How Bear Got to Living His Best Life

Bear came into our lives 11 years ago. He was a rescue – young, underweight, a bit skittish. He was a Christmas gift for my daughter, Liv, who was 11 at the time. He joined our pack which then consisted of 2 dogs, 2 cats and 2 kids. The reason I agreed to this addition is because Liv had been asking for her own pet for years. She had a hamster, but they are nocturnal and have short life spans. She asked for a rabbit, but I dismissed that when I learned what that would require. I decided to stick with what I knew. And so I told Liv that when one pet died, I would get her a kitten. It seemed reasonable given the ages of our pets. But a few years passed and all the pets were still doing great. The cats, 16 and 14, and dogs, 11 and 9, showed no signs of slowing down. So on Christmas morning, 2011, Liv opened a box with a stuffed animal kitten inside along with a note “This pretend kitten will soon be a real kitten, just for you.”

Liv went to the animal shelter with her dad. (If I went, I would almost certainly come home with the most unadoptable animal in their care in addition to Liv’s promised kitten.) There weren’t a lot of kittens because of the time of year, but she found the one she wanted. His given name was Gingerbread Man. A strange name for a cat, we thought. We soon learned how fast he was and that when he got outside, he would not be caught. “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.” In spite of the fittingness of his name, we changed it to Bear.

Bear settled in quickly. He was independent and not fussy. He didn’t mess with others, and he didn’t tolerate being messed with. He would casually walk away from any pack drama and find a quiet place to hang out. He was easy to have, with one exception. He wanted to be outside. With two dogs regularly being let out, he learned how to take advantage of the opportunity.

We worked very hard to not let Bear out, but his escape would happen on occasion. And when he got out, Gingerbread Man would not be caught. We could see him and get close, but not close enough to scoop him up. And so we learned that we would have to wait for him to come to us. We would prop open the screened porch door. He would stay outside for just a few hours at first, but soon that stretched to the remainder of the day and then periodically overnight as well. He never seemed to leave the surrounding yards. He just wanted to be outside.

I had never experienced this with a cat before. Typically I would let a cat out to roll on the ground, eat grass, and maybe explore a bit. But there was never an effort to escape. I figured Bear was part feral and part domesticated, caught early enough to not fear humans but late enough to remember his freedom. I worried though when he was out. He was declawed in the front. And we have lots of birds around. It felt irresponsible to both Bear and the environment to let him out. So the fight to keep him in continued.

Early 2015, one of our cats and one of our dogs died a week apart from each other. And they were the younger of our geriatric crew. It was devastating for all of us. And five months later, our 18 year old cat died. Bear and 14 year old black lab Lucy remained. Shortly after our 3rd pet’s death that year, Bear got sick. Bear is already thin. He has always had minor health issues that kept him on the low weight side. When Bear gets sick, he can’t afford to lose any weight. So off to the vet we went with me in a panic. “This is our young pet!” I said to the vet, as if this couldn’t be happening. We learned that Bear had a UTI, something he’d never had before. The vet said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the stress from losing his friends is to blame.” Fortunately the UTI was an easy fix. The grief, not so much.

I sat in my car and wept. Bear’s body seemed to be bearing the weight of our sadness. “As soon as you’re better, we’re getting you a kitten!” Bear seemed unimpressed. I was wondering how much longer we would have with our black lab and was scared what that would do to Bear, to all of us. Once the antibiotics did their thing and Bear was feeling better, off to the shelter Liv and her dad went. Bear had never really been Liv’s cat. He was far too independent. Maybe this cat would be a better companion for her.

Fast forward to spring 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic and in lockdown. My kids have come home to stay for a few months. Since I work in a hospital I was the only one not working from home. Just before work I let the dogs out. Bear decided to join them. I propped open the porch door and left a note not unfamiliar – “Bear’s out.” When I returned home that afternoon, my son told me that Bear had made a new friend. “Come see,” he said.

We walked to the back yard. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. I saw Bear with a large grey cat I hadn’t seen before. They were chasing bugs and wrestling with each other. They perched themselves under the trees to watch the birds and squirrels, uninterested in catching them. It was one of the sweetest things I have ever experienced. Bear was living his best life. And in that moment I decided that if Bear wanted to be outside, he would be outside. I set up food, water and shelter on our porch and kept the door propped open. I would rather have him live one month this happy, than 5 years imprisoned. Bear came and went as he wished from that day forward.

