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As the Village Turns

Ode to Max


Max at 16.
  • Max at 16.

Today we'll take a little quiz. It's multiple choice so if you have to, just guess. Here goes.

My dog, Max, used to weigh 95 pounds. Today, Max weighs about 40 pounds. Max is:

A. Not real happy with his new veterinarian, Dr. Atkins.

B. A shoo-in to win the next Mary Kate Olson look-alike contest.

C. Dying.

The correct answer is C.

Max, a black lab-type mutt, was born in a junkyard in South Central Los Angeles. When he was about 6 weeks old, my 3-year-old daughter and I rescued him and one of Max's sisters (we named her Jennifer) from what was most likely going to be a really lousy life. We gave them a home in Los Angeles with a big pool, and later a home in Colorado with a big yard. They gave us a lot more.

My daughter will celebrate her 19th birthday in a couple of months. Max won't be there for the party. Sometime this week, when I can convince my heart that the moment is right, I'll carry Max to my car, put him in the back seat, drive to the vet, cradle his head against my chest and have him put to sleep.

His hips don't work anymore. They haven't, really, for about four months. And about the same time, his heavy, thick body began to wilt. I switched from dry dog food to cans of expensive dog food, and he liked that. But now even Alpo's prime chunks of beef don't interest him much. I think he knows, as I do, that the time has come. A long and wonderful journey is just about over.

Max and Jennifer were inseparable. They ran together and ate together and curled up to sleep with their bodies pressed against each other. Jennifer died four years ago. Cancer. Max wandered the yard for weeks, checking out all the spots they shared for naps under the cool scrub oak. After a while, he stopped looking. I think he knew.

But soon we got another dog, Moose, a wild Australian herding something-or-other, and Max came back strong. He ran again, trying to keep up with his new pal and, when Moose played too rough, he'd clamp his mouth around the scruff of the pup's neck. Jennifer, frankly, had always been the boss. Now Max was finding this alpha thing to be quite invigorating. He was happy again.

Later we added step-dogs and made a whole new family. They were Jack, who looks like a gigantic skunk, and Doc, a huge and loveable guy who would wait patiently beneath the dinner table, looking sad until a scrap of food came his way. Doc died a year ago. I miss the big guy a lot.

And I know I will miss Max, too. I'll miss his gentleness. Not that he wasn't a fierce animal. Once, my son's hamster escaped from his cage. We found him the next day. Dead. The hamster had no visible injuries. But he was soaking wet. Max was the only dog in the house that day. We think he licked the hamster to death.

And I'll miss watching him romp through the tall grass and the woods around our home. He and Jennifer would take off on long jaunts. She always led the way and Max would follow, the two of them tearing through the shrubs and thickets and always coming back, tongues hanging, knowing a long pat and a cold bowl of water would be waiting for them.

Often, and for no apparent reason, Jennifer would walk over to her bigger brother and lock her jaws around his neck. It was playful and funny and Max would lie down and roll onto his back and let his sister bite him some more. Those were, I think, his happiest moments.

In his final years, Max tried to talk to us. His bark became a series of howls that you'd swear were words. He'd stomp his front feet on the ground and sometimes achieve complete lift-off, all four feet briefly leaving the floor as he howled and talked and wagged his tail furiously.

A year or two ago he began to slow down. His hips stiffened. He kept trying to talk in his long, plaintive howls, but the light was going out. He went deaf, I think, last year. You could sneak up on him and make him jump. He'd respond by biting my arm. Gently.

There is a constellation in the sky. I don't know its name. It's a perfect triangle that I can find most nights, a triangle made of eight stars. I have watched five terrific dogs live and die in my lifetime: Lucky, my first dog, who was 16 when he died in 1974; and Maxwell and McDuff, who died some 15 years ago; and Jennifer and Doc. With the passing of each, I assigned them a star in my triangle constellation. I go outside at night, still, and check in on all of them. Just to see how they're doing.

This week, I think, when I can get these damn tears out of my eyes and gather the courage to do what I must do, Max will become the third star down on the right side.

Right next to Jennifer.

I hope she bites him.

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