I can’t be so vain as to say that Bearby was the greatest pet who ever was. What I can say with certainty, however, is that there could never be one better, or who made a bigger difference to a family.
We got him in March of 1999, when I was fourteen, and my life was crumbling. My parents were divorced and I had disengaged myself from my father permanently. My friendships had melted away and I was no longer attending school regularly. I begged my mother for a dog, somehow knowing that I needed a best friend and that, at that moment in my life, I would not find one elsewhere.
Mom was reluctant. She still stung from the death of her last two dogs, Garth (who died while she was pregnant with me) and Zack (who died before I turned two, but I remember well.) She did not wish to go through another loss, even one far down the road.
None the less, being the dog person she is, she finally relented. I had done my research, and when we went to the animal shelter, I was hoping to find a herding dog. At the top of my list, an Australian shepherd or mix thereof.
Lo and behold, they had three Australian shepherd mixes the day we came. There was a four year old female, and together in another cage were a six month old female pup and a one year old male.
The females interested me more. I had wanted an adult, but the puppy was so sweet. The adult female was skittish, but looked just like what I had in mind.
The male had a scarred-up eye, didn’t look like my idea of an Aussie shepherd, and next to the puppy, seemed a bit dull. But the adoption counselor nearly begged us to take him, saying he had been here for months, that he was the most wonderful dog, and that his time was nearly up.
We went home and mulled it over until the next day. I made a list of creative possible names for all three dogs, secretly leaning towards the adult female.
Then, reality set in. The male was sweet, friendly, gentle-natured, and near the end. When Mom went to put down Torrin’s new name, she said "You know, he looks like a sun bear." All those creative names went out the window.
Bear. That very day, though, when we got him home, my newborn affection turned him into Bearby, and so he remained all the rest of his life.
Bearby’s papers told us that he was not one as the vet guessed, but rather three. He had been born February 2, 1996, and earned the once-a-year nickname of "Groundhog Dog." The other half of his mix was probably Shiba Inu.
Bearby dedicated his life to proving to me that my first impression of him was wrong. The last thing in the world he was was dull. He had the spirit of a clown and a bright, sharp mind.
He made us laugh all the time, the funniest being I ever knew. How he, instead of barking or howling to get attention, would "sing" rather like a dolphin or whale. How he would sit up and throw his front feet high in the air and wave them around to get a treat. And run out the front door at top speed so he could get great air jumping off the porch and over the steps. The way he would come up from behind and forcibly stick his head between our knees, then look up at us with an expression that said "Hi, there!" Or if we were sitting, come up and wildly lick legs and feet in the summertime, or ever-so-delicately nibble or grab our clothes if no bare skin was to be found. He would often grab the hem of a shirt or a loose pant leg and attempt to take one of us to the other if he wanted to play.
He also had an amazing capacity for empathy and understanding. When laying in bed with him, he often laid his feet or head on my legs, quietly letting me get on with my reading or whatever, but letting me know he was there. He always came to us if we cried, gently putting his head on a knee or giving gentle kisses. He learned many things without being taught, from what signs meant he was likely going for a ride, to that me pointing in a direction when we were in a dog park meant I wanted him to go that way. He never needed to be shown these things, his simply understood.
He did as many things with us as society would allow and had experiences most dogs never enjoy. He went to outdoor restaurants, more street fairs than could ever be counted, and on road trips. He chased chickens in rural Florida, walked old graveyards around the country, the back woods of West Virginia and the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, and once toured an old prison. He waited for us quietly outside the country’s smallest church like the gentleman he was and sat politely by the grave of guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan while we paid our respects. He once dined on real filet mignon and lobster but loved hamburgers best. He got his very own patty every time we went to a fast food restaurant. He played in the snow in the San Diego area mountain town of Julian, and careened over the sand of San Diego’s Fiesta Island and Dog Beach. His birthday was marked yearly with a walk on Dog Beach and a burger.
But we only got to mark it ten times. It happened astonishingly quickly. Into late August, people were still mistaking him for a much younger dog. He was still flying off the front steps, dancing and pirouetting with excitement or when we played. Then he began to slow down. Jumping down from things suddenly became difficult, then jumping onto things. Then standing. We made a vet appointment, thinking that at 13 and a half, he might be arthritic.
Then on the night September 15, he lay in one place for hours and hours, refusing to move, except when offered a hamburger, for which he still begged. We took him to the vet two days early, on the 16th. For the first time I noticed something terrifying, but didn’t mention it to Mom. Bearby’s belly had become firm and swollen. But when we asked him if he wanted to go for a ride, he was still excited, showing interest for the first time all day. I helped him up, but he walked to and from the car himself. We did not know he would not come home.
The vet suggested, and then confirmed, the most horrifying diagnosis. He had spleenic cancer, the softball-sized tumor had ruptured, and sweet, beautiful Bearby was bleeding internally. Surgery was very expensive and nearly pointless. He had a month at most, but could have died from the bleeding that very night. The vet said he would likely only get worse.
There was not going to be any such suffering. As we always have, Mom and I gave Bearby the very best we had to give. This time, it was a fast and painless exit with the knowledge that he had suffered very little and lived an exceptionally full life.
I still can’t believe he’s gone, but with the exception of wishing there was more time, I would change almost nothing. Bearby was energetic and vital almost to the end, and had only a short period of discomfort, which we refused to extend so much as another day. He lovingly saw me through the most difficult years of my life. I will never have a better friend and I know that until the day I die, myself, I will never forget him or cease to miss him.
I hope with all my heart to see you again one day, Bearby. February 2, 1996 – September 16, 2009