We soon learned that the grey cat was named Gus and belonged to the neighbors behind us. I also learned that after meeting Bear, Gus had become a happier, more confident cat. Before Bear, Gus clung to my neighbor when she came outside, unwilling to leave her side. Now she comes out and he may stroll over to her for a few pets, or he may just give her a nod and keep doing what he’s doing. We got to know Gus, and our neighbors got to know Bear. Gus and Bear now have two families looking after them and loving them. They never venture too far. They love getting fed twice as much. And Bear’s minor health issues have diminished significantly. He has even gained some weight.

Each winter since, Bear has gotten more acclimated to the cold. The first winter he would come in at night. The second winter, he would come in when it dipped into the 30s or below. This winter we see him for his meals and a periodic respite from the cold. But otherwise he is outside. Bear is definitely more comfortable outside. When he comes in, he retreats to the basement for a nap. Then he finds a human to let him out. Or he waits for the sound of the dogs being let out. But now, instead of running out the door as fast as he can, Bear simply strolls outside to go back home.

Bear living his best life, every day

The Perfect Dog: an epilogue


The Perfect Dog struggled to stand up. I helped and held her while she found her footing. She stumbled outside. When I tried to slow her down, she would only move faster, stumbling all the more. We reached the back yard and I sat nearby. She promptly relieved herself. She then walked a few steps and stopped, staring off into nowhere. I wondered if confusion had set back in. I continued to watch. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving. Then it struck me. She wasn’t confused. The Perfect Dog was soaking up her surroundings. The wind was lightly blowing, bringing all kinds of scents to her. I could see her nose twitch like it was tapping out a melody. The trees rustled, as if to suggest birds and other wildlife were just beyond reach. Her ears moved to capture as many of those sounds as she could.  There The Perfect Dog stood. There the Perfect Dog stayed. She was still but alert. Did she know? She must. She stayed until her legs began to wobble. She wagged her tail a few times as if to say thank you, then slowly and happily headed back toward the house. What a moment to experience. My heart was bursting with pain and gratitude to be its witness.


Days have past since that occurred. I got Lucy inside and settled down, and immediately wrote about what I had just seen. I didn’t know what kind of time I would have with her, but I knew what I had witnessed needed to be remembered. I had never seen her stand that still for that long in such an alert state. I couldn’t help but think she was taking this in – her yard, her life – while she still could.

My Perfect Dog has passed away. She had three days of struggling, some hours where death seemed imminent and some hours where she actually seemed to be feeling better. Part of my sitting with her included reading to her The Perfect Dog, parts 1, 2 and 3. More than once, she would lift her head and look at me as if to say, “Stop blubbering on so.” But I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to know how much I loved her. I couldn’t expect to adequately convey my love for her in words or in such a short period of time. It’s a cumulative thing. But the compulsion was there nonetheless. The compulsion to make sure, to be crystal clear, to avoid any regrets down the road because you recognize that each minute counts.

As difficult as it is, I think it’s a privilege to be with one’s pet for his or her last breath. While I’ve been through this several times, this is the first time I noticed the last physical breath. Maybe it’s because each breath of hers was labored and therefore obvious. But there it was – one breath she was with us, and then she was gone. I held my breath wondering if there would be one more, but I already knew the answer. She would not breathe again.

I still head to the pantry to feed her. I still go to the door to let her out or in. I still look for her, listen for her, wait for her. I imagine that will be the case for awhile. Fourteen years of these habits don’t die as quickly as the ones who inspired the habits do. Yet I find myself grateful for that. I like to think of her as often as I do, even when it makes me cry. I am thankful that for over 14 years she was happy and healthy, and for a mere three days she was not. What a tremendous gift that is. Thank you, Perfect Dog. I love you. To the moon and back and then some.

Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.


The Perfect Dog: part 3

If you’ve read my previous posts about “The Perfect Dog” you’ll know that my desire for the perfect canine companion goes way back. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a dog could offer in friendship that I have always longed for and/or enjoyed. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that there is no such thing as a perfect dog in the literal sense. Each dog has its annoyances, its imperfections. But what is it, sometimes in spite of that dog, that does so much for one’s soul?

