By Jack Hamlin
The early morning sunlight filtered through the venetian blinds and fronds of the potted palm, highlighting her multi-hued earth toned fur. She lay on her cushion strategically placed by the bay window so she could keep watch, guarding our home; a task she had performed diligently for over fourteen years. She only occasionally lifted her head now when a stranger passed. A far cry from her warning barks that, up until a few months ago, could rattle the whole house and give any would be trespasser, solicitor or mailman pause. Age, the great equalizer, seemed to have finally caught up with her and her time here was coming to end.
In the late 90s, I lived for a while in the mountains east of San Diego proper. Every morning as the sun came up, I would walk with my other dogs about a half a mile down to the mailbox to retrieve the morning paper. During the school year, my walks would periodically coincide with the arrival and departure of the rural school bus. Like a bucolic scene from a Rockwell painting, the country children would be there with their dogs– dogs who knew to walk home after the bus departed.
On one such morning, my canine companions and I strolled down the dirt road as the bus was pulling away and the three or four dogs began to scatter casually back home. Except one. This one was not very big at all and sat huddled alone next to the mailboxes. My companions ran up to check out the small dog with matted fur, which stood her ground, growling and baring her tiny teeth in an attempt to intimidate. It was then I realized she was not a small dog, but a very young puppy.
Not unlike others dogs I had encountered from time to time in our rural neighborhood, she had been abandoned. It was most always older dogs whose ailments and age had become too much for their owners and, like an old couch, they would be dumped on the side of the road. Unlike a couch, however, they were left to die, confused and scared. Judging by how dirty she was, it seemed a miracle she had survived without being hit by a car or becoming an entrée for the local coyotes or transient bobcats who cruised through the area.
If this one was scared though, she did not show it. She was ready, almost laughably, to take on all comers. I thought she might run off if I approached her. But instead when I knelt a few feet from her, she came to me, wagging her tail with such fervor her whole hind end moved in a sort of sashay– a sashay I would come to know as uniquely a part of who she was. I held out my hands and she sniffed them, gave them a lick with her tiny mottled blue tongue and sat down, looking up at me. Looking into those sparkling little eyes, I could never have predicted just how many times we would look into each other eyes over the coming years. I picked her up and she snuggled into my arms. From then on, she was mine, and I hers.
I carried her back to my home, while my other canine companions trotted beside me, interested and gentle with our new pack member. My human companion at that time was stern about a new dog in the house. It was a sternness that lasted for less than ten seconds. I promised to try and find the little one’s owner, but asked if she could stay should I be unable to do so. My partner agreed to those terms. Admittedly, I did not try very hard to find an owner. I believe I posted one notice which read, “Found Dog” and a telephone number.
I filled a tub with warm water and bathed the less-than-pleased puppy. Mud and gunk were washed from her thick fur, and afterward, a comb and brush removed sticks and seeds that had become caught. It took a couple of towels to get her dry, but as she did her fur fluffed up and she looked about twice as big as our first encounter. In fact, she no longer looked like a puppy at all–she looked like a little bear. And so she became my Lil Bear.
I took Lil Bear to the veterinarian who treated our other dogs, and he gave her a clean bill of health along with the necessary vaccinations. He also told me she could not have been much more than a month old. He looked her over and noted her bluish tongue, and reddish- brownish- black fur. He had seen similar looking abandoned puppies in the past and told me she was probably a mix between a chow and Belgian shepherd. She was bred to be aggressive, but probably tossed away because she was a female. Lil Bear would be my family’s protector now.
Lil Bear’s first couple of years were spent as a country dog; it was a characteristic which never really left her. The other three members of the pack had been raised in the city and likewise, never quite transitioned to the country life. As Lil Bear grew, she became a proficient hunter and bane to all small critters. The rabbits, squirrels and gophers which had ravaged our gardens with impunity now lived in fear of the patiently lurking Lil Bear. The same was true for feral cats, and the unfortunate dog which strayed onto our property. But her greatest skill was a ratter. Despite the one family cat, we had a constant influx of rats and mice. Lil Bear would lay in wait for hours, catch and dispatch them with a single bite and shake, delivering them to me as a canine homage.
For all her ferocity, Lil Bear loved people, especially children. Our bond notwithstanding, she adored my son. Often, I would find them curled up together napping on the floor. One of my favorite photographs is of my son, Lil Bear and one of our other dogs walking along a trail near our home. Without much training, she learned “London Bridge,” which entailed walking up from behind and sticking her head between my legs. If she liked you, she would not hesitate to demonstrate how “cute” she could be; sometimes to the surprise and displeasure of those not so dog friendly.
Time changes all things, and shortly after the millennium my companion and I amicably decided to take different paths on our respective journeys. Lil Bear, the cat, one of the pack and I moved back to the city. The adjustment to city life was difficult for Lil Bear. Being leashed on walks did not come easy, and she was quick to let other dogs she encountered know she was not to be taken lightly.
