Missing Max…

Easter holds a great deal of significance to me as a Christian because it commemorates Jesus’s death and resurrection.  But, last year, Easter unexpectedly took on an additional significance.

On the first Easter, Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, and rose from the dead on Easter Monday.  He went from death to life.

Last Easter, my dog Max became suddenly and severely ill on Good Friday, and had to be put to sleep on Easter Monday.  He went from life to death.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot once before that weekend did he show any signs of the massive intestinal tumor that would claim his life.  He had even been given a clean bill of health by a veterinarian at his annual check-up just a few weeks prior.

Max entered my life just as unexpectedly as he left it.  The decision to adopt a dog from a rescue shelter was made on a whim right after Christmas in 2009.  There were only five dogs in the shelter that day but it was love at first sight for me.  But, even though I knew there was something very special about the dog I named Max, it took me a long time to fully let  my guard down with him.

I had been given a beagle for my thirteenth birthday that I had named Sue.  Our family wasn’t able to keep her very long, in part because the three of us kids were allergic to her.  We found her a good home outside the city but she was struck and killed by a car shortly after giving birth to her first litter.

Max & Me - August 201035 years later, I finally had another dog but my answer this time was to not get too attached.  I loved my dog but I kept him at arms length.  And he knew it.  But, slowly but surely he went to work at breaking down my defences.

I had Max for a total of 2 years, 3 months and 6 days but it was a full year before my guard fully dropped.  Max’s death totally devastated me but my main regret is that it took me so long to love him to the ‘max’.  It was time wasted.

It seems to me that we should just love unreservedly, without thought for the future, because we will never know the future until we get there anyway.

I really believe that Max was my guardian angel.  He was my best friend when I was isolated from family, friends, and civilization.  And, his sudden passing became the inspiration for radical, necessary, and overdue change in my life just two months later.

By how Max lived his life, he showed me how important it is to:

  • always make time for hugs
  • do things with the people you love, even if they’re doing nothing at all
  • stay connected to the people you love, even if it’s just a nose bump to their hand or back of their knee
  • have fun every day
  • see the humor in life, even and especially at your own expense
  • be kind and gentle
  • be friendly with everyone you meet, even if they’re not always friendly in return
  • love lavishly
  • live with abandon
  • always save the yolk for last

This Easter, and every Easter, I’ll be missing my Max to the ‘max’.

Max

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Learning from Herman…

I’m a huge fan of pigs.  I think they might be the most underrated animal out there.  Throughout history, pigs have been portrayed as dirty, dumb, and lazy but, in actual fact, pigs are clean, bright, and energetic.  Pigs can be house-trained and leash-trained more easily than dogs, and they can be just as loyal.  One Vietnamese pot-bellied pig actually risked her own life to save her owner.  At 150-pounds, Lulu managed to squeeze out through a doggie door and played dead in the street until she was able to lead a passing motorist into the house where her owner was having a heart attack.  Pigs are awesome.

If you’re at all skeptical about the allure of pigs, consider a few famous examples:  Porky Pig, Arnold Ziffel (from Green Acres), Miss Piggy, and Babe.  Four very different pigs but all incredibly popular for their own individuality and quirks.  My own pig is a very alluring, chunky, stuffed, pink specimen named Herman.  From the day I met Herman, he was making a difference.  I bought him at a silent auction during a fundraiser to send a team to Haiti for a week to help rebuild after the earthquake of 2010.  Like most of us, he no doubt wished he could make a bigger difference but every little bit counts.

The main thing I’ve learned about pigs is that they’re lovable, and they want to be loved.  They can be cute but they’re rarely handsome.  They’re almost never skinny but instead comfortably portly.  They’re judged by how they look, and they’re judged by stereotypes and gossip that’s often accepted as truth instead of mere conjecture.  People rarely want to look below the surface to see if pigs are worth getting to know.  They’re more interested in what a pig can do for them than in what they can do for a pig.