Here are a few aspects of what I love and value so much about my perfect dog, Lucy:

  1. She’s uncomplicated. I don’t need to understand her past. I don’t need to anticipate her future. She needs to be fed, played with, walked, and given affection. When she receives those things, she’s content.
  2. She’s a great listener. She never interrupts or tells me to hurry up.
  3. She’s always up for whatever I suggest, whether it’s a nap in the early afternoon, a ride in the car, or playtime at 10pm. When I ask, she always says yes.
  4. She makes me feel special. When I return home I’m always greeted with tail-wagging. It doesn’t matter if I was gone for a few minutes or several days. She’s excited when I return and she lets me know.

In this list, I see not only what I long for, but what I often fail to give to others. I’m complicated, sometimes excruciatingly so. I am not always a great listener. I rarely hear a suggestion without offering at least a slight amendment. I never wag my tail. My perfect dog has been perfect because she’s made me feel loved, needed, and special. She’s been a faithful companion in the good times and the not-so-good times. When I skimp on a walk because it’s too cold, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When I cut playtime short because I’d rather put my feet up, she doesn’t punish me. She enjoys what she’s given. She gives back without condition.

Lucy is well over 13 now. We have had so many wonderful adventures over the years. She has gone with us to the beach and the woods and the wide open fields, romping and chasing and playing all the way. She has never refused an invitation to climb under the bedcovers for a nap or full night’s sleep. She has protected us from countless squirrels and cats that have dared to step into her yard. She has run more miles than most, an eager companion to Jeremy and me over the years, although admittedly far more of those miles were Jeremy’s. She has rescued us from ocean waves she thought were dangerous and UPS workers she thought were sinister. She has given our family countless memories.

While my children have nearly grown up, Lucy has grown old. She has a heart murmur that causes her to cough deeply. She periodically has a leg collapse which often results with a faceplant to the ground. Why can’t dog years be the same as people years?  For the time we used to spend playing, I find myself petting her and thanking her for loving my family so well. She’s now got several lumps, “fat pads” the vet said, apparently common in aging labradors. The lumps used to gross me out, but now that it’s almost unavoidable to touch one, I pet those too.  She looks at me with longing eyes, almost confused by what she’s done to warrant the affection.

Because animals are easily cared for and unconditional in their love, one has a choice whether or not to do the bare minimum. I could have met Lucy’s basic needs and left it at that. But I wanted to do more for her. And I guess that’s one of my biggest lessons from this perfect dog. Just because one can get away with the bare minimum, doesn’t mean one should. I have also learned how important silence can be to another human being. I see the value in trying to put into words or actions what I feel, rather than assume my feelings are understood. It’s not that my humans lacked these traits, but a dog offers them without expectation of something in return. I don’t know any human, myself included, who doesn’t get in the way of a relationship from time to time. Dogs are different.

As I watch Lucy age, as I awaken more frequently to her coughing, as I see her struggle to sit her long legs down or get them back up, I find myself saying “not yet, don’t go.”  Letting go of what has become part of you is so hard. Because she has been part of our family for so long and is integral to who we are, it is nearly impossible to imagine “us” without “her”. And yet, life has been showing me for awhile what that will look like. We are reluctant to bring her along on our adventures, knowing she doesn’t have the stamina she used to. We are making memories without her. We are saying goodbye in little ways. But we are also a different family because of her, and so even when she’s not physically present, she’s still with us. I will give Lucy all that I can give, including letting her go when it’s time to say goodbye. It would be easy to ask more of her than I should by extending her life longer than she might want. But I won’t. I love that dog, knowing she deserves to live and die with dignity. I will be with her to the end. And until that last day comes, we will love her and play with her and pet her and tell her over and over how wonderful she is, giving her all the joy we can give just as she has done for us. Thank you, Perfect Dog, for being my perfect dog. Your human is so grateful to you and for you. Wag, wag.


The Perfect Dog: part 2

184001_10150094379129299_4124971_nAbout a year after we got our beloved Lucy, we traveled from Pennsylvania to Michigan. Jeremy had work where his extended family lived, so we packed up the car, Lucy included, and traveled 650 miles for our week away from home. Although his parents were in Arizona for the winter, we stayed at their house which was on a lake. While Jeremy worked, the kids and I enjoyed the beautiful setting. We walked and explored and relaxed. Ice was still on the surface of much of the lake, but we knew that it was thinning.  I repeatedly warned my eight year old son, Isaac, that he could not walk on the frozen lake because it might not be able to hold his weight.