On occasion, she and I would go to the ocean, Dog Beach and Sunset Cliffs, and while she would generally ignore other dogs while off leash, any act of aggression from another dog was dealt with quickly and decidedly. Even the waves of the ocean were chased, barked at and “bitten.”
Lil Bear was not what you would call a “good dog.” She was mischievous and strong-willed. I think back on all the occasions in which she sat in front of me, looking up earnestly and attentive as I wagged a finger and scolded, “bad dog,” only to be patting her head and giving her a scratch a moment later. As I write this, I remember the time while on vacation in Monterey Bay, she slipped her leash and ran into the aquarium, without paying the entrance fee. In hot pursuit, I found her up on her hind legs, fore paws against the thick glass barking at a giant grouper on the other side. The grouper eyed her unimpressed as we were invited by the staff never to return. Then there was the time I returned from Christmas Eve mass to find she had dispatched a marauding skunk in my parents’ backyard. The overwhelming scent stayed with her (and me) for weeks. My children love to recount how Lil Bear turned a peaceful alpine mountain in the Sequoias into the “Meadow of Death,” which involved no actual death, but an awful lot of muddy children and dogs.
But what I remember most was our simpatico. For a number of years, I lived alone. My children were in their teens and absent from home whenever they could be. The other pack member passed on after a couple of years in the city, followed by the cat. Lil Bear and I became nearly inseparable. Her despondency when I left for work in the morning was replaced by sheer elation upon my return home in the evening. The word “walk,” or phrase “ride in the car,” would produce ecstasy beyond words. But there would be times when melancholy would overcome me, and her head would find its way to my lap, her eyes counseling me that, “if you scratch behind my ears, you will feel much better.” And I always did.
A few years back, on one of our walks, she stumbled slightly. She never had before. But I noticed afterward toward the end of her walks she would stumble or trip more frequently. The veterinarian told me she was experiencing degeneration of her hip bones and it would eventually cripple her. Lil Bear was far from ready for that. She still had more to give.
I met my Gal a couple of years ago and after a couple of dates, brought her home. She had never owned a dog, but Lil Bear let her know she was welcome. Again, she touched someone’s heart. I moved back to the beach area shortly after we met, and my Gal and I became a serious item–in part because of her love for Lil Bear. Love me, love my dog…
Our relationship started a new era in Lil Bear’s life. My Gal adored Lil Bear, and despite the inordinate amount of treats showered upon her, Lil Bear adored her as well for who she is. As Lil Bear aged, we took her for sailboat rides to which she adapted readily, choosing to lay down by the tiller rather than huddled down on the deck. When we fished, she was fascinated by each new small critter and charge with excitement. Many a hooked mackerel and bass were pulled aboard, their final image of a big hairy dog snapping at them.
For a while, Lil Bear became an OB dog. We would take a weekly walk through the Farmer’s Market, where she became friends, not surprisingly, with a number of food vendors. She would not let me go surfing without first taking her for a walk, and then she would nap in the back of the Ford until I returned to share the contents of one of Nico’s carne asada burritos. She would even go to the post office with me, where I was told she could not come. I simply pointed to my medical alert bracelet and told the cat-loving employee that Lil Bear was my companion dog. And after all, she was…my companion and a dog. No further attempts to bar her were made.
Her hips, however, slowly became too much for her. Two summers ago, I began to think it would be her last. We could barely walk two blocks without her becoming exhausted and ready to lie down. With her strength, so too went her hearing and some of her vision. Most of my life, a dog has been in it. The thought of losing Lil Bear was too much. In an admittedly selfish move, I visited the Humane Society and found Mason, an emotionally shattered boxer-shepherd mix that was a year old. He was to be a transition dog as Lil Bear began to fade, and possibly a companion for her when I was away. But then a funny thing happened.
Instead of slowing fading away, Lil Bear rallied. This young pup was not about to replace her as the queen. Our walks became longer as we ran Mason. Instead of two blocks, she was walking almost two miles, her frail hips straining to help her keep up, as she sashayed along. Admittedly, anti-inflammatory medication was a big help, too. Despite the age difference and annoyance, the two became inseparable. They never failed to greet me at the backdoor as I pulled into the driveway. Through the glass of the backdoor, there was Mason doing what I call the “Snoopy joy dance” and Lil Bear, head down, ears straight out to the side and tail wagging enough to shake her caboose loose…and a bark that told me to “Hurry up and get in here!”
Last year, on the Feast of St. Francis, I took the two to Sacred Heart of Ocean Beach for a blessing. Our priest, Fr. Ron’s golden retriever, Poko, came to greet Lil Bear and Mason. Poko was the same age as Lil Bear, and they sniffed each other respectfully, acknowledging each other’s age. Poko has since left us after a short battle with cancer.
