Animal, Heal Thyself

On July 17, 2017
Oliver the cat self-medicates using catnip Nepeta cataria.

©Elizabeth Whiter’s cat Oliver self-selecting Catnip, Nepeta cataria

While researching The Pet Healer Project, I learned a new word: Zoopharmacognosy, the science of animal self-medication. Derived from the roots zoo (“animal”), pharma (“drug”), and gnosy (“knowing”), it is the animal’s innate ability to pinpoint therapeutic elements in plants. We’ve all seen our dogs eat grass and throw up; they are self-medicating.

Just recently I came across a story in a science journal that described how much of folk medicine, particularly in the undeveloped world, likely came from medicine men watching animals self-medicate. A shaman of the Tongwe tribe in Tanzania was said to have observed a sick porcupine eat the roots of a plant known to be poisonous. When the porcupine recovered, the shaman began experimenting with the root in small doses, first on himself and then on fellow villagers. It turned out to be an effective treatment for dysentery, one the Tongwe still use today.

According to a recent New York Times article, “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body.”

Healer and teacher Elizabeth Whiter explains, “I first became aware of zoopharmacognosy when I discovered my horse Wow eating the bark of a willow tree. None of my horses had ever done that, and I wondered then if he was doing some form of self-medication.  I looked it up: Willow tree, I learned, is salicylic acid, which is what aspirin is made from. He was self-medicating for pain! Then I noticed he was also eating rose hips for Vitamin C and bladderwrack for electrolytes, all of which help repair the body.”

Elizabeth noticed her cat Oliver outside choosing his own catnip and snapped this photograph.  The variety of catnip is Nepeta cataria.

And all along pharmaceutical companies were taking notice, too.

To learn more about how animals self-select healing plants and other amazing stories, read Sandy’s new book, The Pet Healer Project. (available September 2017)

A Lady Walks into a Doctor’s Office

On April 23, 2013

It’s not that I was sick; I wasn’t. I just needed a doctor’s name to put on my new insurance provider’s form as my Physician of Record. Since I had not been inside a doctor’s office for more than a year l had to rummage through my files to find the number of a doctor I had seen seven years before—before my bout with stage IV kidney cancer that was supposed to bring my time on earth to an end. “I don’t want a physical exam,” I explained when I made the appointment. “Or even a check-up. Just a brief consultation.”

Yet, when the doctor came into the examination room and greeted me, he took out his pen and launched into a series of questions concerning my medical history. That completed, he stood and reached into a cabinet and handed me a plastic cup. “The bathroom is down that hall, I’ll meet you right back here.”

“But – “

A nurse appeared to show me the way.

I don’t suppose it would hurt to pee in a cup, nobody’s asking me to sign something.

I set the cup on the designated shelf and returned to the exam room to get my things when the nurse breezed in and told me to roll up my sleeve, the doctor wanted a blood sample.

“No, I – “ I started to say, but the nurse was looking at her watch. The needle stood ready in one hand, cotton ball soaked in antiseptic in the other.

Obediently, I rolled up my sleeve. That green rock sitting in the crystal bowl on the table in the waiting room is not decoration, it’s kryptonite.

“The doctor wants an EKG and chest x-ray, so if you’ll undress and put on that gown, I’ll be right back.” Peering at me over her glasses, she added, “It’ll take two seconds! We’ll have you out of here in no time. “We’re a high-tech, one-stop shopping operation!”

 

Now the nurse was wheeling in the EKG machine and slapping little round sticky things onto my chest. Next, I was being swept into the x-ray room for a chest x-ray.

“Call in two days for the lab results,” she said as I was leaving.

That was two weeks ago.

I have not called for those labs. Since my last cancer treatment eight (!) years ago, I have not had a PET scan, x-ray, MRI, mammogram, colonoscopy, pap smear, ultrasound, or for that matter, a single flu shot. I know my body, I can sense any changes and I know what to do to address them. When I feel my body is out of balance, I take the time to figure out the cause, and, if needed, I will use botanicals, not pharmaceuticals to restore the balance. I have a naturopath, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a variety of energy healers to turn to. Recently, I have added a new healer to my team, a medical empathic with extraordinary psychic abilities from New York, Ron Bard. For me, the White Coats, no matter how skilled and kind and well-intentioned, are my kryptonite.

