Ten is a curious age. You feel change, breathless and cautious, like the November sky swelling in anticipation of the first snow. Yet you are still just innocent enough to not know its true immensity. You begin to understand, ever so slightly, the hushed conversations of your parents. You reach for toys hesitantly, unsure whether ten is too grown up for make-believe, yet deep in your heart you yearn to cling to childhood just one minute more. Friendships falter as boys and girls experiment with harsh words they do not fully comprehend. Ten is the cusp of something more, but you are still too young to truly know.
When I was ten years old, that feeling of being “grown-up” I had gently investigated suddenly consumed me, as my grandmother passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Young children often associate their grandmother with sweets or toys perhaps, but most simply a grandmother means warmth and an enduring love. For years I watched an independent, feisty woman deteriorate with confusion. Her eyes, once twinkling like dewdrops caught on a silken spider’s strand, dimmed to sunken puddles. At ten years old, a mere child, I learned to recognize her passing as peace after years of suffering and felt relief that she could finally be the woman she was once more. For many people, it may take a lifetime to accept this teaching of life, and I had learned it at ten.
Acknowledging peace in the place of pain and release in the place of struggle did not mean I was without sorrow. My heart ached for my mother who mourned her own, and I envied my classmates who would chitter away about spending the upcoming holidays with their own beloved grandparents. A ten-year-old heart nurtured by fairy tales had suddenly been sodden with a very weary grief.
Compounded with my mourning, these very same classmates were never the kindest to a heart and mind lost amongst the stars. My childhood had been typified by merciless teasing by my peers. A wood-sprite child — all mothwing skin and cornsilk hair — is delicate and soft; a landing spot that yields easily to sharp insults. To some children, differences such as these must be taunted. Whimsy like mine had no place in their world, so I crept ever-inward until I was mute, my eyes always intently lost in an invisible horizon, and the spark of me so feeble it was barely palpable.
While I am yet to fully embrace God, when I reflect on the course of my life I am struck by how often a peculiar grace cradles my heart when it is hurting the most. I think I began to recognize that perhaps I am indeed loved and cared for by a force greater than myself at this tender age of ten, for it was my first intimate touch with the purest and boundless kind of love. Recognizing my yearning for a friend who would never scorn me, who would listen to me in moments both joy and sorrow, and who would love me selflessly, my parents decided to get me a dog. As an adult reflecting on the years of wonderment I spent with a dog at my side, I have come to believe that these creatures may embody an otherworldly kind of grace, the kind we may call “angelic.”
Getting a dog is in itself an unremarkable story. Children have received dogs as companions for generations and will continue to do so. Statistically, a child may even receive a dog every day, for all I know. However, what was extraordinary about the dog that came to me, in particular, was how surely he chose me.
When we first saw Bear, we were merely looking. We were in no way committed to him, only intrigued by a possibility. However, when we arrived at his home, the puppy we enquired about was nowhere to be found. That was, until, the breeder pointed to a small dog door and announced his presence, though the magnitude of his presence spoke volumes on its own.
Bear marched in, sat down, and cocked his head to appraise us. Once his assessment was complete, he continued his determined trot right up to me, where I crouched to meet him. Without hesitation, Bear placed a single, decided lick upon my cheek. At that moment, we knew that he had chosen his new home.
In hindsight, my journey with Bear sounds so wholesome and sweet it demands skepticism as if it were taken from the pages of a children’s book. Both of us were small, eccentric, yet such immensely loving creatures that grew together. As a lonely child, Bear was my confidant, my most loyal companion in adventures, the hero of countless imaginings, and the love of my young life. He danced and raced during the jubilant triumphs of my childhood and sat quietly, tucked against me, to soothe my deepest sorrows. He rode beside me in the passenger seat when I took my first tentative drive at sixteen, licked away the tears of my high school heartbreaks, and watched from the window as I toted my bags to Scotland. Though I left him for months at a time during my university years, he would wait patiently for my return, ever-eager to wander dandelion-strewn paths during those slow days of summer.
