Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Max was a good dog

I wrote this on October 31, and then the miracle of steroids gave us another two and a half months to say goodbye. Last Friday, I took Max for his last trip to the vet, although I did not post this until later when the first wave of grief had passed. We were both surrounded by friends. Friends who talked me through a very hard decision, and friends who stayed with him to the very end, as I could not.

We are all bouncing back, although I have been surprised at the puppy’s distress. She knew him only three months, but she learned her job. Toby purely grieves, but he is eating again now. We miss Max, but we are learning new rhythms for life after Max.

I’m sorry to say that the photo I mention at the end is not available in digital form, so you will just have to imagine Max and Toby herding the border collies. But here is one of Max lecturing, his favorite pastime.

Yesterday, he had even more trouble walking than has become usual. A dozen times I had to help him stand up, and often his back legs collapsed again immediately. There was a note of panic in his whine as he struggled to pull himself forward on powerful shoulders, scrabbling for traction. We have bought a few days by putting rugs down over the slippery wood floor.

Last night, he couldn’t get up and peed in his bed. I panicked when I saw blood where he peed, and called the vet, only to call back when I realized that he had torn off one entire toenail trying to get up. How frantic do you have to be?

This morning he was quiet and regal, out for a last walk in the back yard. He reminded me that a dog who cannot bear to poop on a leash or even within view of anyone he doesn’t love really is not a dog to lie in his own waste. He wasn’t hungry, not last night and not this morning. Neither was Toby or even baby Cassie.

People always say you will know when it is time to let go. I have always believed it and lived through it with other loves, animal and human. Still, I was afraid that with my dear Max, my selfish wish to keep him with me would overwhelm my ability to see when the moment had come. This was not the hardest thing I ever had to do—those had to do with men in my life—but it was very, very hard to let Max go.

Max was a foundling. I don’t know when he was born or what happened the first nine months or so of his life. I first saw him on the Staten Island Ferry, barking his fool head off at the ferry workers who were trying to convince him that Manhattan was not the place for a puppy. He had apparently made the rounds of the ferry, bumming cookies off passengers who, soft for dogs, carried them always in their pockets. I was standing on the upper deck, wearing a purple raincoat and flirting in a half-hearted way with one of the deck hands. “I like that dog,” I said. In the way of men, he puffed out his chest and said, “I’ll get him for you.”

But I was on my way to work and the ferry had left the dock. I made arrangements with the man. Later, I cut my day short and stopped in at the ferry office to pick up my new best friend. When the deck hand slipped a rope over Max’s neck, he walked home the mile to my house like a lamb. Clearly, someone had trained and loved this dog.

The next day, he ate a sofa.

His worst prank, though, was the day he took the bag of worms I had bought for the garden and thoughtlessly left by the back door. How hard do you have to shake a bag of worms, I wondered later as I tried to re-hydrate them and scrape them off the lower cabinets on either side of my little galley kitchen, how hard do you have to fling worms to make this happen?

He wasn’t perfect. He had an unfortunately strong prey drive, which has meant the deaths of several cats including one I loved dearly. He knew it was wrong, but he truly could not help himself. “Max thinks cats are snacks,” I always used to say.

And later, when we spent hours every day in the park in Brooklyn, I often thought of writing an article about the words we say so often to our dogs that they inadvertently take on the impact of commands. For one therapist in the park, it was “Rudy, self-soothe!” For us, it was “Max, don’t lick that baby!”

It was always enthusiasm that got Max in trouble. He loved people, all people. In those early days when I used to wonder where he came from and how anyone could have given him up, we would walk the esplanade on the north shore of Staten Island. People often commented on how beautiful Max was, and occasionally he would take off, dragging me behind as he tried desperately to catch up with a black person, particularly if there was a small child or an open car door in the picture. Can’t you just imagine the young family who found themselves unable to manage a nine-month-old rowdy German Shepherd puppy, particularly if they had small children, who decided that the best solution was to drop him at the ferry where everyone knows that the guys are a soft touch for dogs?

As my brother put it on that first day, “You won’t ever go anywhere alone again, not the bathroom, not anywhere.” I haven’t. I have had more dogs—up to four—and fewer dogs—down to two. We made an unsuccessful move back South, then moved again back to Brooklyn. From there we watch the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center. We moved to Vermont, where we have all been happy, especially Max and Toby.

Toby is the dog that has loved me more dearly than I ever expect to be loved by anyone in my life. And I love Toby. But it is Max who has the first, best dog claim on my heart, stronger even than the claim of Bruno, who was my father’s dog when I was a baby and who watched over me like a guardian angel until I was eight and he was almost nine.

