Qui me amat, amet et canem meum
“Love me, love my dog also”
—Attributed to Julius Caesar
Max wasn’t exactly the pick of the litter. He was the litter, the one and only occupant of his mother’s womb, as x-rays confirmed just days before he was born on my living room floor. I was there when he emerged, blind, helpless and completely dependent, as your newborn higher-order mammals tend to be. Max was the biggest newborn pup I had ever seen, a result, no doubt, of not having to compete with other littermates for sustenance. This was my first clue that he was to be no ordinary dog.
Max was an accidental addition to my pack, as his mother, Mollie, had also been. Dogs typically go into heat for the first time at the age of six months. Mollie must have gotten the memo because at six months and about 5 minutes, she suddenly had just one purpose in life and there was no stopping her. She jumped over the fence, so I raised it’s height. She dug under the fence so I piled up bricks and rocks along its base. Inevitably I would miss a spot, though, and she would exploit my mistake. Pretty quickly, though, Mollie accomplished her mission and became manageable again.
The first time I saw Max, I knew right away that his father was the large, rather impressive dog who lived a few doors down. This pleased me very much, because I knew this fellow well enough to realize that he was pretty special. Max’s father emanated quiet, watchful intelligence, and carried himself with what can only be described as dignity. I didn’t know his real name, so I called him Shadow, from his habit of lounging in the shadows of his owner’s front doorway, from where he would watch the world go by. You wouldn’t even notice him unless you happened to glance in his direction. I became friendly with his owner. She explained to me that “Shadow” was so averse to any kind of confinement, even a backyard of generous size, that he would dig, jump, claw, at whatever was restraining him until finally it yielded, and once again he was free. Eventually she simply gave up trying to fence him in. He never ran off, though. In fact, he rarely left the front porch, and it was only with much coaxing that he would venture as far as the sidewalk to accept, very cautiously at first, treats and gentle pats from me and my companions. Even though Shadow never, ever caused any trouble, Animal Control made it their special mission to capture this harmless, gentle giant. Obnoxiously, relentlessly, they pursued him nearly every day for months. But he was too smart and too fast, and always got away.
Max grew up with exceptional speed, and for a time I was convinced I had a canine prodigy on my hands. His eyes opened fully at about ten days, and he began walking immediately after, his gait remarkably steady and confident from the first moments. By four weeks he was starting to eat solid food and responding to his name. He discovered the back yard soon after, and fearlessly explored its many nooks and crannies. He quickly found a favorite hiding place, under the tool shed. He grew so fast, though, that one day he just couldn’t squeeze through the opening any more. After several frustrating attempts, he just sat back and stared at the small opening, clearly puzzled, crestfallen. In a small way it broke my heart.
At some point Max developed a taste for leather. Shoes, belts, balls, books, coats. If it was made of leather and was anywhere near the floor, it belonged to Max. Later, his taste expanded to include anything soft and chewy. For a couple of years Max the Destroyer laid waste to all manner of defenseless objects: pillows, books, furniture, cords. One by one, my expensive dress shoes all fell victim. It didn’t bother me as much as it might have, since I was no longer working a corporate job and didn’t really need them any more. Actually, in a way it was fitting, a symbolic severing of the link to my corporate past. Just one pair of good shoes for the occasional wedding or funeral and I was fine, I ultimately decided. Just to be safe, though, I put the one surviving pair up on a shelf, out of Max’s reach.
Though he grew into a big, massively muscular, immensely strong dog, Max was at heart a gentle, happy, goofy guy. I often brought him to the shop, and he became a sort of gatekeeper for me. Timid, fearful people, or those who did not particularly like animals, usually found Max intimidating. Sometimes on seeing him, they would freeze or back up a few paces. Sometimes they would coldly tell me to restrain him or remove him from the room. I came eventually to regard such behavior as a bad sign, and if you couldn’t get past it, your chances of having any kind of relationship with me became exceedingly slim.
But people who knew and appreciated dogs could read Max at a glance. Invariably, within seconds they would be fawning over him and talking to him in their special silly voices, all but rolling on the floor. And Max would soak up the attention and just beam with delight. When Max was happy or excited, he would snap his jaws together very loudly and kind of jump around. I called it the happy snappy dance.