I think I identify with pigs because I’m often as misunderstood as they are.  People make assumptions about me based on what they see, what other people have said about me, their own comfort level, and stereotypes.  But, when people really take the time to get to know me, I’m often not at all what they expected.  And I think a lot of people would say the same is true of them.

It’s really a shame because Herman is an extraordinary pig.  It’s just a matter of taking the time to get to know him.  Just like it’s just a matter of taking the time to get to know me.  Or to know you.  You never know, you might be pleasantly surprised.  After all, you can’t (accurately) judge a pig by his ‘cover’.

Letter to an Extraordinary Dog

My dearest puppy dog, Max,

I remember so well the first day I set eyes on you.  It was at the rescue shelter in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on Dec. 28, 2009. There were only five dogs in the shelter that day, and you were in the very last cage, sitting with your ears pinned back and your little green stuffed animal in your mouth.  There was something about you that I immediately fell in love with.  I know it sounds strange but I could tell by your eyes that you were a very special dog.  But, the sign one of the staff pinned to your cage while I was standing there suggested otherwise.  It said, “Returned… too much”.  In fact, you’d had three failed adoptions since you’d been picked up as a stray by the dog catcher.  It should have scared me off but it didn’t.

I never expected to get a dog that Christmas, however, two days earlier, Antonio had announced to his staff that he would be coming home with a dog.  He didn’t know how… just that it would happen.

When we’d talked about a dog, we’d always agreed that we’d get a young pug, female, and spaded.  You were an older husky, shepherd, lab mix, who eventually grew to be 80 lbs, male, and not neutered.  You were an ‘anti’-pug… but I couldn’t get you out of my mind.

When we returned to the shelter the next day, you were alone in the yard, standing by the fence, silently watching us approach.  I crouched down by the fence to look you in the eye and you responded by lowering your head to the bottom of the fence, pushing your nose underneath as far as you could, and licking my hand.  I wept.  It was official. You were ours. The shelter had named you ‘Bullet’, for the vertical, bullet shaped marking on your forehead, but I impulsively knighted you Max.  I had no idea how fitting that name would turn out to be.

3 1/2 months after we adopted you, my Dad died, and we put you into a boarding kennel in the Sault for a few days while we flew east for the funeral.  We were surprised when the girl at the front desk recognized you.  You looked healthier, happier, and heavier than she remembered but she was certain you were the dog she had nicknamed ‘Bolt’. Since you had been a stray, this was the first information we had received about you other than the veterinarian’s estimate of your age. We learned that you’d been owned by an alcoholic who had mistreated you, and that you would routinely pull a ‘Houdini’, getting out of your collar, and making a run for it.  Somehow you always returned.  On one such occasion, the girl from the shelter had taken you in for a few days but you eventually bolted from there too.

We were shocked to learn that French was your native ‘tongue’, which explained a lot of the communication hurdles we encountered in the beginning.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for you… escaping from your abusive owner for the final time, being adopted by your fourth family in two months, taken to a new community four hours away, and then spoken to in an entirely foreign language.

But I was right that you were a very special dog.  You never barked, never went near the garbage, never got into anything, and never destroyed anything.  You were unbelievably careful and gentle whenever we you would take a treat from us and, despite your abusive past, you were unfailingly kind and gentle to everyone and everything.

Our biggest challenge was training you to walk beside us properly on a leash.  The progress was slow but sure, and the whole community watched, noticed, and cheered you on.  We walked you three times a day, and you became famous in town.  Everyone thought you were a puppy because you had such a puppy-like quality about you.  They thought you were beautiful, with a beautiful personality, and you were.  You were a truly beautiful dog.