A few days into our vacation, with Jeremy not vacationing but rather away and working, the kids and I ventured outside with Lucy. Isaac was looking for anything to pick up, throw, or pull apart.  Liv, who was not quite two, was by my side and barely able to walk with all the clothing I had on her to keep her warm.  While in the midst of our exploration, I heard a sound that didn’t register. I looked around and on the lake about 20 feet from shore was Lucy. The sound that I had heard was her paws navigating the ice as she slipped and jumped and played. As I opened my mouth to angrily call her back to shore, the ice broke and she went completely under water.  Her head came up and she placed her front paws on the ice’s edge.  She attempted to pull herself up, but couldn’t get her front legs high enough to pull her back legs out and onto the ice. The kids were silent. My mind raced.

Lucy attempted a second time, a third time, and a fourth time but failed.  With each attempt I could see ice breaking and her getting weaker. By this point I was using my most upbeat, I’m-not-freaking-out voice to call her. “Come on, girl! You can do it! Come on, Lucy! You got this! Come on now!” While yelling, I was also thinking, “My dog can NOT die with the kids here to watch.” Seriously. I clearly remember thinking that her drowning in that lake on that day was something I could not allow. I think this refusal to stand by and watch was my mind’s way of pushing me forward into action. I made a decision in that moment that I would do everything I could to get that dog out of the water alive. I was cognizant enough to know that I couldn’t put my life in danger, but there had to be more I could do.

And so I formulated my back up plan while I continued to call for her. I figured the water was maybe 5 to 6 feet deep where she was. I would send Isaac with Liv to the neighbor’s house to get help. Meanwhile I would run to the garage and grab some rope, tie one end to the fishing boat on the shore nearby with the other end tied around my waist. This would enable me to walk to her with some connection to shore. I had unsettling images in my head of her slipping under and beyond the ice’s opening and my trying to get her. I kept planning and calling for her and planning and calling for her while keeping an eye on my kids. Isaac was now calling her too while Liv silently watched by his side.

Lucy continued to try to get herself out of the water, but she was pausing longer in between tries. She wasn’t pulling herself up as high. I thought, “This is it. Either she gets it this time or she’s giving up.” I called her with every ounce of my being knowing that my next move would be a sprint to the garage while yelling instructions to Isaac to take Liv next door. And finally, miraculously, Lucy did it. She got her front paws far enough onto the ice that she was able to just barely get one back paw up as well. She scooted herself forward and eventually got the other back leg up. She crawled to the shore’s edge and collapsed once she reached us. We wrapped her in towels and I carried her to warmth. The kids were thrilled. I sat down and wept. All the emotion, the intensity, the fear, the near loss, the what if’s overwhelmed me and I shook uncontrollably as I cried.  My kids stared, unsure of why I was crying since Lucy was now safe.  I could see their alarm as I kept crying, but I couldn’t stop. I cried until I had nothing left.

When Jeremy returned later that day, we told him what happened. He scolded me for even considering going onto the lake to get her. But as I think back, I am quite sure that while I would not have done something stupid, I would have tried whatever was reasonably possible to get her safely back to shore. In this near tragedy, I learned that I am able to stay calm and be proactive in a crisis, and a complete wreck afterwards. I learned that miracles do happen. I learned that love can be painful, because even the thought of loss hurts like hell. I learned that my kids come first, but my pets are a close second. I learned that dogs need to be told to stay off the ice just as much as eight year olds do. And I learned that a good, hard, shoulder-shaking cry is cathartic. I was crazy mad at Lucy that day, but even still I’d have to say she’s the perfect dog.

The Perfect Dog: part 1

While growing up, I wanted a dog that would play and run and follow me around. I wanted a dog like I had seen in so many movies that would nuzzle next to me when I was sad, and rescue me if I ever fell down a well. What I had instead was a lump-on-a-log dog, a lhasa apso named Fluffy. She slept, sniffed,  and constantly wandered out of the yard. She didn’t really play or cuddle, and she hardly lifted her head when I entered the room. Even when I was sick and pleaded with the most pathetic eyes I could muster for a companion to help me through my long day, Fluffy was ambivalent. She was a huge disappointment. Unfortunately Fluffy lived a long and happy life, and so my childhood dream of having the perfect dog was never realized.