By the time Max was a couple of years old we had established a morning ritual. Whenever Max decided it was time to get up, he would begin to stir restlessly, pausing every few seconds to see if there was any response from me. If there wasn’t, he would station himself next to the bed and stare at me. Usually I pretended not to notice, and so he would have no choice but to escalate. First he’d make a kind of low, throat-clearing sound, the canine equivalent of a gentle nudge. A few repetitions of this would usually get me stirring some, and so, sensing progress, Max would take it up a notch. So he would start in with this peculiar “uff” sound, not really all that demanding but also rather hard to ignore. If it really wasn’t time to get up, I’d say “not yet”–usually once would suffice–and Max would, with an exaggerated show of reluctance, settle down again with a disappointed sigh. But even the faintest sign of acquiescence at this point would send Max full on into the happy snappy dance, and so I would more or less have to throw in the towel and get up.
To my chagrin, Max became a prodigious hunter of squirrels. For a large dog, he was amazingly fast and agile. He could also be very stealthy and cunning. I once watched him stalk a squirrel browsing, unaware, in a far corner of the back yard. From a distance of maybe 40 feet, he got into a position that placed a tree between himself and the squirrel, the better to preserve surprise. He then hunched way down, belly to the ground, and slowly, laboriously crept into position, striking only at the last second. I watched from the living room, transfixed. Not wishing to see the poor squirrel get eaten, I shouted and waved my arms at the last second, just as Max bounded around the tree for the kill. The squirrel leaped into the air and shrieked, ran randomly about for a few seconds, but managed to get away. Others were less fortunate. Often I would come home to find their carcasses in the entry hallway, placed there, no doubt, as an offering. As gently as I could, I would express disapproval, knowing that Max had only been trying to please me. Each time he would get a stricken look, lower his ears and go flat on the ground when he realized that I was upset.
Eventually, time worked in the squirrels’ favor. As he got older, Max developed the hip and joint problems that commonly plague larger dogs. I first became aware of it when I saw him try, and fail, to jump up onto my bed one day. It was probably his first such failure. I will never forget the look of surprise, mixed with maybe a little fear, that crossed his face. His next attempt succeeded, barely, but the incident still affected him. He was despondent for days after and I had to work to cheer him up. Truth to tell, it affected me, too, because I knew what it portended. After a few more failures, Max quit trying. He started needing a little help to get into the truck. Then he started needing a lot of help. Eventually we switched to riding in my rather low-slung car instead.
With the aid of joint supplements, aspirin, and eventually stronger medicines Max was able to stay mobile. Sort of. Our strolls about the neighborhood, once more of a sprint than a walk, became leisurely affairs with lots of pauses. Eventually, we dispensed with the leash altogether, it having become irrelevant. Often Max would fall and I would have to gently lift him up and steady him before we could continue. Max seemed embarrassed to need so much attention, and so I would tell him, in as chipper a voice as I could muster, that it was OK. Like a coach motivating a player, I would urge him forward with upbeat words of encouragement. Toward the end he could only manage a block or so before we would have to turn around and make our way slowly homeward.
One day Max didn’t seem all that interested in walking. As we went out the front door, rather than surging forward in his usual lurching way, he just stood there and stared intently for a few moments, looking first this way and then that, as if wanting to take it all in. We went maybe half a block before he signaled that it was time to return home. As we made our slow turnaround, Max caught sight of a flock of grackles across the street, chattering noisily and cavorting about. He stopped and gazed at them for at least a minute, a radiant look of pure joy on his face. At that moment I knew.
It was a Saturday, the last day of June. One year ago today. I came home immediately after work. Normally Max would greet me in the entryway, having heard me pull up outside. But today there was to be no greeting. A moment later, through the sliding glass door, I saw him. He was stretched out as though asleep, lying in the sun. It hadn’t been very long. A faint trickle of blood from his nose told me that he had probably suffered a stroke. He looked completely at peace. I think he must have felt the cold hand of death approaching and just decided to let it take him.
It was the most graceful, dignified, considerate end imaginable. There was no pain, no drama, no trauma for either of us. He left this life less than 20 feet from the place where he had entered it, blind and helpless, 13 years 7 months and 28 days before. By a stroke of good fortune it was the coolest day in probably a month and a half, breezy and intermittently cloudy, showers all around, so the hard task of digging his grave became easier than I had any right to expect. Thanks, buddy, I thought. Good timing.
He sleeps just a few feet from his mother, In a grassy spot where he loved to lie on warm days, beneath a plaque bearing his name. So long for now, old friend. Rest easy; I’ll be along in a while.