When my dad motioned to Breck, a medium-sized, skinny, border collie that had a beautiful set of pearly-white teeth on full display, I immediately dismissed the canine.
Cornered, fearful, and aggressive, it was natural that I felt intimated as a kid. How could I play, let alone get near this dog vibrating with hate towards me? But my dad saw beyond the bravado that Breck displayed. The dog that had a rough start to life had stolen his heart.
The paperwork, home inspection, and approval were in order. There was no going back for my parents as we travelled home, along the longest route it felt. My dad driving, Breck, my sister and I sat in the back of the vehicle, terrified of any sudden movements, and avoiding all eye contact.
When we arrived home, my parents thought it would be a good idea for the whole family, including the newest member, to go for a walk. I brushed all fears aside and started to run playfully, encouraging the dog to chase after me down the wooded trail with a pine euphoria in the air.
Instead, Breck launched while still tightly gripped by my dad on the leash with aggressive barking. I quickly stepped back into slow and steady synchronization with the rest of the group while feeling hurt, uncomfortable, and angry by the decision to bring such an “unlovable” animal into our lives.
“He’ll warm up,” my dad said as the trail curved into a dark and damp section of mossy-covered trees that made us shiver.
“It will take time for a rescue to rekindle trust and love again,” he reassured all around.
The walk continued in silence before the welcoming sun peeked through the dense branches, and the trail came to its conclusion.
Fields covered in splashes of purple heather and a trickling stream carved the geographic boundary. Tomorrow I would return to the confinement of the school’s four-walled classrooms and the constant bullying from the other kids, so I savoured the fresh wafts of freedom that brushed against my skin.
My family had moved from South Africa to cliquish Island at the time, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. We didn’t belong among them. At school, I was often a target because of my unusual accent. I went from being happy-go-lucky to reserved and self-conscious.
By the time Breck came, I was ten and failing classes because the teasing prevented me from asking the teachers for help. Of course, there was another reason for this change in my attitude. My dad had a death sentence diagnosis of asbestos-related lung cancer.
It wasn’t long after Breck arrived home that he sensed my pain. Aged two, a young adult in dog years, Breck was remarkably intelligent. He, too, had experienced the world falling apart before being taken into the rescue centre and then into our loving and accepting home.
Maybe it was this broken past that helped us connect, but with a gentle nudge of his nose on my knee, I knew from then on, we would be friends. At school, often isolated, I knew when I returned home, my loyal and faithful friend was waiting with a wagging tail and warm welcome – the little shadow that would never abandon me.
Breck and I would run in perfect stride through the purple heather fields and down the pine-scented wooded trail. We played catch, hide and seek, fetch the stick, and many other games. He took my fear away from the bullying, uncertainty of dad, sadness, pain, and the future. We lived in the moment. This remarkable dog brought a sense of joy and purpose in my life. As a result, my grades at school improved, along with my attitude.
He was a small dog for his breed, but he had a massive heart. I vividly remember two dogs chasing him down the rural path, snarling and yapping. But when Breck saw me, in a daring maneuver, he turned and chased these two dogs, twice the size, back to their owner with the occasional glimpse over his shoulder to see if I was still there. That was Breck. Brave. Courageous. Ready to put his life on the line to save those he loved.
Then, one day, I came home from school excited to see my friend and run through the fields of heather as we did every afternoon. But there was a silence, a staleness hanging in the air of our home. Breck was gone.
Our family struggled financially with my mother taking care of my father dying of cancer. There was too much insecurity, my parents said, to keep a dog that only liked our family, and no one outside.
I went to my room that afternoon with a trail of tears that turned into an unbroken stream. I never slept that night. Instead, I mourned for my best friend as if he had died for several weeks. To this day, I still think about my best friend, Breck, while holding back the tears.
My dad passed away on January 2, 2001. The three of us, mother, sister, and I hoped somehow to find the courage to face the future again. My mother juggled every role – mother, father, provider and carer – as my sister and I grew up. But it’s in these testing times you realize that you can endure far more physically and mentally than what anyone might think possible if you don’t give up. Months, maybe years later, while clearing out my dad’s stuff, I found a handwritten letter. It read:
“I had to write a short note to clarify our situation with Breck. Breck was very attached to Desiree and me more than (my wife) Eileen and (our eldest daughter) Mary-Anne. I was the one who spoke to Breck first and said to him; I’m coming back to take you to our home.
“The shelter warned us that he did not like people, and he would be a tough dog. When we brought him home, he would not let the children near him. But he got used to the family, and soon he was won over…” The letter went on to explain our family situation and the deep sadness of giving up Breck.
I often wondered what happened to my loyal friend as a kid. Then school ended, and the university degree started in another country, and the separation of Breck became a distant memory over time.
Until one day, many years later, I returned to the Island and heard someone talking about their faithful old border collie that passed away on their farm. He spent his final years snuggled by the fire, watching the crackling flames dance. Their family much loved him, and his name was Breck.