On the morning of Christmas Eve, I get a text from Mom that reads, “Please call me thx,” and I know what’s happened. Her voice is weary on the line. She talks about dinner last night, and about bringing our dog, Max, to the vet that morning. She tells me she cried, and that pizza was his favorite food. Then she hands the phone to Dad. When I call home, Mom is usually the chatty one. But today, Dad needs to talk.
Max was my father’s dog. He was two weeks away from his thirteenth birthday. In his youth, he was a showcase Schnauzer, standard and peppered. He would rise with Dad every morning, whine behind the closing door when he’d leave for work, and then spend his days barking at passing cars from that front windowsill, waiting for his old man to come home.
But over his last few months, the once fearless dog, infamous for his barking fury (reserved strictly for guests) had been replaced by silent, limping bones, who could hardly raise themselves to greet the family. And as well as he still knew the hands that reared him, and beckoned to their call, we knew that loyal heart beating stubbornly in his chest, and we could not let it go.
When Max’s health began to fail, he began this habit of drifting through rooms of the house. He seemed restless with the anxiety that something was happening to him, something that was making him very, very sick. During these wanderings, my father told me how Max would drift to his side, this faithful look in his eye, as if there was something my old man could do for him. “Can you help me?” his eyes seemed to ask.
As my parents brought Max out that morning, he dragged himself down the front walkway, and then stopped at the top of the yard. Dad tells me Max paused there for a moment: was it a final reflection over the kingdom he loved, or had dementia obscured this place in fog? It took all my father’s strength to summon his trusting companion and usher him into the car for one final ride.
The veterinarian explained to my parents that we could continue to drain the fluid from his lungs, and increase his meds, but Max would no longer be comfortable. In a few week, things would be even worse. The other option, they said, was to put him to sleep. The most compassionate thing we could do…
Hearing my father’s voice on the line, I recalled the last day I spent with Max. The family had all come home for Thanksgiving, and the recent loss of our Grandfather was still heavy in the air. On my last day at home, every time I passed by Max, I was reminded by the near-ghost of what would happen next. My fear towered over my love: was I straying away from him?
When the sunlight in the house faded, I sat with Mom on the kitchen floor, next to the grey, bloated dog lying by us, struggling to breath in and out. We reminisced about our time together, our hands sharing the love in our hearts. As he lay there, dormant on his left side (the only way he could rest comfortably then), we watched his breath rise and fall, the air and toxic fluid both fighting for space in his lungs. As I placed my hand on his chest, I felt that loyal heart fluttering so weakly, that tired, cancerous organ so near its final rest, and I saw that our desire to keep him living had taken him too far into the dying process.
Max Wylie: the first and only dog of our family, who guarded us tirelessly through those (almost) thirteen years. The puppy who greeted my sister as she returned from kindergarten and the old soul who watched her leave for college. Oh, Max, dog of dogs, how we will long for you!!
As sorry as I am, standing on that DC street, on the phone and numb with loss, it is Dad who is hurting the most. And as I hear myself speak the words aloud — “I’m sorry you lost your dog” —I know they’re real and nothing can ever erase them. I begin to cry. Max had been the dog my father had always wanted; this loss was not mine, but shared by the hearts that raised him. Even if we must let him go, he will never be replaced, our lives richer for having loved him.
The last time I saw Max was when I left for the train that Thanksgiving weekend. Dad was helping me out the door with my bags, when Max rose onto four shaky legs, and for the first time in so long, he barked. And as I walked down our front walkway, too soft to stay my course, I turned around once more, and saw Max pawing at our front glass door. Then I got into the car beside my father, and we drove away into the night.