Bear and the Art of Life and Death

He looked like a small Siberian husky with a buzz cut. A mix of Siberian, retriever, and hound, he had beagle-shaped, husky-sized ears, and doe eyes. I don’t know why we called him Bear. It had something to do with his cuddly nature when he was a puppy. The other pups would race through the house in a little pack, and he’d stand there watching. Eventually, they’d run into him, bowl him over, he’d get hurt and give a few yelps, and I’d pick him up. Lying in my arms, he’d look at me with his brown eyes and laugh in that silent way dogs have. But he was Bear even before those times.

Dogs are always amazing. Each is an individual with special gifts. One of Bear’s gifts was he could tell the bad guys from the good. When he was a young dog, he held a mugger at bay while the couple the man had targeted escaped. When they were safe, Bear smiled at the man and let him go. He was stronger than he should have been for his size. Though he only weighed 50 pounds, he could pull a person up steep flights of snow- and ice-covered steps. He was always gentle, always waiting his turn for attention, food, and play, in line after his more alpha brothers. But if there was a chance for a fight outside with a non-sibling dog, he took it.

We had a strong connection. Once, he slipped his leash and took off merrily and at a dizzy speed, up the hill towards an avenue with lots of car and foot traffic. I dropped to my knees and called out, “Bear!” once. Already a hundred yards away, he turned his head over his shoulder, saw me as if through a tunnel, reconsidered, turned, and ran down the hill, merrily and at a dizzy speed, right into my arms.

Bear’s father, Bob-Dog, was rescued from the street after having been thrown onto a highway from a moving car, attacked by a pack of wild dogs (one of which was a Great Dane whose head came almost up to my shoulder), and starved. Bob-Dog was beagle-sized, too little to make it with our tallish, proud Siberian/lab cross, Theodora — or so we thought. But Bob-Dog had a will to live, and Bear and his brothers and sisters came to be. And Bear inherited his father’s will and purpose, and lived to be the last of his family.

When the end snuck up on Bear, three or so weeks before he died, he resisted its coming. He struggled, and as I tried to give him comfort, I was bruised and bitten. But as was his nature, when he was done with the fight, he was at peace. He slept and dreamed. In his last days, he withdrew from everything, except acknowledging me when I came to be with him. He lived without food for six days, and without water for five. On the morning he died, since he was too weak to walk, I turned off a light kept on for him (he was mostly blind in one eye, and needed good lighting so he wouldn’t trip), then immediately checked to see if Bear was aware of what I’d done. And Bear had died, just as I’d turned out the light. This morning, two days after his death, I see the pale wooden floor has turned dark where he used to sleep, though it was well-protected there.

Bear knew how to live: with care for others, with bursts of energy on his own behalf. He was for others, and he was for himself. He had no ego. He was full of love and play and strength. Bear’s example drilled into me more deeply things like how to be patient, how to fight at the right time and hold back otherwise, how to keep taking another step until faced with the inevitable, and when it comes, just relax into a dream, quietly, maybe with a smile.

Endings are always hard. It doesn’t matter, though. Life is and death is, and Bear was and still is.

© 25 Apr 2008 (rev. 27 Apr 2008) Heather Quinn

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