I was a few months old when the fire happened. It wasn’t a big fire, but my parents rushed to the back of the kitchen to put it out, flinging open the front and back doors to air out the house. I was on the couch, right by the door, the wind blowing in my face. My parents forgot about me in their haste, but after all was clear, they looked to one another at the same time — I’ve heard this story a hundred times — to say, “Where’s the baby?!”
When they returned to the living room, they found our dog Bear perched by my side, glaring at the door. His eyes were obsidian, black as his fur, and he was standing guard over me as I slept. It’s unlikely that I would have been kidnapped or set ablaze in the minutes my parents were away, but Bear’s refusal to budge signaled a vigilance that eludes most human guardians.
I clung to Bear, and– although I was allergic and my arms raised with red bumps when we touched– I stroked his fur as he laid himself beside me. The only time Bear was afraid was during his visits to the vet, though he stoically sat still for the doctor.
At the age of four, I first showed signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I washed my hands until they cracked open, and after months of torment and very little progress, my father took me to the park with Bear. As our dog roamed around in the mud, he told me that Bear didn’t want me to be scared; after all, hadn’t he had been brave during his rabies shot? I stopped the hand-washing.
For every childhood wound, Bear was the remedy. When my parents divorced, I demanded that Bear stay with me and that I alone was given custody. He slept at whichever house I did on alternating days.
Bear never complained about moving back and forth, and– even at nine years old, when he developed a degenerative nerve illness and paralysis in his back legs– he followed me wherever I went. During school pick-up, my mother could leave him standing on the other side of the road without a leash of any kind, and he’d be waiting there when I came back.
Bear died on October 22, 1998, when I was eight years old. Two days earlier, my father had sat at his desk, with Bear sleeping at his feet, and wrote down all the things Bear would have said to me if he were human. He explained mortality as mortality is to a dog, told me he loved me, and asked me for the thousandth time not to be afraid. It was pages long.
Bear, by way of my father, couldn’t tell me what happens after death. I read a storybook about the rainbow bridge, but I was still unconvinced that there was anything on the other side of that irrevocable Thursday afternoon. I understood that my life had been cleaved into two halves: before and after Bear.
But decades later, I’ve found that I still haven’t reached “after Bear.” Bear saved my life in a million tiny ways, and for that reason, he remains embedded in the cracks of my memory. He lives some place inside me that, like the backs of my eyelids, vanishes the instant I try too hard to see. Like my childhood itself, Bear is both well-known and faraway.
Seeing photographs of Bear always frightens me a bit; it’s as though I’m worried I might have forgotten what he looked like. But the fear passes always into recognition, and recognition into a relief so total it almost hurts. My dad still reminds me every so often to “be like Bear,” which is to say, “Be brave.”