My naturopath, Marie Anne, a skilled therapist and practitioner, has shown again and again that healing is possible even in people suffering from life-threatening illness that doctors have pronounced incurable. Her belief is that all the hi-tech tests available now are but a snapshot of the body’s systems in process at that moment. “The body is always changing, renewing, discharging toxins, replenishing and healing. A terrifying diagnosis can send the emotional/physical body into shock, creating its own path of illness.”

I fully accept that conventional medicine has its place; I would not want a psychic or a naturopath to set my broken leg. But to stay healthy, to stay connected to my body and learn to listen to its signals, I prefer the way of the healer.

THANK YOU, MR. NICHOLSON

On April 8, 2011

I have been hard at work on my novel, and I’m afraid, therefore neglectful about posting. I also had a rush editing job which I was obligated to complete as promised on deadline. Anyone know the origin of the word Deadline? It is the line around a prison beyond which a prisoner will be shot. Nice? That’s what we writers do to ourselves.

Worse, since I was not doing this job at home on my comfortable couch, feet up, laptop on lap (Dr. Steve, chiropractor, skip past this part), instead I was seated at a kitchen table on a small upright back-straight chair, feet on floor (my feet hate to be on the floor when I write), back pitched forward at a stress-inducing 67-degree angle. For eight straight 6-7 hour days. Stay with me, I’m giving you these details for a reason:

Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th night, I starting having bouts of diarrhea. When the gig was over and the deadline met, I was hit with a full-blown stomach flu. A magnitude 8 on the Richter scale. Fever, aches, abdominal pain vomiting. Those of you who read my cancer memoir, The Thirteenth Moon, can understand why I put ‘abdominal pains’ in italics. The kidney was where I got hit with cancer; the primary symptom, the one that had me going from doctor to doctor for months was severe, persistent abdominal pain. You see where I am going with this now?
Stomach flu is an inflammation; inflammations cause fever which in my case always cause fever dreams which again in my case always dramatize my deepest fears, my demon. I suspect most people who have come through cancer to a state of full recovery and precious good health, harbor the same grinning Stephen King/Jack Nicholson demon that pounces out from behind every closet door, the shower curtain, the tree outside our bedroom window, and at 4 a.m. in our darkened room, calling out, “I’m baaaack.”

I went to see my wonderful acupuncturist, Irina Tsoy, who was able to relieve the back pain I had inflicted on myself with needles. For my symptoms she gave me Chinese herbs. She had nothing though to banish the demon. For that, I called a naturopath whom I heard was a good diagnostician. Not exactly a White Coat, more a Robin’s Egg Blue coat, I hoped he could assure me what I had was in fact nothing more than a stomach flu — without taking me on an invasive, scary fishing expedition with CT/PET scans. I was looking for a good detective who will come up the answer with good old fashioned legwork. Because, and this is a huge BECAUSE, that demon all of us former cancer patients know so well is only an actor giving a benefit performance – for an audience of one: us.

Don’t let’s give him an encore.

1 COMMENT:

  1. Dear Sandy,
    I am happy to find your blogspot. In the 90’s I read your Book of Elders; it so moved me. I tried to find you. No luck there but I did find Patricia Catches, Pete’s daughter. Along with Dave Yakima Chief, Oglala Elder when I was in Rapid City. Dave introduced me to Arvol Looking Horse and his partner, Paula Horne. That was in 1996 and 1998. What an adventure it has been all these years with many trips to SD and stays there too.Dave passed in 2005 but I am still very close to Arvol, Paula and her children.

    A few months ago I was introduced to a young, Iranian woman doctor/4th year resident psychiatrist who is an adopted daughter of Basil and Charlotte Brave Heart. So I am revisiting Book of Elders and there they all are: Pat, Arvol, Basil and Pete who I never met.
    Your experience with Pete Sr. coming to you is similar to one I had with Kicking Bear, a deceased Oglala from Pine Ridge,who appeared to me in meditation after my brother died a sudden violent death at age 43 in 1987. I was despairing and wondering what happened to my brother’s soul. That is what drew me to South Dakota to find his Kicking Bear’s relatives.