Jeremy and I weren’t married long before we fostered a golden retriever named Sierra. We weren’t in a position to have a dog, particularly a big dog, but my heart couldn’t resist and neither could Jeremy’s. This was my opportunity to finally Sierrahave a real dog. Fostering turned into adoption and we loved that dog dearly. She was calm, trusting, loyal, playful, and attentive. All it took was a lingering look and she would get up from where she was and plop down right next to me. That dog stole my heart.

We didn’t have her quite a year before we had to find her a new home. We were moving cross-country and into an apartment. I knew we could not give her what she really needed – outdoor space and lots of it. Letting her go was tough because I wanted to see her grow old. I wanted her to be there when we someday had children. She was a perfect dog, but she wasn’t meant to be my perfect dog. And so my in-laws helped us find her a new home. She went to live with a couple who owned a farm. Sierra would spend many years to come roaming acres of land all day, being companion to the farmer and playmate to his grandchildren who lived nearby. We would hear regular updates on our beloved Sierra, and how the grandkids would take her home with them because they couldn’t bear to part with her at the end of the day. Sierra lived a long, full, and wonderful life.

After we settled into our new home, we went to the local animal shelter to pick our next companion. Sierra had affirmed for me what I knew I wanted, and it was time to get our perfect dog, for keeps this time. We would look for a smaller dog. Thanks to Fluffy, I knew to avoid the toy breeds but I was sure we could find a small dog with a big personality. We walked into a large room which housed many cats. There was a desk in the room with the shelter’s volunteer sitting there. We told her we were looking for a dog. In the corner, caged, were two adorable dachshund brothers.  “Last of a litter” we were told, and about 10 months old. I hunched over the crate and opened the door.  One brother came out immediately and confidently greeted me.  The other stayed back, timid and shy.  I looked up at Jeremy : “We can’t just take one, especially the outgoing one.  It would devastate this other guy.”

G&SSo off we went with our two new dogs, newly named Gilbert and Sullivan, forgetting to ask why they were caged in the cat room rather than being outside with all the other dogs.  We would rue that oversight. We quickly learned that our dogs hated all other dogs. In fact there was a long list of things they hated. They hated doorbells and door knocking. They hated visitors. They hated sharing, even with each other. But what they lacked in love, they made up for in personality. Sullivan was sneaky and naughty. He would pull out all the trash but be far away from the scene of the crime when we got home, leaving his brother in the rubbish while sitting innocently on the couch with his head slightly tilted to one side as if to say, “I don’t understand why Gilbert would do that.” Gilbert was loyal but dumb. Sullivan would lure Gilbert off my lap by romping around, an invitation to play, only to jump onto my lap as soon as Gilbert jumped down. And Gilbert would fall for it every time. We were never bored with those two. We had them for over 10 years. I loved them, but I promised myself we would never own another dachshund. They were not the perfect dog, by any stretch of the imagination.

When it was time to get another dog, we had finally learned an important lesson: I cannot make a logical decision regarding animals.  The greater the need, the more I feel compelled to respond.  If I went to the shelter, I would probably come home with the three legged, blind dog.  We now had two children, ages 7 and 1.  I wanted that childhood dream dog for my kids and for me. Jeremy wanted a dog who would run with him. But I knew I didn’t have the strength to pick that dog, because everyone wants that dog. So Jeremy went to the local shelter, alone. After a half dozen visits or so, he found our Lucy, a black lab mix. She was four months old and big-screen-adorable.  She romped and played and cuddled with all of us. She tackled our 7 year old and his friends, and was attentive and gentle with our 1 year old.  Lucy was everything I ever wanted in a dog.  And she would stay ours. What I longeFamilyd for in my childhood, I was able to give to my kids for theirs: an affectionate, playful, loyal, loving, will-drag-you-out-of-a-burning-building-if-needed dog. It was a gift they might never fully appreciate, but one that has made all of our lives better. We all need a Lucy, in some shape or form.