In one of my favorite books, The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister, there is a chapter that asks the question, “What am I when I am no longer what I do?” In the book, Chittister is referring to retirement and how we define ourselves in the world when we are no longer “the moneymaker, the boss, the councilwoman, the teacher, the parent-in-residence, etc.”
It only took a year of retirement for me to become defined by two new designations. I became Bree the Blogger, and I became Bear’s Mom.
As if it was yesterday I remember going to look at young adult dogs at Bearabella Golden Retrievers in Peach Tree City, GA. I’d been researching Goldens for a couple of weeks, following the passing of our Chocolate Labrador Retriever, Bud. The ad was in the Atlanta Journal – three puppies out of a mom and dad who were both national champions. The two brothers and one sister were 13 months old. Along with their other siblings, all three dogs had been tried in the show ring, but for one reason or another – after a few competitions – their breeder knew these three were not meant for the ring.
I knew I wanted a male, so upon arrival, we only glanced at the pretty female. Ted immediately went for the red brother – the one running around the yard like a crazy dog – jumping, barking, tongue lolling out of his mouth with the pure joy of running free outside. “This is the one!” Ted exclaimed excitedly.
But I was already in love with his sibling – a big, beautiful, blonde male sitting quietly inside his opened outside kennel door – just watching everything that was going on with a slight smile on his face. I walked over, snapped a lead on his collar, and led him out of his kennel. He walked beautifully, a little ahead of me on the left side – not a perfect heel position, but a “show heel” as he’d been taught. No pulling, no trying to break free, just a happy walk alongside the person who he probably already knew was taking him home.
And so I became Bear’s mom. His registered call name was Valentino, and we laughed at thinking about a “river dog” with that name. And so he became Bear, a name his breeder had included in the name of her kennel because she thought her dogs’ heads resembled bears’ heads.
I couldn’t wait to get him back to the lake and get out my camera. This is the first photo I have of Bear – sprawled majestically on our back deck at Lake Blackshear – and probably wondering what on earth he’d gotten himself into.
He loved the lake house. A big yard to play in . . . .
. . . a pontoon boat for lazy afternoon rides . . .
. . . and miles of dirt, country roads to run up and down, with the occasional sprint into the woods after a squirrel or rabbit.
He and Maddie made a big game of chasing our resident squirrels up the crabapple tree in the back yard. They never came close to catching one, but they sure had fun trying!
Even before I found Bear I knew I wanted to participate in Paws Patrol in Albany. They were a dedicated group of pet therapy teams who visited hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living homes and schools. After only a few weeks with Bear, I knew he’d be perfect as a therapy dog, so we signed up for the orientation classes, took all the tests (which HE passed with flying colors – I had to repeat one test), and started four happy years of service.
Bear loved our work days. As soon as I took out his vest and bandana, he would stand perfectly still while I “dressed” him.
One of his favorite things to do was listen to children read to him. Middle school students gravitated toward the “big yellow dog”, and he always patiently listened to every word.
He was the perfect size. He could put his head on a hospital bed just where a patient’s hand could reach him or lay his head in the laps of wheelchair patients. I don’t think there was ever a person who put their hand on him who didn’t say, “He’s so soft! What do you bathe him with?” But, it wasn’t the shampoo – it was just Bear.
One of our pet therapy groups outside an assisted living facility. All of these dogs blessed – and some are still blessing – so many lives.
After his knee surgery and our move to Florida, I let his certification lapse. But Bear never stopped “working a crowd.” Any room he entered and any group of people he encountered was fair game for Bear’s “leaning into them” or putting his head in their lap. In his mind, he never stopped being a therapy dog. Never.
Bear was never more excited than when he was on Mackinac Island for the summer! He loved the cooler weather (like his mom). And he loved the woods . . .
His happiest moments were racing full-speed through the trees and up and down the nature paths. I would lag behind while Ted, Maddie and Bear walked ahead. Then I’d hide. Ted would turn, not see me, and say to Bear, “Where’s your mama?” And Bear would come tearing down the trail, screeching to a halt beside the tree I was hiding behind. He never once ran past me . . . he always zeroed in with that nose of his before he ever reached me. And he’d bark and jump around like he hadn’t seen me in months.
He turned more than a few heads on taxi rides. He assumed he was supposed to ride on a seat, not on the floor . . .
. . . and he usually got his way.
He loved our new home in Florida too, especially the beach on cooler days. He had a blast retrieving stuff Ted would throw into the waves – as long as he didn’t have to wade in past his knees! He never quite conquered his distrust of the water.
The photo above is from his last day – a Saturday. He ran around and chased stuff on the beach that morning and generally had a grand ole time. After breakfast Ted and I settled down on the deck with our second cup of coffee, and Maddie and Bear settled into their usual spots. A little while later Bear got up and came and put his head in my lap, something he had never done at that time of day or while we were on the deck. I put my hand on his head, and asked him, “What’s up, sweet boy?” He stayed there another moment, looking at me with those soulful eyes, and then went back and laid down. I think he knew then what was happening. A little over 12 hours later he was gone.
So many have asked about Maddie, and I think she misses Bear most at walk time. Ted would always be putting on her halter and lead as I was putting on Bear’s collar and lead. For the first few days she’d look around as we’d go out the door like, “Isn’t Bear coming with us?”