    I would love to talk to you about this and share experiences. I live in CT and am a retired labor relations arbitrator. My friend, the doctor lives in Tuscon right now. We both have left out hearts in South Dakota and hope to be back there some day soon. She was just there with a team from Center for Mind Body Medicine to help teach stress lessening techniques to the people. I am currently taking the trainings too through the Center in Wash DC.,so I can do the work eventually too with her.

    Bravo for being a cancer survivor!!!!! I’m very happy you are still her with us!

    The circle of Spirits are always very awesome to behold as they manifest in our lives and help us to see our purpose.
    Warmly,
    Tanya

    How can I reach you by email?

Game Changers: Uncovering the Causes, Cures and Myths of Cancer

On October 1, 2009

I have been hard at work on my novel, and I’m afraid, therefore neglectful about posting. I also had a rush editing job which I was obligated to complete as promised on deadline. Anyone know the origin of the word Deadline? It is the line around a prison beyond which a prisoner will be shot. Nice? That’s what we writers do to ourselves.

Instead, having just come in from my brisk early morning walk with my 2 year-old Brussels Griffon Charley, I was about to get to work on my novel when it came to me. The novel can wait till later. Right now I need to be telling the many people who call and email me asking what’s new in the world of healing about the interview I did yesterday with French practitioner Marie-Anne Boularand, U.S. director and founder of the Biodecoding Institute. And the astro-physicist I met with in Montana last month. Because even though I finished my last book, The Thirteenth Moon; a Journey into the Heart of Healing, which is an odyssey of my recovery, I continue to seek out physicists and scientists working far, far outside the box who are searching for the causes, cures and myths of cancer.

I am starting this blog to share my adventures and explorations into what I believe to be the medicine of the future with all my fellow seekers.
What drew me to Boularand, whose work is based on the New German Medicine ™, is the basic principle that by tracking the root cause of any illness – finding the pattern and breaking it, a recurrence can be prevented. We began by guiding me through all the physical and emotional stages of my illness and establishing the pattern that was set in motion from early childhood. This process is described on her website: www.biodecoding.com for those who’d like to learn more. Next week we will begin the process. I’ll be reporting back….
Also, last month, August, I went to Montana to interview a quantum physicist, Dan Nelson, who has developed a technique for rebalancing the body and strengthening the immune system. (more on this …)

And the work of Dr. Thomas Rau, the Chief Medical Director of the Paracelsus Klinik in Switzerland and founder of Paracelsus Biological Medicine. His clinic, close to the city of St. Gallen, is a first of its kind in Switzerland, and now widely recognized as a center of excellence for natural medicine. I will keep you posted…

 

Comments:

 

  1. This is an amazing work. I am thrilled that you’re doing it and will help spread the word that there is more to health and healing then we can begin to know.


    I can’t wait to hear more…please keep ’em coming. Alex Street

     

    This could not have come at a better time — important on both a personal and a public level, as we all have to unite to fight the insurance companies and the corporatization of medicine!
    Anne R.

    February 26, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    This seems wonderful. I’m on a similar journey, in terms of finding ways to finish healing my thyroid and endocrine system, immune system and so on, through inner work, energy healing, communion with God and the spiritual and natural world, universal love, and natural medicine and Western medicine.

    Congrats on your book! Which one would you recommend I read? I mean, which one do you think would help me the most in my journey?

    Thanks! Peace, Rachel E. MacDonald

     

Installment 1: The Thirteenth Moon

On September 1, 2009

Installment 1: The Thirteenth Moon

It is dawn. Three days into the New Year of 2006, I am standing at the window of my tenth-floor apartment staring out at the morning moon which is full. On the other side of the building the sun is just beginning to rise. I can see its bright orange reflection on the windows of the buildings across from me. There is a strange, otherworldly quality about this pale morning moon. I can still make out the rabbit (I have never understood why people persist in seeing a man in the moon when it should be clear to anyone that it’s a rabbit up there – ears pointing to the right, cottontail bottom at the lower right). I ponder this rather than think about the phone call that came late yesterday afternoon, twelve hours before, from my doctor.

New Year’s Day was only three days ago. I had my traditional New Year’s Day party. Champagne, Bloody Marys, and my house special, johnnycakes (small corn cakes topped with a dollop of crème fraiche and red caviar). It felt especially festive. While winter raged across the rest of the country, we in Southern California were enjoying our 70-degree golden days. I had just settled into my new apartment, which I loved so much that I wanted the lease to read, Forever Plus Six Months. Floor-to-ceiling windows face north and west and overlook the hills of Griffith Park and pastel stucco houses with red tile rooftops set into the terraced hillside among tall Cyprus and towering palms. Bright red bougainvillea spilling over walls–my own private Tuscany.

It seemed all of us had much to celebrate. Copies of the Greek edition of my book, The Brazilian Healer with the Kitchen Knife, had just arrived in the mail, bringing the number of translations to seven; Masha was soon to be off to the Sea of Japan to begin shooting her underwater film documentary; Sebastian, a magnificent cellist, would be starting work on a new opera; Terry and Jan were planning their trip to Paris; Alex was just back from Brazil with a wonderful little painting of a Candomblé ceremony (which I was writing about); and I would soon be going back to Brazil to continue research on my novel. The first half of the decade had been good to all of us; the second half promised to be even better.

Life changes on a dime. Mid-breath. Mid-song. One minute I am unloading the dishwasher, hand-drying wine glasses and dust-busting crumbs from underneath the coffee table. The next I am doubled over by a sharp pain in my right side. After a few minutes it goes away. A stitch, a pulled muscle, I think. But that night as I get into bed I notice it again. I decide it must be a bladder infection. I’ve had them in the past; the pain is familiar. I’ll call my doctor in the morning.

That night I dream of Mimosa Pudica, the strange Brazilian plant also known as the Sensitive Plant. I had seen one in Rio in the Jardin Botannical and found it scary. A small pretty tropical shrub with fernlike leaves that quickly fold together when the plant is touched, recoiling. Then when the hand is withdrawn, the leaves unfold and the plant assumes its original form.

I wake up with my heart pounding.

The next morning I notice blood in my urine. My doctor is out of town. I’m due for lunch in Malibu at Carol Moss’s house in the Colony; when I call to confirm our date, she reminds me about the small Urgent Care Clinic nearby. I decide to stop there on the way to Malibu to get a prescription for antibiotics. A pleasant young doctor examines a urine specimen and informs me I do have a bladder infection. I get the prescription filled at the corner drugstore.

Installment 2

On August 1, 2009

Installment 2

Lunch at Carol’s is always wonderful; she’s a magnet. Dagmo-la Sakya, a Tibetan princess, is in town to give her Green Tara teachings and initiations. The first Tibetan family to settle in the U.S. after the Chinese invasion, she and her husband, H.H. Dagchen Rimpoche, founded a monastery in Seattle. I met them both when I was writing The Book of Tibetan Elders; since then she’s written her own book, Princess in the Land of Snows.

At lunch, Damog-la tells a story about how when she first came to the U.S. she remarked to a woman she’d just met how beautifully old she looked. The poor woman was shocked. “I really don’t understand Western society’s fear of age,” Damog-la says. “In Tibetan society, when you meet somebody for the first time, you ask their name then you ask their age.” An L.A. Times journalist sitting next to her laughs and suggests she might not want to try that in Los Angeles. Another journalist, a TV anchor from Slovenia, says that ageism has taken hold in her country too. “Everybody wants to live a long life, but yet they don’t want to grow old,” she says.
We all smile in recognition of this truth.I am so involved in conversation that I almost forget to take the antibiotic.

The next morning, Tuesday, I wake at five and discover more blood. Lots of it. My doctor’s back. Not satisfied with the diagnosis I was given at the Urgent Care Clinic, he sends me to an urologist. After a series of tests–including one given under anesthesia while a miniscule camera at the end of a long snakelike tube is inserted through the urethra into the bladder (a cystoscopy)–a new diagnosis comes back: I do not have a urinary tract infection. What I do have is a rare, fast-growing, high grade, highly aggressive cancer.

This is the way it all changes: not with a bang, not with a whimper. It changes with a phone call from a very nice man, a doctor, who uses his first name and says he is very sorry. I stand at the window gazing out over the hills. The world has gone black and white, a film noir. The morning moon has dropped behind the Griffith Observatory and the day is beginning. Sounds from the street – cars and buses and horns – are fuzzy, distorted, like a defective sound track. I notice with little more than passing interest that there are no tears.

