Max died on Friday, May 2nd, at 9:30 AM, at the animal hospital where his vets always saw to him. He was either ten or eleven years old, though we don’t know for sure. He was a tiny, frightened little dog who had been dealt a really crappy hand in life. Generally, when I’ve had to say goodbye to one of our pets, I find some way to find a bit of solace in celebrating the life they had, at least after sufficient time has passed for grieving. But with Max, it’s hard to see the golden lining and I’m left with more than the usual amount of pain and ugly, painful questions I may never be able to answer.
Max came to us in an unorthodox way right from the start. After our first dog, Kenya, passed away, our other dog, Mr. Basset, was left as the single dog in our house. He had spent his earlier years before joining us in a two dog household, sharing his world with a little miniature dachshund. He seemed lonely, and we set out to essentially get Mr. Basset a pet of his own. When we arrived at the shelter there were many good dogs there looking for homes, but none of them really spoke to us. We had nearly settled on a different mixed breed when the caretakers informed us that they had another small dog they could show us if we liked, but he was not on display in the adoption areas because he “had issues.”
They brought the as yet unnamed Max down from a room upstairs. He was a purebred miniature schnauzer, gray in color, maybe 15 pounds. He was clearly terrified. The caretakers explained that he had been seized by the police during a raid on a puppy mill. He’d been held as possible “evidence” until the trial was over, and then made available for adoption, but he was not being shown to interested adoptive families.
He had spent his entire life as a “breeder” in a barn, probably never having been allowed out of his cage and never knowing the kindness of a family. He was neurotic. He would not approach or show affection to anyone. He did not bark or make any sounds aside from whimpering. Ever. There were “incidents of aggression.” We learned later in the process that if he hadn’t found someone to take him in the next week, as bad as they felt about it, he was going to be destroyed. He was in no way a suitable pet.
So, of course, we took him.
We brought him home, showed him to the back yard where he would do his business and let him loose to look around the house. He didn’t move. He would not go down the back steps to the yard or up the steps to the second floor. Max had never seen stairs and didn’t know what to make of them. So we carried him. The first night we put him on the bed to sleep with us, thinking it would make him feel more at home and get used to our presence. He sat up on the end of the bed all night, shivering. I’m not sure if he ever slept at all that night. He did eventually learn to climb stairs, though, and would happily go out back or down the front steps, but it took time.
Mr. Basset like him well enough and tried following him around, but the small dog just looked alarmed. I know the basset grew to love him and slept near him when he could, but I don’t know how Max felt. Which brings us to his name. For the first couple of days, we couldn’t settle on a name, and we were simply referring to him as “the little dog.” We even began calling him Little Dog. But a few nights later we were watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on TV. (The cartoon, not the awful Jim Carrey movie.) When the Grinch’s little dog came on, pulling the sled, we both immediately agreed that was who we had with us and his name was Max. But for all his days, we both probably still called him Little Dog more often than Max.
For all the love we gave him, problems quickly appeared with Max. Once he finally seemed to settle in and accept that this was his new home and we were his family now, Max’s personality began to develop. He was extremely protective of us… particularly my wife. He was territorial, at least as much as a frightened, neurotic little dog could be. As long as it was just us, he was content to sit on the couch with us or in the little beds that we got for him. But with anyone else he was unpredictable and unpleasant. Over the coming years he actually bit more than a dozen people, including, but not limited to:
One dog sitter.
The cable TV installation man.
He fortunately never broke skin or drew blood and we avoided any legal trouble. But he was unpleasant to the rest of the world. My wife only half-jokingly said Max and I were a good match, as I don’t get along that well with other people either and make friends very slowly. People didn’t like Max. Our family did not like him and were unhappy that we would always bring Max when we came for a visit. But if Max was not welcome one of us would stay home, so along Max came for every holiday and family gathering.
Max loved us, but he did not like anyone else.
Also, Max’s neurosis manifested in other ways. He was unable to play. If you threw a ball for him, he would never try to fetch. Throwing the ball alarmed him and he would run to his bed and sit there. Mr. Basset would try to engage him in play outside in the yard sometimes, but it only made Max look frightened and confused. He couldn’t grasp the idea of the toys we bought for him.
But there were good times as well. Max loved going to camp up at the lake in the mountains and would explore the woods. (Though he never set foot in the water.) And while he would not play at home, he was willing to sit quietly with us. He spent most of his time sitting on the end of the couch a few feet from me while I worked on my computer. And he loved going for his walks, first with Mr. Basset and then just the two of us or with my wife after the big dog has passed on.
One of the best moments came during the first year when we returned from a walk. The dogs always got a biscuit or cookie or other treat when we got home and the basset would howl with anticipation and joy as he waited for his treat. One day, out of the blue, for the first time ever, as the basset howled, Max reared up on his little back legs and bayed. It wasn’t a regular bark like a little yapping dog. He was imitating the basset, baying like a hound but in a high, tinny voice. He barked like that upon coming home for most of the rest of his life.
Aside from his mental issues, Max was unusually healthy for the next six years and even learned to be tolerant and a good patient at the vet’s office. I think our doctors were the only other human beings he ever warmed up to. But when the beginning of the end came, it came fast. And when the actual end came, it was terrible.
This winter Max began acting oddly, drinking too much water and urinating too much. We assumed it was a urinary tract infection – not uncommon in pets – and to the doctors we went. When the diagnosis came back that Max had diabetes, I still wasn’t that alarmed. Our Sassy Fat Cat had diabetes and lived another five years with insulin injections twice a day. I was experienced at giving shots.