While Mason huddled between my legs, Lil Bear lay down on the cool stone floor of the church and allowed a gaggle of excited kindergartners to pet her. “Is she a girl dog or a boy dog?” “She looks like a wolf!” “No, she looks like a bear!” “What’s her name?” “Can I pet her?” As the priest blessed the pair, Mason reeled from the droplets of water, with a sort of “what the…?” response. But Lil Bear turned her face up, closing her eyes and appeared to peacefully receive the sanctification from Fr. Ron.
The heat of this past summer was hard on Lil Bear, and our walks became shorter and less frequent. From two miles, they dropped to a mile and a half then down to mile. She would look up at me as we walked; a smile and determination in her eyes. But I knew she was slowing down, this time for the last time.
Last November, a mouse got into the house. And believe it or not, after an exciting chase, Lil Bear caught it. I took it from her mouth, but the merely traumatized rodent hit the floor running. My son and I cornered and eventually caught it. Lil Bear, however, had uncharacteristically lain down on the sidelines to watch. Over the next couple of hours, she became weaker and weaker, the color leaving her lips and gums. I could only surmise she had a small heart attack. My son, my Gal and I spent the evening sitting with her as she could barely lift her head. I spoke with my daughter on the telephone, and she understood the sadness in my voice. Toward bedtime, Lil Bear regained her strength enough to make it to the bedroom, where she lay down on her cushion next to my bed. I went to sleep fully expecting her to be gone in the morning.
The following morning at 6:30 a.m., the airliners began their daily take-offs right on time. And just like several thousand mornings before, Lil Bear was breathing her doggy “good morning” breath in my face. Weakened, but still with us, she followed me into the kitchen for a morning treat while I made coffee. I texted my daughter advising her Lil Bear was not ready to “go gentle into that good night.” She texted back, “Rage, rage…” I chuckled and wept a bit; it seemed a fitting summation of Lil Bear’s life.
During the following weeks, Mason and I took walks, but Lil Bear was left at home. She would move from room to room with me, but in-between lay down. Her breath became shallow and her eyes not quite as bright as they used to be. Awhile back one morning while I made coffee, Lil Bear had a seizure. She fell to the floor, her legs stiffening, and her eyes distant and confused. I held her gently, talking to her, till the seizure passed. It seemed to be the final step toward the end. It was not. Again she rallied. Although I did not believe she would see the New Year, she did.
And she made it to her fourteenth birthday last February. A couple of more sailing sessions, and one or two walks a week is about all she could handle. She refused to be left behind. And every morning, she was the first one up, letting me know it was breakfast time.
This last week was different.
She had become so very tired, moving just a little from here to there in the house. Her interest in food had subsided. A couple of times, I had to help her get her back-end up, as she looked at me embarrassed she could not do it herself. I noticed she looked a bit confused, as if she had walked into the room and forgotten for what she had come.
As she lay resting on her window cushion, guarding our home Thursday morning, telephone inquiries and other decisions were made. The time had come; to delay was more than selfish. I had to be brave for both of us. My Gal came over for a last visit and true to form, Lil Bear rallied once again to greet her at the door.
In the early morning, we took a walk at her favorite spot. The cool breeze off the bay gently blew her long fur and sun gave her multi-hued coat a glow of sublime red amber. Despite the unsteadiness of her gait, she walked determinedly beside me, occasionally glancing up at me with her smile. Afterward, we spent a long time just sitting on the grass watching the world go by, my arm around her as she leaned against me. And then it was time.
We arrived at the veterinarian’s office. It was not quite time to go in and so I sat with her in the backseat of the Ford, stroking her fur and talking to her. At the appointed hour, I helped her out of the car and we took our walk through the parking lot; a final sniff, a final pee. At the door of the office, she balked for a moment (this is the place that trims my nails), but then followed me reluctantly inside. The staff laid a fluffy comforter on the floor of the examination room where she lay down. Forms and discussions were all a blur, but the kindness and compassion by the staff and doctor will never be forgotten.
After administering a sedative, I lay down next to Lil Bear as she slowly drifted off. Just before she closed her eyes, she turned toward me, and looking me in the eye gave me a gentle kiss on my teary face. I will miss those kisses so much.
The final step in the process was then completed and Lil Bear finally went into that gentle night.
I sat with her for a while, arranging her body so my final image was of her in a peaceful sleep. I knew, however, she was already with St. Francis and Poko, waiting for me to join her down the road; her head down, ears out to the side and tail shaking that caboose loose with a bark that says, “Hurry up! I’ve been waiting for you!”
I decided to have her remains cremated, and her final resting place will be in the shadow of St. Damian, just a few steps from where I help prepare meals for the homeless. I like that…I think she does too.