I try to take stock. Divorced, my children married with children of their own, I have a wide circle of friends and a handful of close friends. And my work. My work that makes living alone okay, necessary even. Writing is a fine torment, an exquisite mad passion, and the only thing I know that is never a waste of time. Even when I’m writing badly. Especially when I’m writing badly. Because then I have to learn my craft all over again.

I have a routine: mornings I write. I am working on a novel, Day of Yemanja, set in Brazil against the backdrop of the esoteric religions and the magic and mysticism of that country. It is Rio’s famous New Year’s Eve night celebration held on the Copacabana beach. Peter, my protagonist, an American artist on holiday with his wife Sara, had gotten separated from her, let himself get swallowed up in the throng of revelers. He couldn’t bear to tell her the news he’d gotten earlier when he called his representative from the airport as they landed. His work, the paintings he had slaved over for months, was not selected for the most important exhibit of his career. Hard enough for him to bear, no reason to ruin her holiday too. But then, suddenly, at this midnight hour in this strange country he needed her. When finally he finds her she’s in the arms of another man, a handsome Brazilian, dancing close, sexy close. Peter watches a moment then, crushed, he wanders off down to the water’s edge and stands staring at the moonlight on the sea, imagining himself walking out along that path of moonlight to wherever it leads. Behind him, a strange midnight ceremony is taking place.

As they danced, the Brazilian sang the words soft against Sara’s cheek. “…Braseel, Braseel…. We danced beneath an amber moon…” As he pressed against her Sara felt the charm that hung from his neck and caught a glimpse of a black and silver fist and curious, held it between her fingers.
“…one day soon..” he whispered, “…return I weell…to Braseel…”
She didn’t know what made her look up at that moment, but there was Peter turning and disappearing into the crowd. She started after him.

“Wait,” the Brazilian said. He took the charm from around his neck and slipped it over her head.

I can hear the drumbeats as I write; I know that moonlight path; I can smell the sea. For I too was drawn to the magic when I was in Brazil, especially the shamanistic rituals. If only I could will myself there now, before the doctors and the hospitals. Before I have to walk the path that leads to the land of the ill.

Installment 3

On July 1, 2009

Back in Brazil, I was warned to expect a rough patch of road ahead by a man I met at the Spiritist Center–a healing and educational hub outside of Rio, where I was doing research for the novel. But at the time I did not understand the meaning of what he said. Bebeto, my augurer, is himself a healer as well as a documentary filmmaker who volunteers as a translator for the other healers at the Center whenever he can.
“You must gather your resources,” he said. “A big change is coming to your life.” He also said I might lose my way for a while, but that when I find it again, my life will be “transportada.” When I got back to the hotel, I looked up the word in my pocket-size dictionary. Transported. I still couldn’t figure out what he meant. I think of this encounter now and wonder: Transported, as in passing from this life to the spirit world?

We exchanged phone numbers — he planned to be in Los Angeles working on a project for a few months and promised to call me.
I think of the words of Pete Catches, holy man of the Lakota Sioux: “We do not inherit the world from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
I will have to walk that line very carefully. As much as I will need the children’s love and support, I must remember, this journey is mine not theirs.

Bill Johnson brought to our marriage his three daughters, Wendy, Sally and Debbie, ages 10, 8 and 4; I brought my two-year-old son Mark. Together we had two more sons, Billy and Anthony. After that we stuck to puppies.

When I met Bill he was a Broadway producer; I was a young actress. I auditioned for a play he was co-producing with his brother-in-law, David Wayne, who was also starring in the production. The reading took place in a darkened theater, I remember, and I read with a bored, drowsy stage manager who could barely stay awake to feed me the damn lines.
My irritation informed my reading, which was totally inappropriate for the sweet ingénue character I was auditioning to play. From somewhere behind the stage-lights a voice asked me to start again. Peering into the dark, I asked, Start from where? “The top,” the voice answered, a bit impatiently. My reading got no better, and the voice in the dark thanked me and called for the next actress.