But Max didn’t respond well to the insulin. His blood sugar rocketed up and down and would rarely stabilize well. He was put on additional medications, pills to take, steroids, painkillers. For a while, he seemed to level out. But then he began acting tentative when trying to come up the back steps. I looked at him closely. (His eyes were always harder to see with those bushy eyebrows.) They were clouded over. Back to the vet’s office we went. He had developed massive cataracts as a result of the diabetes. Max went from having normal vision to being completely blind in a matter of weeks. He would no longer climb steps and couldn’t learn to even make it from room to room without bumping into things. We were back to carrying Max as we had in his first days.
The vets told us that surgery to remove his corneas could restore his vision, albeit not at close range. But he would be able to see well enough to get around. The best animal ophthalmologists around were at Cornell University. We called to get the information and found that the surgery alone would cost $3,500. A ridiculous sum for our finances, but if it could achieve what they claimed, it would restore Max’s quality of life to a point he could deal with it so off we went.
We were informed that Max was not a candidate for surgery, at least not then. The pressure in his eyes was too great and the eye tissue was damaged on one side and not healing. More drugs, including two kinds of eye drops, were required. Max’s life was now a series of periods of napping, being carried outside to do his business, or short, tentative walks where he followed our voice signals, interrupted by multiple daily sessions of shoving pills down his throat and getting drops in his eyes. He was miserable, but if it led to his getting the surgery in short order and returning to wellness and sight and getting a few more good years of life, we would do it.
Even blind, Max always knew where I was. He knew if I was in the room with him, and if I wasn’t, he would usually try to stumble his way to where I was to find me. When I came home from work, he knew I was coming before I reached the porch and would be standing in the hall near the front door when I arrived. I had to be careful not to bump him in the nose with the door when I opened it.
On his follow-up visit, the Cornell experts said that Max just, “couldn’t catch a break.” The medicines were not doing enough and he still couldn’t be risked for surgery. More procedures on his lens, more drugs. It had become too much to watch and we struggled with what to do. And then, last week, while awaiting his next follow-up at Cornell, he took another turn. He was rushed to the vet’s for more testing where his blood work revealed that his liver was enlarged and failing. On Thursday they admitted him to keep him overnight on an IV and see if they could stabilize him.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was sending Max to spend his last night on Earth alone in a steel cage at the hospital, though we stayed with him there for a while before closing. That night, at roughly 2:30 AM, I awoke in my bed shaking and shivering uncontrollably. I’d somehow come down with the flu with no forewarning symptoms which I’d noticed. I alternated from shivering to sweating and running a fever. By morning I was a mess. To compound matters, the vet’s office called and the news was for the worst. Max had not stabilized and had taken a further turn. Enough was enough, and we had to put an end to it, as he no longer had any hope of a decent quality of life. But I could barely make it out of bed and when my wife mentioned my condition to the doctors, they actually told her they would prefer I not come to the office if I was contagious.
As a compromise, they offered to tape up the IV in Max’s arm so it wouldn’t pull and send him home with my wife for an hour so he could sit with me and say goodbye. I hated the idea, but finally agreed. Max came home, we sat, I cried, I petted him. I said my goodbyes. My wife took him back and he was put to sleep in his little bed with his blanket. I was not there.
By the end of the weekend I was back on my feet and began the process of picking up the pieces. Yesterday I began putting up Max’s things. Packing up the food, the special foods he would eat even when he had little appetite toward the end. Gathering up the clothes, the bedding, and the special dog quilts my wife made for him. The leashes, the collars, the toys. Toys that were never played with. Max didn’t know how to play. He never learned how to play. He was content to simply sit with me on the couch and watch TV.
And I’m left wracked with guilt and questions. Why did I wait so long? Why did I put him through all that for nothing? And perhaps worst of all, why didn’t I tell the doctors to go to hell and drag myself out and go with him on his final trip? I had promised Max, as with all our pets, that I would see him through to the end. But when the end came, I sent him off to the Doctor without me. I wasn’t there. And Max knew I wasn’t there. He always knew where I was. And he faced the end without me.
Now, as I gather his things and go about my day, I keep mentally stumbling over Max again and again. It’s as if my brain keeps blocking out the fact of what happened only to allow me to discover it all over.
I find myself opening the door slowly when I come in, peeking around to make sure it’s clear. But Max will never bump his nose on the door again.
I finish eating and I find myself checking to see what’s left on my plate because I always saved something for him. But Max will not be having any more leftovers.
I wake up in the middle of the night to listen for his collar jingling, shaking his head as his signal that he once again needs to be carried out back with me in my bathrobe. But Max won’t be in the yard any more.
I check the weather map to see if rain is coming before his evening walk, because he hates going out in the rain. But Max won’t be going for any more walks.
I’m startled seeing the back door still locked after I came home from work. How could the back door be locked? Max was in and out the back door all day to go out in the yard and do his business. And then I remember.
Getting up in the morning, I head for his bed to carry him outside. But Max’s bed is gone.
Sitting here at my computer, I look at the end of the couch. Walter the cat is there sleeping in Max’s spot.
My wife and I are comforting each other, telling each other that we saved Max from a bad fate and that he had a good life. And for most of it with us, I think he had the best life he was capable of having. But I also think that when the very end came and the world had gone dark and nothing else was good, I failed him. And now I have to get these thoughts and emotions out of me for a while and move on with life. There will be another dog at the food dish, but not right away. And when that dog comes, if nothing else good came of this, I hope I learned something important so I do better next time.