When I brought Bear’s ashes home this week, they included a little bag with locks of Bear’s hair. Tears streaming down my face, I opened the bag and called Maddie over. She took one sniff, and her little tail went into overdrive – wagging so fast.
As the days have passed, Maddie is settling into the new normal, just as we are. Ted is still her favorite cuddle buddy, but she’s begun to grace me with a few hours of her presence in my chair on some evenings. As I type this, she’s curled up at my feet.
When my Chocolate Lab Bud died I had him cremated, and now his ashes and Bear’s are sharing a spot on our dresser. Years ago, when Bud died, someone asked what I was going to do with his ashes, and some have asked the same about Bear’s. My answer is the same now as it was then: I’ve tried to think of places Bud and Bear loved so much they would like to be there (in a physical way) forever. But, with both Bud and Bear, the one place they loved being more than anywhere else . . . was with me. So, family members know that my ashes and Bud’s and Bear’s are to be scattered together in the places we all loved being together the most – at the lake in Georgia and on Mackinac Island. Some may find that very weird, but those are my wishes.
To each of you who wrote such loving words to me over the last couple of weeks – thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have read and re-read them, and they have brought such comfort because they tell me how much one of God’s four-legged creatures can touch so many hearts. I want to share two of those notes here:
From Sarah Sielbeck in Red Wing, MN: “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I was to read that you lost Bear over the weekend. The email with your blog post showed up on my phone just as I sat down for a pre-concert rehearsal and after reading it I decided to dedicate to Bear (in my heart) yesterday’s St. Croix Valley Symphony concert. It was a lovely concert of Americana and bluegrass music, and as I played I pictured him running the wooded trails of Mackinac.”
And from Jason (the other Jason) Bergeron in San Antonio, TX: “I have no words to describe how sorry I am for your loss. Though Bear was not the traditional working dog I was used to dealing with, he still selflessly served in the communities in which you lived. Whether it was therapy or having children read to him – that in my book makes him a working dog, a true hero and champion in his community. Bear answered the highest calling only special dogs like him can – which was to make a difference. Though I never had the pleasure to meet him, I’ll never forget him.”
I know this has been long. It’s taken me several days to get it done because I’ve been unable to see the keyboard through my tears. I’ve stopped and started many, many times. But . . . writing it all down is healing in its way. My tears have gotten fewer and my crying spells further apart. I know, with time, I will remember more than anything that Bear was a special, special dog – loved by everyone whose hands ever touched him. He was the best. He did make a difference.
He was my sweet boy.
NOTE FROM THE RAINBOW BRIDGE
Hey! Bear here!
I guess you didn’t think you’d be hearing from me again, but I got special permission from the Rainbow Bridge Keeper to write this note (yes, I already have the Bridge Keeper wrapped around my paw).
First of all . . . . I am fine. In fact, I am better than fine. I am awesome!
My last memories of earth were of running on the beach Saturday morning and having a wonderful time. Later on in the day I didn’t feel good, and as the day went on, I felt even worse. I remember two trips to the vet – the last one in the middle of the night. At the vet’s I remember mom and dad being with me, rubbing me all over, and telling me how much they loved me. I remember mom leaning into me with her whole body and holding me and whispering in my ear that I was the best dog that ever lived. I remember Mom and Dad were both crying, and I wanted to lift my head and tell them it was all going to be ok, but I was so, so sleepy.
I remember taking a breath and letting it out. And on my very next breath I was awake! Up, and running across this huge field of long grass. The wind was blowing my hair, I felt wonderful (no more achy joints), and there were trees and flowers everywhere. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen – even more beautiful than Mackinac Island!
Really, it is!
There are dogs everywhere here! Not long after I arrived, dogs started coming toward me, stopping, and introducing themselves. Because . . . . HERE dogs can TALK!
First I met Lucky, Tyler, Shotzie, Gretchen and Bud, who told me they’d been mom and dad’s dogs before me and Maddie. Then here comes Beyla! And oh my gosh, she had four legs again and was so darn beautiful! And then – oh joy! There was my friend Hershey, running toward me like she was young again. Because – she was!
And then, all these other dogs came up to me and explained they were dogs that belonged to mom’s friends and readers and relatives before they came to the Rainbow Bridge! I wish I could remember all their names for you, but a few of them are Boomer, Sally, Brinkley, Cassie, Fiona, Petey, Herbie, Ginger, Buster, Barnabas, Maggie, Bentley, Tasha, Morgaine, Tiffany, Brandy, Belle, Buster, and Charlie.
Oh my gosh, we are having so much fun here. We’re all well and happy and well-fed. There’s water to splash around in, and I’ve even ventured in UP TO MY CHEST! All the other dogs tell me to just take it a little at a time, and soon I’ll be swimming with the rest of them!
And there is so much love here that we never feel lonely.
But . . . the one thing that will make our lives the very best is when we see YOU coming across that big grassy field toward us. That’s the day we’re all waiting for. Because then . . . we’ll run to meet you and smother you with kisses and feel your hands on us again. And everything will truly be . . . just perfect.
And then, we’ll cross the Rainbow Bridge together into Heaven.
Till then . . . . . you’ll be my first thought when I wake each morning and my last thought when I go to sleep at night. I love you Mom, Dad, and Maddie. Bear