Bear's Embrace: A Story of Survival

Bear's Embrace: A Story of Survival

by Patricia Van Tighem

View All Available Formats & Editions

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


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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

This memoir is an incredible and sometimes horrific description of a grizzly bear attack and the author's physical recovery and suffering through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She tells her story in an appealing and dramatically intense manner that pulls the reader into the thoughts and emotions she is experiencing. Van Tighem was a nurse at the time of the mauling, married for a short while to Trevor Janz, a young medical student. The book opens with some background on the beginning of their relationship and a brief description of the events leading up to the attack during a backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies in 1983. Van Tighem uses the present tense to tell the story and relates details of the attack in the sequence that she experienced them. She and Trevor both suffered severe head and facial trauma. Neither one was aware of the damage the other suffered during the one-in-two-million chance encounter they experienced. Intense pain and grief followed the incident as they attempted to adjust to their altered appearances and the reactions of other people. The book chronicles 17 years of nightmares, endless surgeries, pain, medication, psychiatric wards and attempted suicide. It also relates the special value of four children and Trevor in Van Tighem's life as she struggled to overcome the constant fear and guilt and come to terms with what had happened. At last, a Native American belief about bear attacks began to infuse some meaning for her into all the suffering. An unforgettable story of human strength and endurance. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Anchor, 273p.,
— Ann Hart
From the Publisher
“Overwhelmingly inspirational. . . . Van Tighem’s story is a testament to human strength.” —The Plain Dealer

“Van Tighem has written an important and bracing reminder of what it means to be vulnerable in a world that has little patience for vulnerability.” —Los Angeles Times

“Beautifully crafted prose . . . . Van Tighem tells the story with grace and honesty.” —Nashville Tennessean

“Compelling and even suspenseful.” —Denver Post

“A literary marvel that describes the author’s experience with clarity and immediacy, reflects on them with calmness and candor, and draws the reader into a world that, in less skillful hands, might easily repel or terrify.” –The Globe and Mail

“Gripping. . . Addictive to read, impossible to put down. . . Extraordinary.”–Vancouver Sun

“Brutally honest. Tremendously disturbing.” –The Tacoma News Tribune

“Oddly compelling and suspenseful.” –The Arizona Republic

“Harrowing and vivid, Van Tighem’s narrative raises questions of random events and meaning, the bravery of surviving an attack, . . . as well as the healing power of telling and owning one’s story.”–Publishers Weekly

“Van Tighem’s story is a testimony of courage.” –Maclean’s

“An unsparing chronicle of fear and suffering and the hard-won courage that beat it all.”–Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
290 KB

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet 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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >