Health & Healing
When author Barbara Gates got breast cancer, she found healing by recognizing the strength in her animal community and learning to trust her body and the earth.
While recovering from cancer treatments, I tried to find at least a few minutes each day to relax into the wide hug of my yard, to continue my daily practice of literally lying on the earth. One morning, my neighbor Sheryl called through the fence, “Barbara, come quick. You’ll never believe this!” When I looked through the fence, I could see the usual line of cats at their bowls in front of the garage and then, at the far end, in broad daylight, a raccoon feeding at the farthest bowl. Sheryl whispered, “It’s a female.”
Indeed, this mama raccoon, her teats distended and red, clearly ravenous after days of nursing her babies, had the audacity to forage side by side with the cats in view of us people. I imagined her exhausted, starving. Challenged to survive, she had felt compelled to leave her cubs in their nest in the shed of some overgrown yard and, without the protection of night, to brave this territory. Now, seemingly oblivious to the cats, she moved from bowl to bowl. Suddenly, one cat, defending his food, humped and hissed. The mama raccoon reared, bared her teeth and flattened her ears. Darting at her, Sheryl shouted, “Git!” And the raccoon fled. Watching this exchange, I felt a kinship with this raccoon that I didn’t understand.
When I submitted to the technology of radiation, I felt disowned by life. I sat in the narrow hallway in a “lineup” with other green-gowned patients avoiding each other’s eyes and watching unlucky fellows roll through on gurneys. In the treatment room, technicians carried on conversations over and through me, arranging my limbs as if they belonged to a corpse or were some extension of the equipment. The door clicked shut and I was left alone with the Star Wars equipment gliding over my breast, and the high-pitched yammer of the machine.
To counterbalance the touch of the radiation, the machines and the technicians (this touch without contact), I decided to get a massage. Surprised when the masseuse introduced herself as a beginner, I commented on her strong hands, her sure sense in rooting for knots. She told me that for many years before she worked on humans, she had massaged horses. As her fingers worked the braided muscles of my back, I daydreamed of the tight flank of a mare contracted from hours of work in the ring. I felt my own back as “flank.” Through the touch of the horse masseuse and her story, I took further risks of imagination, risks in the very way I saw who or what I was. I knew my animal body; I felt sister to the mare; I remembered the raccoon.
Through rounds of radiation, I continued to take naps on the earth, to peek through the slats in the fence, and to spy on that mama raccoon. As I watched her, I was shaken by opposing feelings. Sometimes I delighted in her, my heroine. How brazen she was. What courage she had in full daylight to claim her place among the cats. Other times, I disparaged her as thief. In her black mask, she stole from bowls set up for the cats. Did the ferocity of her hunger serve her? No! She scared Sheryl, who, instead of offering her food, chased her away. Distraught, I saw myself in this persona. I recognized the pain of the “intruder.”
That pain felt familiar, a challenge to overturn. Old habits came to mind. After my parents were divorced, I saw myself as intruder in both my father’s and my mother’s homes; now in Berkeley, I often felt like a gate-crashing New Yorker, and in New York, like an infiltrating Californian. I wept into the grass for the mama raccoon, driven by her ravenousness to break in, and for myself, driven by my hunger to belong.
As treatments continued, mothers at my daughter Katy’s preschool offered to provide my family with dinners. The nourishment I experienced went far beyond the meals themselves. A woman who made one of the first dinners said, “I thought about you as I was cooking this and imagined what foods would make you strong.” Later that evening, as I ate the lentils and chickpeas, the tomatoes and carrots, I remembered this mother remembering me. Each evening, Katy, my husband Patrick, and I ate lasagnas, corn soup and chiles rellenos—grandmothers’ formulas and favorite recipes passed from friend to friend, from these families to ours.
And I continued to be nurtured each morning by the ground itself. One morning, during an earth-nap, I heard Andy from down the street making plans with Sheryl. I listened to them talking through the back fence. Andy would be gone for a week, so could Sheryl be sure to put out extra food for the cats whose care they shared? Sheryl could be counted on to care for cats (and as they got used to the raccoons, for the raccoons, too, despite efforts of some neighbors to eliminate them). My imagination stirred. People had put out bowls for feral cats in backyards throughout this neighborhood, throughout Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, Richmond and beyond. Who knew how far? When she fed at the cat bowls, this mama raccoon tapped into a great network that was already there. Was I tapping into such a network as well? Could I continue to rest in this vast net of connectedness, always there, needing only to be recognized?
An image of the many bowls offered me a certain romantic solace, but it didn’t translate for me as a mother. During those months of treatments, I was consumed with fears for Katy—my tender five-year-old, vulnerable, dependent on me. Often I came to my nap worrying. Is Katy sturdy? Am I passing on my upset, my fragility? If I die, what motherly soul will help Patrick protect and nurture her? Will Katy know to look for the bowls that may be out there?
In daydreams about the mama raccoon, I saw her returning to her nest. Strengthened after feeding, she nursed her cubs. As they grew older, she perhaps led them on foraging expeditions, showing them the yards of the neighborhood almsgivers. But on her rounds, she might be trapped in a broken fence, hit by a car. What if this mama didn’t make it back?
At the end of one day of worry, my friend Marie said to me, “I have to believe that if I weren’t there, the universe would take care of my children.” This seemed inconceivable. Such a risk to trust in this. Yet just positing the thought was briefly comforting at that scary time.
Now as I sit down in my old napping spot, visions of the mama raccoon call up heat in my belly. Suddenly I see it. Mammal to mammal, I feel the pull toward this impassioned mother fighting for food so she can convert it into milk. What is the key to mammalness? Mammaries. A mammal mother is able to protect her babies in their nest. They thrive only because she can nurse.
With breast cancer, I confronted a crisis in my very mammalness, a sickness in my mammary. When I was in treatment, Katy and I continued a favorite pastime, sharing baths together. Scooping the soap dish into the water, Katy poured a cooling balm over my raw, radiated breast, over the hard contour of the hematoma left from surgery. How I loved these bathtub blessings. As I recall them now, floods of other memories return to me.
So many worries of this city gal, feeling outside the cycles of life. When I was about to give birth, I did not trust my breasts. Although they were larger than I had imagined was possible, the nipples dark and swollen, I didn’t believe that these breasts of mine could ever produce milk. When Katy was first born, vigorous and rosy, how amazed I was that she could so naturally root for and find my breasts. How relieved, how proud I was—a slipping into grace—when she suckled and the milk flowed.
This lack of trust is so familiar. As a teenager, I was afraid my body wouldn’t know how to menstruate, that it wouldn’t know how to kiss, that it wouldn’t know how to make love. At forty, when for the first time I focused all my effort on having a baby, I didn’t trust that I’d be able to conceive (despite Patrick’s lively sperm, which, after a year of failed attempts, we witnessed in all their exuberant activity on a slide under the microscope). Once pregnant, I worried. Could I grow a baby and carry her to term? Would my body know how to give birth, how to suckle?
Distrust following distrust (it seems absurd and sad as I look back), I doubted that this woman’s body would know how to live out its nature as mammal, as animal. Now, five years after I first recognized myself in the mama raccoon and wept here for my craving, I cleave to this same soil. Many times I have felt barred from the primal cycles.
Yet even now, just feeling these distrusts, I sense a shift. Lying on the earth beneath the dawn redwood, there’s a welling up of precisely what I mourn. I see a lineage of mammal mothers to which the raccoon belongs, to which I too belong. Through this raccoon mama, I knew the pain of being excluded; now I glimpse a sense of belonging—to this yard, to this my home terrain where, through the millennia, life has germinated, suckled, foraged, died and reseeded.