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I volunteered to foster a beat-up rescued old black lab “for a few nights, until we find him a home.”

Guest Author – Jonna Rae Bartges is a creative catalyst, published author, college lecturer, business consultant and Emmy and Addy award-winning producer. When she is not writing as an ordained minister Jonna Rae strives to unite science and spirituality.

I’m not a dog person – I’ve always been more of the feline persuasion. So it was with more than a bit of trepidation back in February 2006 that I volunteered to foster a beat-up rescued old black lab “for a few nights, until we find him a home.”

Bear, as the elderly gent wanted to be known, immediately wrapped me around his paw, and patiently waited for me to figure out that he WAS home. The vet estimated his age as around 8 or 9, and said the dog had endured a tough life. From the moment he entered my world, Bear was my teacher, protector, guide and rock.

On a trip to Petsmart one time, a young woman confined to a wheelchair saw us come walking in, and her face lit up. Although she couldn’t speak, it was obvious she wanted to connect with Bear. My gentle giant walked up to her and rested his head on her knee. The woman shrieked in glee, and tried to pat his ebony forehead. Complete lack of muscular control turned her pats into rather hard strikes, but Bear didn’t budge – he just shut his eyes and let her hit him. Her joy brought tears to everyone watching the moving scene.

Bear usually rushed up to other dogs to lick their faces and socialize, until a particular time he stopped in his tracks when we encountered a woman with a Golden Retriever. Bear didn’t move a muscle, and the Golden walked over to him, sniffed him nose to tail, then licked his face. That was Bear’s signal to enthusiastically greet the other dog. Her owner was amazed, and said, “That’s the first time Goldie has let another dog near her since she went blind!” Bear KNEW. Gandhi Dog for sure.

Despite his huge appetite for life…and anything vaguely smelling edible…Bear was starting to slow down. A lab’s average lifespan is 12 years, and my guy was approaching 15. It was as if Bear knew I was going to need him with me through the soul-searing challenges of 2011 – a disastrous relationship, my father’s death, my mother’s terminal illness.

Bear’s hips periodically gave out on walks, and severe arthritis crippled his front legs. On occasion I’d have to lift him up stairs, or even into a standing position – no small feat with an 85-pound puppy.

In September he stopped eating for several days. When I lifted him up and took him outside to relieve himself, Bear would furiously dig “nests” under shrubs and painfully ease himself down into them. My vet said Bear was letting me know he was ready to go. Miraculously, he held in there for three more months, but by mid-December, there was no denying it was his time.

At the vet’s office, a dear friend held me while I held Bear. My beautiful boy gave a contented sigh, then gently entered into his final sleep. I sobbed all the way home, and went into the living room to pray. Suddenly I stopped crying to listen – I distinctly heard the jingle of his collar coming down the hallway towards me. I jumped up and ran to look. Of course, there was “nothing” there – but I was thrilled at this contact. Bear wasn’t done connecting just yet.

I turned to walk into the kitchen, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed something different on the refrigerator door. My fridge is my “art gallery,” with strands of magnetized beads holding up an ever changing array of cards and pictures. A beautiful sympathy card a friend sent when my little brother died a few years ago had a strand of beads circling the Native American proverb on the front: “They are not gone who live in our hearts.” Those beads had NOT been like that earlier that morning!

May your New Year be filled with the joy of knowing that love is forever, there are no barriers between realms, and nothing is too wonderful to be true.

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