Max was about eleven. He had a good life. When he was four, he and Toby stayed a couple of months with my mother, who knew it would break my heart to give up my dogs while I was between houses. Grandma spoiled them both, but particularly Max who never after that could come into the house without asking for a cookie. She laughed when Toby tricked Max out of the choicest spot on her bed, and she took them both, alternately, to obedience school, chuckling when people couldn’t figure out why her big dog looked different each session. Such a big dog for such a small woman! Max did not graduate, his interest in his world overwhelming his intellect and his willingness to come when called. He knew when he disappointed anyone, but would come over and lean his head against a thigh and talk about it.

Ah yes, Max was always a talker. He would discuss, he would scold, he would lecture.
When he was five, he had a hip replacement. With a foundling German Shepherd, hips are always a concern, and both of his were so bad that the doctors had a hard time deciding which one to do. He lectured them the whole time that they put him through the tests, including one that had him walk on a floating plate. In the end, they flipped a coin, did the operation, and he was up and walking in his crate the same day. A week later when he came home, he was like a puppy again, so happy to be able to walk without pain. The doctors advised doing only one hip; with his powerful shoulders, he gets the stability of a triangle, they explained.

That operation made me decide to buy Cassandra rather than taking a risk on another foundling. Cassie will have other challenges to face, as will I. As Sir Francis Bacon put it, “He who has a wife and children has given hostages to fortune.” I’m sure he meant to include she who has dogs.

The operation also bought me six more years with Max—the Brooklyn years (“Don’t lick that baby!”) and the Vermont years. This photo is one of my favorites of Max and Toby at dog camp, relaxing after herding (yes, herding!) border collies in the Little River. Toby did most of the chasing, and Max lectured them. It was around then, sitting on that river bank, that it occurred to me that we could live in Vermont. We have all had a good time here, barking at turkeys and digging up moles, porcupines and skunks notwithstanding.

If at the end of our lives, people can say that we lived well and were good representatives of our species, well, that’s the best epitaph of all.

Max was a very good dog.


Jola said...

I'm very sorry about your loss. That's a remarkable story, how Max came into your life. He was very lucky, and fortunate, to have you as his owner.

Lorianne said...

I too am sorry to hear about Max's passing...but what a fine, fine eulogy! He was a lucky dog as well as a good one.

Karen said...

Thank you. I was the lucky one.

Dan said...

I like what you said about how Max talked, Karen. I'm sure for a very long time he'll be around to talk to your heart.

Mary Beth said...

I am so sorry to hear about Max. It's never easy to let go. Hard to anticipate the decision, hard to know that it's coming, that it's arrived, to make it. Love will always want a moment more even as we want what's right for our loved companions.

What memories you have of Max and your life together -- and what a lucky break he had when he met you!

Anonymous said...

Having gone through this with Mr Bryn in October my thoughts are with you and the rest of the 'family'. I know for me Mr Bryn will always inform my interchanges with other dogs and will always be part of the gift I call my life, I suspect Max will be much the same for you. Daisy-Winifred

Jean said...

This was beautiful. I feel like I met Max. How you'll miss him, Karen. Many hugs to you and the other dogs.

Robert said...

So many years of joy that ends in heartbreak. Why do we do it? We know how it will end in even the best case, but I guess that's true of people in our lives, too, isn't it?

To know a dog for ten years, longer than most of your friends, these are the ones who never leave you. It's been, what, over five years since we lost our Max (literally, that was his name)? But I still call Kane with the name Max every so often.

There's a spot (at least for me) in the heart where dogs live. When the dog is gone, it's a physical sensation, deep in the chest, that feels slightly empty, slightly achey, that I don't think ever goes completely away. Your post touched that in me (the keyboard is a bit blurry as I type this). It's a brave thing we do to share these feelings, and I very grateful you chose to do so.

It doesn't really end in heartbreak. It never ends at all; the memories show up at various times, and the joy comes back.

Karen said...

That's it, Robert. Exactly.

Sky said...

I know so much about what you have gone through. :( I had my beautiful Sheltie for 17 yrs. and 4 months, and my darling terrier for 15 years 3 months. I loved them enough to let them go when the time came, but these were such painful decisions.

There are moments when I still ache for the licks and the snuggles and the pure and innocent joy. I remember the excitement they showed when I arrived home from work; I remember so many moments of love. I feel a deep sadness from time to time, especially when I see another dog with its owner - when I am instantly taken back to the days when my life was filled with similar joy.

Right now is not the right time for new pups....but one day, soon there will be another canine addition to our family, and the love will begin again!