In Partnership with Animals

Animals as Teachers and Healers

Animals offer tremendous help by simply being who and what they are. They are beings who still remember the original instructions given them by an ancient universe. Storyteller Joseph Bruchac speculates that perhaps animals are wiser than human beings because they do not forget how to behave: "A bear never forgets that it is a bear. Yet human beings often forget what a human must do. Humans forget to take care of their families and forget to show respect to other things. They become confused because of material possessions and power."

As we observe the lives of the many creatures who live with and around us, what unfolds is an array of opportunities to learn about ourselves and our world, to grasp life's paradoxes, ironies, and mysteries that surround and often confuse us. The messages can be as formidable and dramatic as animal imagery that aids us in healing from disease, or as subtle and ordinary as a sleeping cat in the sun who offers the gentle reminder to "slow down, relax, enjoy life."

Although the animals in my life have long been providing me with insight and inspiration, one particular animal companion led me to acknowledge the impact of animals upon my life and work. Keesha, a Shepherd-Malamute mix, was the first animal in my life to insist that I engage her not as owner or master, but as partner and friend. And it was her story that started me on the path to this book.

Keesha was my friend, my confidant, my angel and, ultimately, my teacher. I first began writing about Keesha and her powerful healing lessons while I was recuperating from radiation treatments for aggressive, metastatic neck cancer. Only thirty-seven when I was initially diagnosed with a malignant tumor in my mouth, my medical prognosis was poor. These tumors are usually found in old, cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking men. When they appear in young, clean-living women like me, they usually spread like a chemical fire. When the tumor advanced to my lymph nodes in 1988, my doctors didn't expect me to survive another two years.

Like so many of us who have lived the suburban, civilized life, I'd always been shielded from sickness and death (which I have since learned is no blessing), and I knew little about how to live with a serious illness, much less how to die from one. According to my doctors, there was no reason to believe that I wouldn't be dying, and soon.

A friend has a phrase for those who have either faced their own death and survived, or who have experienced the death of a loved one. He calls them "the Initiated." The words, "You have cancer" launched my initiation A sickening riot of feelings cemented my new-found status as initiate: Terror, hysteria, retching fear -- these words described me on my good days. Because no one in my family or circle of friends had ever faced a serious or terminal illness, they could offer no counsel aside from their own terror at watching a relatively young woman face a grim prognosis. Where was I to find examples of how to live what was left of my life? Where does an initiate go for help? Finding no answers among anyone I knew, I turned to the only hopeful memory I had: Keesha.

In 1981, Keesha had died of cancer. Her disease started exactly where mine had, in the mouth. Her symptoms were the same as mine, including problems with eating and swallowing. Keesha's treatments were the same, too: weeks of daily radiation. Keesha eventually died of her disease, but she lived with remarkable zest and exuberance until the end. Suddenly, years after her death, Keesha and I were together once again, this time in the spirit of similar circumstance, and I felt a renewed bond with her. In my memories of Keesha, I would find the help I was seeking.

During the year-long course of my surgeries, metastases, and treatments it was Keesha's example I chose to follow. When I was in the first stages of cancer what I valued the most were my memories of Keesha's complete and graceful acceptance of every part of her illness and debilitation. One incident in particular had a profound impact on me, and even more so years later. Several weeks before her death, Keesha had become quite weak from her disease. The long daily strolls along the marsh near our home became shorter and slower as her cancer spread. In her healthier days, Keesha's greatest joy had been to swim in the deep lagoons filled with cattails and marsh grass. But now, too frail to swim, she looked to the glossy, shallow pools of rain that peppered our streets. At every opportunity, Keesha would plop into a big puddle and splash and bark for as long as I'd let her. The look on her face during those times was the look of a hog in a wallow. On our last excursion together she was only days away from death, yet she was in bliss.

From a dog splashing in a rain puddle, I learned about choice. Regardless of how much time I had left, I cold choose to celebrate whatever possibilities life had to offer me each moment. Or, I could curl up and die. We, the Initiated, can be possessed by a manic sense of urgency and dread unknown to most people. It is a curse and a blessing. The urgency keeps your priorities straight, but it can paralyze momentum and cripple one's best efforts with fear. The antidote to that fear is to practice joy in the moment. I learned that the choice between celebration or dread is mine. Keesha's lesson is still with me today and has changed how I am in the world. At joy, Keesha was a master.

Through Keesha's inspiration, I somehow kept my humor, most of my friends, and my activities while undergoing cancer treatment. It would be a kindly understatement to say I had been dragged kicking and whining through the previous three-plus decades of my life. Always believing that life owed me something, I would complain bitterly when I didn't get what I thought I deserved. Sarcasm and rebelliousness were my most characteristic coping tools, and fear about anything and everything was y prime motivator. By the time I was faced with cancer, I was a sick, scared little girl. I truly believe that Keesha and cancer matured and healed me.

Most of the stories submitted for this book are heartfelt tributes to the lives of much-beloved animals who lived with their human companions for many years, accompanying them through failed marriages, lost jobs, deaths of loved ones, and friends, and countless other major life passages. These strong ties between people and their animal companions were often the only enduring, secure bond to sustain them through difficult times. For most people, a relationship with a domestic animal is the only link they have with the animal nations. Thankfully, it is a powerful one. Keith Smith acknowledges this connection in Mourning Sickness, a book that chronicles his grieving and healing process after the loss of his young wife to cancer.

-- More from Animals as Teachers and Healers--

Excerpted from Animals as Teachers and Healers by Susan Chernak McElroy.
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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