizzly attacked them, climbing the tree that Patricia scuttled up in terror.
The vicious attack described by Patricia Van Tighen at the outset of her memoir, The Bear’s Embrace (Greystone, $29.95), was the beginning of her problems--spiritual, physical, psychological and marital. Among his other severe injuries, Trevor Van Tighen suffered serious facial nerve damage and a broken jaw but his recovery was relatively swift and uncomplicated. Part of the couple’s ensuing struggle to persevere and to love again was that they recovered at very different rates.
“He can’t stand my fears and apprehensions, is sick of my need to rehash events…” she recalls. “Life is good, he said. Let’s just get on with it.”
The bear attack disfigures Patricia’s face beyond recognition. During recovery she is thrilled when a doctor she once knew finally recognizes her.
“I want the smile to tell them all how much I appreciate their contact and caring and gentleness, but I don’t trust my messy face. I don’t know it any more. It doesn’t smile like it used to, and I don’t know what message it sends.”
Five years later, two years after the birth of her first child, Patricia gives birth to twins. One is a daughter with Down syndrome. At first, Patricia and her family struggle to reconcile another hardship. “I don’t want a child who will look different. Trevor and I already look different. More stares.” Part of Patricia’s accomplishment becomes understanding the mysterious nature of happiness. “Let Ellen have odd facial features and be slow developmentally. It’s who she is. I will try to let her be. Let them be. And love them both.”
With young and demanding children and her father dying of cancer, Patricia nearly succumbs to depression. There are countless surgeries, skin grafts, and a failed prosthesis that causes relentless facial infections. Yet Patricia writes about the humour and wisdom in her experience. After explaining the nature of her surgeries to a young nephew, the boy wonders, “You have bum skin on your head?” Her own children make a mailbox on her door to place cards, notes, and pictures for the days when she is too ill to leave her bedroom.
Once a member of the health care profession, Patricia finds herself helplessly immersed into recipiency. Her perspective on health care becomes ambiguous, ranging from praise of individual nurses and doctors, to a deep criticism of the inadequacy of the health care system in general. Some doctors seem to represent all that is good and noble in their profession; others do not.
Patricia soon realizes that the health care system is rejecting her. “My reputation as a difficult patient precedes me. Along with chronic pain and recurrent infection, I now have a psychiatric history. In many doctors’ eyes, I have no credibility.” Proper treatment is not a right but rather something that she must fight for. When a particular surgery finally brings results, Patricia realizes, “Delight and hope mingle with the urge to throw something at him, and at all those other doctors. Almost three years! And even then we had to beg.”
A sympathetic nurse comforts Patricia with an Indian legend of a bear attack. “If you are attacked by a bear and survive, then you gain the wisdom, the power and the healing abilities of the bear that attacked you.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the intensity of the threat indicates the level of valour in your overcoming it.
Suffering from bear nightmares throughout her recovery, Patricia finally has a dream of resolution. “The bear approaches me and I cringe, preparing myself for the attack. But this time, its arms reach out to hold me close. It whispers comfort in my ear.”
The Bear’s Embrace is about raising children, surviving a marriage, understanding beauty, and surpassing pain. It’s about how fast the typical struggles of life can be replaced by a battle for life itself—and how love can become a shared pain. And it’s about how a profession becomes a symbol of a former self—and how children can suffer the implications of an event that occurred long before their conception. It’s a story of trauma, endurance and the triumph of sanity.
In the final pages, walking through the wilderness—which continues to frighten and overwhelm the author-—she finally cries out to the delight of her handicapped daughter, “Give me peace in the woods…Go away, bears. Give us peace in the woods.”
Patricia Van Tighen launched her book in Nelson and Silverton—and appeared as a guest on TV programs such as Gabereau and The Sally (Jesse Raphael) Show. She found some solace in refusing to hide from the public eye.
“Three years ago, prior to this book, I couldn’t have done something this public without destroying myself with worry. How will I come across? Will they like me? The process of writing this book has brought me to a place where I value myself more, realize what I’m capable of, and stop looking to others to validate me. Appearing now, knowing four million viewers will be watching, I wasn’t fraught with the same anxiety. This is who I am, this is what I look like.”
Van Tighen hoped the act of writing about her experience would be a significant element of healing. The editorial objectivity required helped her create a space for accepting traumatic events. “It’s odd that I’m getting this external validation now from the book, at a point where I don’t crave it anymore,” she said, not long after publication. But as Patricia Van Tighem Janz, she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and ultimately took her own life in 2005. A memorial service was held on December 30, 2005 in Nelson.
This book was re-released in 2012. In this edition, sister Margaret Van Tighem provides an affecting afterward remembering Patricia Van Tighem and her indomitable spirit and strength.
Review of the author's work by BC studies:
The Bear's Embrace: A True Story of a Grizzly Bear Attack
The Bear's Embrace (Greystone 2006 / May 12th, 2012 ISBN 978-1-55365-594-7 Paperback 5.25" x 7.5" 280 pages $21.95
[Lisa Kerr / BCBW 2006 / 2012] "Outdoors"