Sometimes life lessons come from the most unexpected places. Places you would just never expect. Like animals. Driving down the highway that day, I couldn’t have known that my life was about to change. But when I saw a little bear wandering lost along the side of the road I just had to stop.

Curiosity, I guess.

Or destiny.

He was obviously just a baby, not much bigger than a big shoe, like a clown shoe. His black hair was matted and patchy, as if he’d been living in the forest his whole life. I called to him softly, and he stopped. Then he looked up at me with his huge yellow eyes and made a grunting sound, like a kind of warning. A warning not to leave him there all alone. What could I do? Fate had thrown us together. “I’m going to name you Mongo,” I told him, “and I’m going to be the family you deserve.”

Sometimes, though, even deeds of the heart aren’t done easily. As I pried Mongo off the stump he was clinging to, a much larger black-coated creature emerged from the woods and charged toward me, almost as if driven by some deep animal instinct. That’s when Providence stepped in again. Just as I hurled Mongo to safety in the backseat of my car, a logging truck plowed into the mysterious beast.

I had saved Mongo’s life. What I couldn’t know was that Mongo would ultimately end up saving me.

It’s funny how we get caught up in our busy jobs, selling used surgical equipment online or stripping steel from old tires. Before Mongo, my career was all I thought about. Now that I had a companion to consider, everything changed. I had to adapt to his habits. Whenever Mongo began to lick the linoleum and growl, I knew he was ready to eat—usually four to six times a day. Not knowing what he’d eaten in the forest, I placed him on a macrobiotic raw-meat diet. And, boy, did he grow! Before long, I had to build a special freezer to store all the carrion.

Don’t get me wrong, everything wasn’t perfect. Once, when I forgot to secure the front gate, he dragged Bert, the mailman, a full block before I coaxed him back with a fresh trout. Teenagers! What can you do? Bert and I had a good laugh about that one, in the ambulance.

As Mongo matured, our games changed, too. When he was a baby, I’d throw a socket wrench in the backyard and Mongo would chase it down while I sprinted inside. Before long, I was throwing a sledgehammer instead. “It must be so much fun to have a big, strong animal like Mongo,” my friends would tell me, over the phone.

Sure, animals can be fun, but our relationship was far more intimate. Sometimes he would follow me so quietly that I didn’t even know he was there, until I was face down on the rug with my arm in his jaws. And on that day when he accidentally grabbed my neck and started shaking his head I knew it was just his way of saying, “I missed you!” And, wouldn’t you know, he let go right before I lost consciousness.

With Mongo, it wasn’t just love. It was respect. With those big eyes that could see so well in the dark, he saw into the twilight of my soul. And he saved me, in a way that no other animal could. Not Stabber, the giant scorpion I brought back from Cancún. Not even Mr. Snaggle, the python, who coiled up in my toilet tank one summer afternoon. With Mongo, I shed my dull skin and lived each day fully alive, my senses awakened to the smallest sound of a claw touching wood.

And then, just like that, Mongo was gone. I came home to find his titanium yard chain snapped, and a gap chewed through my court-ordered fence. Only then did I realize how big a hole he would leave—in the fence, but also in my heart. I searched for days, posting signs and hanging meat from my trunk as I drove that highway up and down. It was no use. He’d decided to make his own way in the world. There’s an old saying: you love something more when it’s been lost. Mongo showed me just how true that is. With him gone, I’d lost so much more than just an animal, a thumb, and two fingers. I’d lost my best friend.

But though Mongo may be out of my life, his memory will live on: in the smiles of local children, warned never to walk in front of my house; in the tap of Bert’s cane, as he wheels the mail down our sidewalk; in the lifelong bonds formed between my neighbors and the city council and Officers Schaffer and Tye from animal control when they united to get Mongo that electric collar.

Or maybe—just maybe—he will live somewhere even closer to our hearts. Like Syracuse. Or Poughkeepsie. Does anyone know how far a bear can travel in a day?

Even now, as I reach down to empty the last of the meat from the old carrion freezer, I can almost feel the gentle heat of his breath ruffling my hair. How many lives can one animal touch? How endless is our capacity for love? How is it possible for a small, defenseless creature to transform into a 700-pound beast capable of crushing a man’s skull in his jaws? No one knows. Maybe it’s the magic of childhood. Maybe it’s the magic we all have within us. Because, in the end, aren’t we all just babies with matted hair, walking along the edge of the road on all fours, waiting for our version of me to come along and rescue us?

If Mongo taught me anything, it’s that true love never dies.