Our thirteen-year old dog Max passed on yesterday after spending a week in the veterinary hospital. They tried to help him, but there was nothing they could do in the end, so he was put to sleep as I held him in my arms. I told him before he died that he was going from my arms into my mother’s, and I don’t know if that thought comforted him, but it did help me.
Max was a rescued dog. He left a life of abuse and came into our family. He lived with my mother and father, but I visited them frequently and, later on, brought my children there to see him and Charlie, my parents’ other dog. Though Max came from horrific conditions, he never displayed that. He was the kindest, gentlest, and most considerate being you could imagine. It’s a shame more people don’t share those qualities.
Max was a black Lab mix and replaced another Max, a yellow Lab who died the year before. The “Yellow Max,” as my daughter called him, was legendary in my family for being such a wonderful dog. We named this new dog Max in his honor, and he more than lived up to the name: he actually supplanted the old Max in every way.
He was a constant companion to my father. He and Charlie shadowed Dad wherever he went. If Dad was in the yard, they were following along. If he sat at his desk, they were at his feet. While Charlie was a bit more independent, Max was loyal and would constantly put his head in my father’s lap for a petting. Max “shared the wealth” as we used to joke, always putting his head on other people’s laps too.
When my mother passed away, Max and Charlie mourned her loss, but they also stepped up to the challenge of loving us even more. After my father suffered a stroke, I would bring the dogs to see my father in the rehab facility. They proved to be the best medicine for him and also a tremendous incentive to get better and come home.
Although my father has been confined to a wheelchair in these years since his stroke, Max and Charlie were my father’s best friends. Max particularly gave nothing but love. While Charlie is feisty, Max was lovable and affectionate. He seemed to innately know how to make us all feel better when we were down, and he never stopped coming up and greeting me as I came into the house, tail wagging and tongue ready for a few kisses.
My daughter particularly loved Max. I can recall her sitting on the sofa in my father’s house petting the soft, sweet fur on the top of his head. While Lauren seemed thrilled with this going on for a long time, Max remained constant and available to her. He enjoyed the affection and knowing he was giving it back to you.
Only a week ago I brought the kids to have lunch with Dad. Max and Charlie sat under the table in their usual way, my father giving them bits of his meal. Max seemed fine that day, but the next morning he collapsed outside, and the mobile vet was called. Max was taken away to the hospital for what we all hoped would be a quick stay, but sadly it was not.
We went to see Max in the hospital, and we learned he had vestibular disease and that brought on an attack similar to a stroke in humans. This caused him to keep vomitting and made his walking unsteady. Last Saturday I took my father to see Max, and we fed him some food from home. It was a good visit and we seemed hopeful for him getting better, but he kept throwing up and could not get stronger because he was not eating.
Yesterday I spoke with the doctor and she said Max was suffering at this point. Of course, all my hope was gone and I checked with my Dad, and he said we should let him go. I told the doctor I would be coming in to be with the dog when he passed on. Letting go is never easy, but the idea of letting Max go still seemed inconceivable to me. This couldn’t be happening, not to my Max. It seemed unreal.
Driving to the hospital took an eternity. As I drove I kept thinking of all the times spent with Max, all his gentle ways, and the deep, guttural bark that would shake the house. I would miss all these things, but mostly I would miss his beautiful soul. Yes, I believe most fervently he had a soul. He would look at me so deeply, and in those moments I felt like he could connect to my heart and mind as much as any person. He read our thoughts, and he knew when we needed him, and he was always there for us.
The doctor and nurses put me in the ultrasound room, which had a large metal table in the center of it. I stared at the machine and the plastic bottle of jelly, thinking of the positive times I had experience with those machines when my wife was pregnant. Now, this moment seemed the antithesis of that hopefulness. This would be the room where Max would pass away.
Max was brought in, a thick towel was spread on the table, and he lay there breathing heavily. I asked to be alone with him, and for over an hour I sat there petting him, staring into his eyes, and hugging him hard. I put my head on his side and heard the fierce beating of his heart. The doctors had said that it was good and strong, and that was not surprising. Max was all about love and nurturing us with as much as he could give of his grand heart, so that his stout-heartedness stayed with him until his last breath makes sense to me.
The doctor came in a few times, and I kept saying I was not ready yet. I spoke to Max some more, told him how much we all loved him, told him that I would never forget him, and he became peaceful, finally putting his head down between his paws. He started licking his right front paw, where they had shaved away his fur for an IV. I lifted his head and he licked my face, as he had done so many times before. He put his head down again and I kept petting him, and the doctor came back and I told her I was ready.
Max passed on as I held him and kissed him. His eyes rolled back, and the life left him. I cried again, deeply and with anguish, but then I had a vision of him running as he did when he was a young dog, and for a moment I was bolstered with the notion that all his pain was gone, that he was running right across a sunkissed meadow into my mother’s arms. She loved him very much, so I am sure they will be happy being reunited.
Of course, when a pet passes away it is the end of a relationship. Some people may laugh or say, “He was just a dog,” but those are the ones that have never had a pet be an integral part of the family. Max was like a brother to me, a son to my mother and father, and an “uncle” to my kids. When I think of him I don’t think of anything but love: an all encompassing, powerful and unconditional love, that was his essence. The body I left on that table as I staggered out the door would be cremated, the ashes thrown into the earth, but his spirit is free and romping in the wind, indestructible and eternal.
I know my father mourns his loss, so does little Charlie, my kids, and all the rest of my family. In time we will be able to look at his pictures and talk fondly of his memory, but for now the tears still flow, and his loss weighs heavily on us. In the end I think of Max not as a dog or as a beloved family member, but most of all as a great friend. Rest in peace, Max.