Bear was also present for perhaps one of the most unexpected and thoroughly wonderful surprises in my life. Wiggling with glee he greeted my first — and last — love and was inexplicably drawn to this wonderful man. He showed no wariness, no resentment towards this new companion of mine; nothing but elation would soak their interactions, warming some dormant part of my soul with the most profound sense of contentment.
Oftentimes I would joke that Bear’s small eye — clouded with blindness yet somehow twinkling, as if with some hidden magic — had the ability to see directly into a person’s soul, and this power allowed Bear to judge the truly good of heart. When I would happen upon these heart-achingly tender moments between Bear and my wonderful man, I could see the understanding pass between them. Somehow I could feel Bear offering his role as my protector, my adventure companion, and my soulmate to this man. While I do not know the exact words of these conversations, I knew in my heart of hearts that Bear was beginning to entrust my care unto another. I know with even more sureness in my soul that I had chosen the best of them, as these authentic moments of affection revealed that this man is my kindred in life, for he had been wholeheartedly accepted by Bear.
When I saw Bear lying, so small and still, upon the couch when he finally passed, I felt my soul crumble into dust to be washed away by the shy spring rain speckling the window. This pure spirit that had buoyed mine for over thirteen years had suddenly vanished. Bear was a creature so full of life and vibrancy that his passing was nearly incomprehensible, as absurd as if one were to announce that whales swam not in the oceans but among the stars. I was, and still am, lost and heart-sick without my funny little dog called Bear.
“Every day is a great day if you wake up, everyone you love wakes up, you go outside, and you get a treat.” These are the words I ascribe in jest, yet ever so lovingly, to Bear’s life philosophy, or “The Tao of Bear.” It may be silly to consider that a small dog lives by a philosophy of sorts, but the wisdom of it lies in its good-natured oddity and simplicity, much like Bear himself. Though just a little dog, Bear was blessed with a vivacious personality that taught me more about the value of living meaningfully than any of the other circumstances in my weird and wonderful life. To live in a way that expressed gratitude for loved ones, for comfort, and for the simple pleasure of being alive was as intrinsic to Bear as his heart and lungs.
In the moments when life becomes overwhelming, I will pause and consider how Bear would approach the day. While a dog — particularly one as deliciously spoiled as Bear — does not feel stress in the way that we do, perhaps their unbridled joy for living was given to them to serve as a simple reminder to us to be thankful and happy for the pleasure it is to be alive in this world. The simplicity of this message is profound in that its mastery eludes so many of us. To honor Bear’s memory I will live the rest of my life with intention, gratitude, and pureness of heart, marveling each and every day that I was given the life I have. Teaching me this lesson at such a young age is one of the primary reasons I was able to spend thirteen years with as good and kind a soul as Bear.
There are moments in this mourning process that I fervently question his absence. I ache for his presence, both his stoic calm and his effervescence. I still do not feel as though I am ready to begin these next phases of my life — “true” adulthood — without that reassurance that has been unfailing since my childhood. There is still so much more he could teach me, I still need his reminders to celebrate the joy of every day, and I wish to cling to that thistle-down fur in moments of stress, fear, or doubt. How can I do this without my dearest, most treasured friend?
Perhaps this is why he departed when he did, choosing to leave my life just as surely as he entered it. Though I have much to learn, there comes point when we must believe in our own power and begin to trust ourselves. While I have so much living ahead of me, I am beginning to truly recognize what it means to inhabit one’s life fully and to feel the gratitude for all that I have wash over me.
I also believe that Bear chose his moment of departure once he truly felt that I would be cared for when I needed it most. In those secret moments when he and my loving man would bond, Bear was assessing his worthiness to be my forever protector, companion, and soulmate. Bear saw in him a pure heart and strength of character and could leave this life knowing that, no matter what, my heart would be cared for as tenderly as he had for the past thirteen years. Bear entrusted me to one that shares his lightness of heart and fierce devotion to living fully and passed on knowing I am loved as I should be.
When I think back to how I chose Bear, I now fervently believe that I did not choose him at all. With his heart wide open, he recognized a kindred spirit in need and made his choice. I will reflect on my life with Bear with humble gratitude, rather than sorrow, that he made that choice. I will henceforth live a life so full of love, passion, and always remember to treat myself whenever I please.