Not surprisingly, I did not get the part. Some months later, I was in a soap opera. I became friends with Susan Slade, the production assistant, who had once worked for Bill. She invited him to come watch the taping of the show from the control booth at CBS. When the camera zoomed in for my close-up, Bill turned to Susan and said, “That one. Terrible actress. That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Many years later, when we were already divorced (both of us having remarried and divorced again), Bill fell ill with pseudo bulbar palsy, a debilitating disease similar to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was living in Santa Fe at the time, and he was living an hour away in Albuquerque. We saw each other several times a week– dinner and sometimes a movie. And holidays with whichever children were able to join us. In our own way, we were a family again.

When Bill got sick, I divided my time between his house and mine, taking him to doctors’ appointments and remaining at his side when he had to be hospitalized. “The divorce didn’t take,” he liked to explain to doctors and nurses.
One night when he was still feeling well enough, we went out to dinner in Santa Fe at a favorite restaurant of ours. We sat at a table next to the fireplace and ordered the house special: New Zealand mussels in a sauce of white wine and shallots. Over dessert (Bill had an epic sweet tooth) he looked at me with dark serious eyes and said, “I never want to be a burden on the children.”
I said, “No, nor do I. Let’s make a pact. Let’s only be a ‘burden’ on each other.”
“No,” said Bill who was more than a decade older than I. “Not on you, either.”

He meant it. Less than a year later, his illness had progressed to a point that was no longer tolerable to him. He chose December 7, 1998–Pearl Harbor Day. That had been his war — he was an Air Force lieutenant –- and he did have a keen sense of history. Did he consciously choose to end his suffering on “the day that will live in infamy”? We won’t know. We won’t know for how long he planned it, either. When did he know no one would be in the house? I had left to go to Santa Fe, an hour away, for a lunch meeting; Billy was flying in from Los Angeles at three, and Anthony was picking him up at the airport. That gave Bill three hours, maybe four.

I was running late, and I needed to stop at my house in Santa Fe to pick up a few things. A change of clothes, perhaps. A book. The New York Times for Bill. The phone on the kitchen wall was ringing as I walked in the door.

Billy’s voice, choked, a sob, “It’s Dad– he – took his life.” I remember letting out a terrible howl. Shock, horror, but most of all, rage.

Chapter one, Continued

On June 1, 2009

I’m back. I have been preparing for Dan Nelson’s visit to L.A. Professor and theoretical physicist-turned private researcher from Helena, Montana, Dan will be conducting a four-day seminar in which he will demonstrate his revolutionary techniques of the future that I believe could forever change the face of self-healing. Introductory talks will be held Thursday & Friday evening Dec. 3rd & 4th – 7pm to 9pm, followed by a weekend workshop all day Saturday Dec. 5th and Sunday Dec. 6th. For details and to RSVP contact me at sandy@sanjohns.com. I have been researching and writing about healers and healing for more than 10 years; Dan Nelson’s work is the most unique — and radical — I have yet to come across. I will be reporting on the seminar.

Now, back to the 4th installment of Chapter One of The Thirteenth Moon. I’ll try to keep to my schedule of weekly posts.

I sped along the interstate, blaming myself for leaving the house, blaming Bill for not talking it over with me (he had lost the ability to speak, but he was able to communicate by writing on a pad) and for not giving me a chance to talk him out of it (maybe that was the point). And outrage that he had left it to our son find him.

Over the coming days the word dignity was repeated over and over again, as well as the words choice and control. He had to do it this way, Sally said, so as not to implicate any of us in his demise. Billy said Dad had chosen him to be the one to find him because he knew he could handle it. Like me, Wendy was furious. He had ducked out the back door. Left without saying I love you.

Grief would have to wait.

New Mexico had turned to ashes for me, so I packed up and moved to L.A.

Seven years have passed. Now it’s my turn to dance with mortality. I go into the kitchen, make coffee and get ready to work. We were always there for each other, in sickness and in health, even in divorce. We knew we could count on each other. Didn’t you know that, Bill? I would have been there for you at your side right to the end. Just as I know you would be here for me now.

I must stop focusing on the coming days and get back to my novel. I am on Chapter Two where during the midnight ceremony at the water’s edge, Peter – who finds it all rather picaresque–has accepted a gift from the Black Pope, not knowing that the gift will change his life. Perhaps even end it.

