Ten years ago, a gangly puppy named Bear blew into our lives like some small, furry tornado. He was all feet and smiles, and his enthusiasm for life was a joy to behold when he wasn’t chewing up your shoe. Bear came from good Golden Retriever stock, with the burnt-orange coat typical of the Red Retriever side of the family. He also had that gentle, even temperament that typifies the breed. Bear, however, was anything but typical to us. He never seemed to run empty on energy, which was both boundless and bounding as he galloped across the open fields next to our country house on the Great Plains. He was big enough to saddle, I’d sometimes say, only somewhat facetiously. He was the biggest dog I’d ever had, and yet his speed in a full-out run was beautiful and elegant. A few squirrels and rabbits learned the hard way that he was a lot speedier than he looked. Aside from chasing down those critters, he was as gentle and as friendly as you’d ever see in a dog. My daughter had a love-hate relationship with him early on; he tended to shed that long reddish hair on the passenger seat of our van. She tended to show up at school with dog hair on her back, which in that time and place was akin to having a “kick me” sign surreptitiously attached. But no matter how mad she got at him, no matter how mad anyone got at him, Bear was always even-keel friendly, patient and kind. After some necessary obedience classes, Bear visited nursing homes, lifting the spirits of residents who loved stroking his lovely red coat while he wagged his tail and smiled at them.
You had to watch him, though, for he was quite the thief when it came to toy stuffed animals. Time and time again he’d raid my daughter’s huge stash of stuffed critters, from beanie babies to a large monkey. Nothing was safe; the texture of a stuffed toy in his mouth was a heavenly dog-experience, like exquisite chocolate melting in the mouth of a chocoholic. Bear had to have his stuffed toy fix, and he’d look anywhere to get it.
The last months of my time on the Great Plains were solitary and isolated. It was the first phase of a family move out west, with my daughter and wife moving ahead of me. But Bear stayed and was by my side, eagerly hopping in the van when I went anywhere. It was in this particular time that he and I formed our enduring bond. He loved riding shotgun with me; and I loved the way he sat up straight and tall, causing folks driving in the opposite direction to do double takes as they saw this large, furry, flop-eared passenger, smiling that big smile of his while taking in the scenery.
When I finally moved out to the Rockies, I would take Bear with me to the church office every day. He made all sorts of friends, and they became a sort of foster family who loved to look after him when they dropped by the office. One church secretary took a particular shine to him; she was a big-time animal person and always kept her desk drawer stocked with treats, which he always managed to win from her with that big smile of his.
Bear went nuts over fish, as in fish swimming in aquariums. The first time we saw this was at the house of good friends who kept a huge aquarium of fish in their living room. We brought Bear along, and when he saw the aquarium, he became immediately fixated on the action behind the glass. He sat in front of the aquarium like a football addict watching the Super Bowl. That glass panel he’d pressed his nose against was some sort of looking glass that showed him an entirely different and exotic world populated by amazing, multi-colored creatures. He was hooked.
The first three years of Bear’s life were about as good as any dog could ask for. He got to run freely around our yard and the neighboring farm fields. He got to come and go as he pleased, and he got to chase down squirrels, rabbits, and ground squirrels, the cousins to the prairie dog. It was indeed a life any dog would envy, but I suspect this was also the period when a sort of time bomb was set up in his system. The land he roamed was often sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides. I wondered back then if someday, this joyously free life would rise up and bite Bear with some sort of cancer. Apparently, that happened in the late fall, when he suddenly developed a serious limp. A checkup and tests revealed a tumor from a cancer that was likely to spread. And spread it did, despite the veterinarian’s attempts to curb it. Last Saturday he lost the use of his legs, becoming essentially paralyzed as the cancer spread to his spine and his hips.
This afternoon, one of the kindest vets I’ve ever met made a house call. Within a half-hour, Bear’s great and loving spirit was freed from the straitjacket of his sickly, worn-out body, and he was gone.
I miss him terribly. It’s no great secret that our pets become members of our families through the power of love– the love we give, and the undying affection and love they offer with no strings attached.
The little kitten you see in the picture with Bear has grown up to be a good-sized cat with a bit of a weight problem. He came up on the bed with me tonight, moving closer than he has in a while, climbing on top of my chest and then sitting there with that peaceful look that cats tend to get. His purr was reassuring. It’s as if he knew about the loss, even though he’s lived apart from Bear for several years. It’s as if he knew how empty I was feeling, maybe he was feeling a bit empty also; so he came to offer some special consolation, while maybe getting a needed petting in return.
The first thing I thought about when I considered posting this was a poem written by Jimmy Stewart about a beloved dog he’d lost. The poem sums up all the frustrations, joys and companionship that come with our four-legged friends who never seem to lose faith or patience in us.
Here’s his poem as he read it on the Tonight Show many years ago.
Adios, Bear. You were a true friend and one helluva great dog, about the best dog I’ve ever been around. I hope you’re out roaming in a nice field somewhere where there isn’t any more pain or want. Maybe someday, we’ll see each other again.