Dedicated to the Animals Most Like Us

Bear mother nursing her twin cubs in Yellowstone.

All my life, animal companions have provided me with comfort and guidance, frequently touching the deepest parts of my soul. I do not believe that I would have survived long enough to excavate my life and document my personal history without their companionship. Fifty years after Commander Margaret insisted that my father shoot our two springer spaniels, Army and Nurse, they returned to my side in my dreams and gently nudged me toward the truth. The devotion of animals, their GPS-like intelligence, and their ability to trust other species, even humans capable of brutal betrayal, are why cross species relationships remain my greatest source of hope for our world. When animals shrink the distance, accepting the differences between themselves and other species, they are showing us how to achieve optimal distance and mend ourbroken world.

Second Chances and the Excavation of a Life

From birth to thirty-nine, my mother’s mind had ascendancy over mine. Her death on the morning of my fortieth birthday was more like an amputation that left behind a phantom limb still sending alarm signals to my brain. My rational self knew she was dead; I had stood by her body as the coroner signed her death certificate. Even more to the point, at her bequest I had attempted to repair her mortuary make-up, working on her embalmed face as her body lay inside the casket, a truly awful task. My mother’s casket contributed in part to her phantom-like presence. Selected for both economy (my father’s) and for irony (mine), it was a simple wooden box, hand-pegged to meet the “dust unto dust” requirement of Jewish burial customs (Genesis 3:19). But without any metal, not even a single nail, I realized the casket was an inadequate container for my mother’s fierce power. Margaret Audrey Beck Lieberman was dead, but her shadow felt indestructible, immune to internment.

A hard rain fell as her casket was slowly lowered into the plot she had secretly purchased. Desperate to ensure my mother would remain at an optimal distance from me for eternity, I asked the four gravediggers to stand aside. I was quickly up to my ankles in mud as I struggled to fill her grave with six feet of Colorado clay. Even as those heavy shovelfuls fell onto her casket, I imagined that she was breaking out of the flimsy wooden container, after which she would use her hands and nails to scrape away the clay. Perhaps she had found the secret to resurrection in her obsessive study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Alternatively, since my mother often claimed God was talking to her, there was an extremely remote possibility that He was on his way, bringing her the perfect auger.

The death of my mother was not what led me to take a second chance on motherhood. My husband and I had already made that decision, but her absence definitely made me more anxious to start my life over.  So, twenty years after I gave birth to Olivia, and a year after my mother’s death, I gave birth to a son. For the first three years of his life, I felt as if living was a secret that had been kept from me.  I couldn’t tell whether it was his presence or my mother’s absence, but I had never felt happier, as if I was swimming in ocytocin. Maybe I was because I was still nursing when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My son was six when the breast cancer metastasized to my liver. Trembling as I sat across from my oncologist, I asked how much longer I could expect to survive.

“About six months, if you are lucky and have a good response to treatment,” Dr. T said, writing notes, avoiding eye contact.

Weak with fear, I accepted Dr. T’s prognosis, packed my bag, and began the anxious wait for death′s knock on my door. Death was such an important trip! I crossed my fingers, hoping my escort would be kind. I was shocked, rather than relieved, when death kept me waiting. Before my diagnostic death sentence, my focus had been on looking forward in time to find hope. But with death in close proximity, I felt an overwhelming urge to go back in time in search of meaning.

Examining my past was not easy. I often felt like a naked rescue worker digging through mounds of rubble. There were many shards in the rubble—some were fragile and quite beautiful, others were dangerously sharp, and many felt too filthy to touch. The work was exhausting, but the search for meaning required the careful examination of whatever was unearthed. There were many times when I became all but buried in the rubble of my life.

As I proceeded with my archaeological dig, the cells in my body responsible for its defense slowly began to wake up. A previously protective amnesia began to dissipate in dreams. Finally the murderous beast of my early childhood emerged from the fog of my unconscious, demanding that I look it in the eye. I resisted until, in a shivering coincidence, Mother Nature intervened.  Forced to keep digging deeper for long buried secrets, I was only able to believe what my unconscious was telling me with the words of three witnesses.

Now I believe that seeing the true shape of my life was what triggered a spontaneous radical remission; a commotion occurred at a cellular level that activated my battered immune system. While there is no test to measure these types of mysterious changes, I believe whatever happened was linked to my conscious mind finally being able to face the terror I experienced on The Day the Bear Went to Topaz (see Part One). While my remission didn’t last forever, it nevertheless contributed to my long term survival, giving me time to explore the new science of epigenetics.

While there is a growing body of literature describing cases of radical and spontaneous remissions, as well as the ways in which many patients have managed to turn metastatic cancer into a chronic condition, the challenges of an unexpected lengthy survival are largely untouched. I had given up all hope more than once. Four months after listening to Dr. T’s prognosis in 1989, I became a hospice patient having “failed chemotherapy” and fallen apart. Three months later, I entered a clinical trial which made it necessary for me to check out of hospice. Then I began a rigorous metabolic treatment, had a complete hysterectomy, and entered yet another clinical trial, etc. etc.  I have had more slash, burn, and poison treatments, as well as more carrot juice, dialysis, and surgery than the population of a small town or some cities in Africa–a strange embarrassment of riches.

Finding optimal distance from death is a lifelong challenge for everyone. Most of us prefer to skip any previews of our inevitable mortality. My experience has taught me that when the body begins to fail for whatever reason, it is best to prepare for both outcomes—a longer-than-expected period of survival or a sharp decline. The mistake I made was to over-prepare for imminent death and under-prepare for an extraordinarily long period of survival.

 Because my life has been filled with an abundance of coincidences, my death wish is for scientists to discover more about the cellular and chemical phenomena that store unconscious memories and deliver dreams filled with guidance. I will die with both an abiding respect for the wisdom of our unconscious minds and filled with hope for the future of epigenetics. I am deeply grateful for the forces in the universe that extended my life beyond scientific explanation, granting me time to undertake my search for meaning, to describe my discoveries, and to make peace with all that remains unknown.