The commotion at the water’s edge caught Peter’s attention, making him forget for a moment his own torment. He watched, fascinated as people – tourists and natives, young and old – were crowded around a flower-strewn float carried down the beach toward the water’s edge by a procession of men dressed in white. In the center of the float on a throne decorated with flowers and streamers, sat an ebony-skinned man in a white satin cape. Children ran alongside, trying to touch the throne.

Narrowing his eyes to frame the image in his mind he could see it on canvas – all primary colors: alabaster white carnations, cadmium yellow gladiolas on long parrot-green stems, crimson madder for the roses. Bright-colored trinkets and beads bobbing along the white foamy edge of a wave, midnight blue-black sky, inky sea, half-moon tilted crazily, a million candles flickering… That’s it. That’s what I need to get.

“Gifts for Yemanja,” a man standing next to him said. He was pointing to people wading into the surf, their arms filled with flowers and trinkets. “If their gifts get swept into the ocean that means the sea goddess has accepted their offerings and their wishes will be granted.”

A moment later, Peter felt a tap on his shoulder. “Senhor,” another man, white shirt and pants, this one wearing a large gold cross around his neck.

“What?”

He pointed to the man behind him in a white cape sitting on the flowered throne by small statues and dozens of votive candles. At his feet sat a bottle and a metal cup. “He is inviting you to take a drink, Senhor.”

“No thanks. I’ve had enough drink.”

“You don’t understand. He is Gustavo di Vasconcelos. He is offering you a wish, Senhor.”

“He’s offering me what?”

A man standing to his left, a tourist, judging from his evening suit, explained. “Gustavo. He’s the head of one of the Afro-Brazilian Quimbanda sects. It’s our New Year’s, but here in Brazil they’re celebrating the goddess of the sea, Yemanja. Gustavo comes down here only once a year, on this night. He is known as the Black Pope.”

“Brazil has its own pope?”

“The newspapers gave him that name,” the tourist said. “It stuck.”

“One night a year the goddess Yemanja picks someone whose destiny she will change,” the man in white said. “She has picked you, Senhor. She will give you a wish. You are to go drink from that cup. Go. Go to him.”

“Go ahead,” the tourist said. “What the hell, when in Brazil, you know …”

Peter turned. The man in the cape — the pope — was beckoning to him, looking at him with large knowing eyes that shone in the candlelight like polished coals. He was studying him. As if he could read his every thought. He held out a cup, urging Peter to take it. Urging or daring?

Drawn by the strangeness of the man they called a pope, Peter walked toward him. When he got close, and looked into the piercing eyes, he felt a split second’s unexpected pang of fear and almost backed away. But the pope’s face broke into a wide, warm smile. Peter half smiled in return, and took the cup and started to bring it to his lips.

“No, no!” the other man in white cried. “First, you must pour some into the sea as an offering to Yemanja, then drink. All of it.”

“Oh. Okay.” Peter started away, but the pope reached out and tugged at his sleeve. “Espere,” he said. “Lembra-se sempre–”

Peter looked to the man in white to translate, but the pope in accented English said softly, so softly that Peter had to lean to hear him, “Only remember, you must respect the recklessness of fate.”

Peter nodded. “Right.” With a wry grimace, he walked to the water’s edge. He stood a moment, staring out at the sea again. Beyond the moonlight path the sea became black and empty as death. As empty as his life felt at that moment. He looked at the cup in his hand. “Right,” he muttered. “A goddam wish.” Tilting the cup, he watched a stream of the liquor melt into the sea. He gulped the rest. The strong, sugary liquor burned his throat and fire spread through him. He cried out, a long hoarse cry that tore through the night sky.

“You want my wish, goddess lady?” he shouted, “Well, here it is. Listen up. Find me a new way to paint. A way that’ll make me good. Not just good, forget good, I want to be fucking great!” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes and said quietly, “Find me the soul of my art.”

With one swift motion, he hurled the cup high in the air, beyond the breakers, along the moonlight path.

Behind him, over the sound of the breaking wave that swept the cup out to sea, he heard a strange high-pitched laugh.

I stop. A thought suddenly hits me: You took the option you chose away from me, Bill. Because no matter how gruesome this cancer I’ve been hit with might become, no matter how painful or debilitating, I am forced to live it out. Our children cannot have both parents leave this world by their own hand.