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Illustration by Drew Shannon

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week First Person pays tribute to fatherhood.

We received Theo in the worst circumstances imaginable. Our daughter Alexa had adopted him from a local dog rescue. I met him before that deal was done. Theo had been a northern Saskatchewan rescue along with his littermates, Alvin and Simon. He’d been abused. Really abused. He had been in numerous foster placements and placed for adoption several times, but was always turned back to the rescue as he couldn’t be handled. I recommended against our daughter taking him in. “You’re getting a lifelong rehab project, not a dog” I told her.

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She didn’t listen. It was love at first sight – for both she and Theo. Their bond was instant and intense. He loved her and in her eyes he could do no wrong. There were, however, “incidents.” It was quickly discovered Theo could open house and car doors almost at will. He came and went like a bad tenant. He barked at absolutely everything, and at nothing. He really liked eating poop. On the third day she had him, Alexa had to return to work. Returning home, it was as if a Bengal tiger had been let loose in her house. Her blinds hung in bloody shreds from the front window. A new couch had been torn apart. Visigoths could not have pillaged her house more thoroughly than Theo had done. Still she persevered, and Theo became manageable, at least for her. Toward all others he remained near feral, a wild and almost dangerous thing.

Then everything in our world changed. In early March, 2019, Alexa fell on some spring ice and broke her ankle. A few days later she was visiting my wife and I when a blood clot caused a pulmonary embolism and she collapsed. I performed CPR until the paramedics arrived but could not save her. Alexa, only 30, died in our arms that day.

Now, under crushing grief and guilt and with so many other practical matters to handle, we had to decide what to do about Theo. Both Janet and our son Nicholas wanted to keep him, despite his obvious anti-social (if not outright psychotic) tendencies and our own aging border collie harbouring a dislike and distrust of him. I wanted to turn Theo back to the rescue, which had offered to help us find him a new home. I lost. The prospects of “re-homing” me were greater. So, bearing more baggage than a 19th century noble on a luxury steamship, Theo came to live with us.

We got a werewolf. Theo is of uncertain provenance, with a good dose of husky (or wolf or dingo or jackal for all we know) mixed with border collie. In other words, a malevolent but highly intelligent engine of destruction. He would skulk around our house baring his teeth at me, snarling if I came close. He barked incessantly. He bullied our old dog. I’d try to brush him and he’d try to bite me. I’d feed him and he’d try to bite me. Worst, he was a constant reminder of the loss of our daughter. I wanted desperately to get rid of him.

Then it happened. Wolflike dogs often bond to one person. Alexa, Theo’s person, had suddenly disappeared from his life with no explanation, leaving him confused and angry. Alone, Theo inexplicably chose to bond with the person who most wanted him gone, who couldn’t stand him being around. Theo chose me.

It didn’t happen swiftly or easily. I’d walk him and when we returned he’d slink away giving me serious side-eye. I’d feed him and he’d still growl at me. I’d try to pet him and he bared his fangs. Dental care was a kamikaze mission. I complained about him, saying I did not trust him. For a long time I wanted him gone. But incrementally, inevitably, things shifted.

At first it was an uneasy truce. Somehow this grew and he began to trust and love me, and I him. The walks, grooming and daily living became easier, natural between us. I finally understood I needed to regain my own patience and my gentle side for Theo to find his. He responded, beginning to sit near then beside me on the couch and seek my affection while I read. Then he took my spot. Then he tried to edge me out of the bed.

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I finally came to understand that to which my grief and rage at my daughter’s death had blinded me: that Theo, too, had sustained a devastating loss; that figuratively I, too, was skulking around the house snarling. In a most unwelcome epiphany I realized Theo and I were alike, and that until my grieving anger was shriven neither of us could progress. This werewolf somehow helped me see this, and that there is still much joy in the world, and beauty and laughter to be had.

No longer is there a question of what to do about Theo. I now admit I was wrong, and Janet was right to want him. I acknowledge how Theo has helped me in my healing following our personal tragedy. I have let go of much, but if I’m honest not all, of the hurt and anger and bitterness at our daughter’s death. Theo is a continuing connection to her. She would be so pleased we kept him and with how well it has worked out. In my mind I can hear her big infectious laugh at his triumphs and at both his misdeeds and mine. I can see her radiant smile when she watches us together, bound by some indecipherable ancient tie. I accept that even though I couldn’t save my girl, her dog helped save me. He chose her, and now he has chosen me.

In a strange bit of synchronicity, I took a walk close to the anniversary of Alexa’s death. I fell on some spring ice, hit my head and was momentarily stunned. A car stopped and the driver asked if I was all right. I felt Theo’s front paws on me as he growled at the Samaritan, claiming and protecting me, staying put until he knew I’d recovered. As Henry Beston wrote about animals, such creatures are “gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” Can Theo somehow still hear Alexa’s voice, sense her gentle presence, in a manner that I cannot? I hope so.

Theo and I have become inseparable companions, neither of us totally civilized but no longer overtly hostile to the world at large. I love this dog. He’s still a werewolf, but he’s my werewolf.

Richard W. Danyliuk lives in Saskatoon.

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