It was a rare day that you didn’t make us laugh, whether it was the Elvis curl of your lip when we were playing hide and seek, the way you would bounce down the hallway when we were playing with you, your happy dance and showgirl wiggle when you knew we were going for a walk, or your unbridled elation when we would give you a special treat, like a Dentabone or an egg.  I loved how we would stand side by side when Antonio left for work and, as soon as the door closed behind him, we would look at each other for a moment and then you would literally skedaddle down the hall ahead of me to the livingroom, where you would retrieve your beloved cow puppet (complete with a clicker for mooing noises) and we would play tug of war or chase the cow.

I loved how you would jump up on your couch all excited for a cuddle.  I loved how you would routinely bump my hand, leg, or back of my knee with your nose while we were walking, for no other reason than to connect.  I loved watching your crooked run when we would walk through the trails in the woods during the winter and you were off leash.  I loved how I would round a corner in the trail to find you stopped ahead, silently watching to make sure I was keeping up.  I loved your crazy, mental run you would sometimes do to let off steam.  And I loved how, if I stopped to pet a dog, you would silently but unmistakeably position yourself between us, in a passively possessive move reserved for only me.

I loved how, if I put something special in with your food, you would start to eat and then stop, come over and bump my hand with your nose to say thanks and then go back to finish, I loved how you sometimes would walk into the middle of the yard and then fall to the ground as if you’d been shot, writhe around like a crazy dog, and then stop and tilt your head backwards to see if I was watching.  I loved how much you loved the car, always stopping at the beginning and end of a walk to flip your nose at the back door, in the hopes of an inpromptu drive.  I loved all the times you’d move up from the backseat to perch on the console between the two front seats, looking out the windshield, pretending you were a human.

But, what I loved most of all was how much you loved to be with us.  Your favorite thing was to be with us, no matter what we were doing.  In the beginning, you were so wary of hugs and cuddles but I persisted with them nonetheless.  Before long, you would seek them out.  I soon added kisses to your cheeks.  I especially loved how you would completely collapse against me with all your body weight and just enjoy the companionship and joy of being pet.

I loved how you could read our moods, and the many ways you found to cheer us up.  It was impossible to be mad at you for any length of time because you would totally charm your way out of it.  My favorite memory was one day near the end of March, when we picked Antonio up from work in the car immediately after your walk.  I was recounting your transgressions, and you leaned forward and started licking the snow from my hat.  It was the first time you’d ever done such a thing, and it completely disarmed me.  Antonio and I dissolved into laughter, you bumped my arm with your nose and, just like that, we’d made up.

There’s so much more I could say but, like all good things, this letter must come to an end.  Like all good things, our time together had to come to an end.  But, like many good things, we never saw the end coming.  You became so ill on Good Friday and we were certain it was temporary.  After all, you were only 7.  But, when Antonio took you for a short walk that morning and you laid down on the street – on your side no less – and Antono had to carry you the 2 blocks home, we worried even more.  We were so relieved when we finally found a vet who would take you in on Easter Sunday.

I’ll never forget Easter Monday afternoon, when the veterinarian called our cellphone and asked how soon we could get to her office.  I’ll never forget looking at the x-rays where the barium showed the huge intestinal mass that was crowding your intestines to the back half of your body.  Food couldn’t stay in and waste couldn’t come out.  And I’ll never forget the realization that you weren’t going to be ok, that you weren’t going to be coming home, and there wasn’t anything more we could do.  My heart broke in two at that moment.  I felt indescribable pain and sorrow.  Devastation is an inadequate word to explain the heartbreak.

2 years, 3 months, and 6 days.  That’s all the time we had with you.  But, I thank God that we had even that much time together.  I thank God for what you taught me about loving life, unconditional love, joy, kindness, and humor.  I thank God that the first 5 years of your life might have been hell but that we were entrusted with the gift of giving you as much Heaven on earth as we could for the time remaining.

In your beauty, you were Sir Max and, in your zest and love for life, you were ‘Max’imum velocity.  You truly lived life to the max.  I will never forget you, and what an extraordinary dog you were.  You’ve left a Max sized hole in our lives, but Heaven is richer for our loss.  I love you, my puppy dog.  xoxoxo