Grandma used to get very worked up about films in which the dog dies, to the point that when I reviewed a film, I included a dog harm index. It’s really not a bad system, rather it’s very informative for the tender-hearted and regular-hearted viewer.

Her second husband refused to get a dog for years; he had a dog one time and it died, so he wasn’t messing around with that again until he had no choice. Once the gate was opened just a smidge and he let her bring home one dog, it was nothing but dogs and dog funerals for them for decades.

I am, unfortunately, the same way.

Warning: not all dogs will make it out of this story alive.

There has been a parade of pooches in our family, so much so, that I had a stomach-turning laugh at the scene in Roma with the taxidermy dog heads lining the guest room walls. (I’m not going to share the shot, because YIKES).

I’ve dealt with all sorts of dogs and have had all sorts of humans tell me I am not stern enough to manage dogs. Most of the dogs in my life were sweet and patient and the best of their kind. Our Labrador only left a tooth mark on a child because the child fell in her mouth. Meanwhile, the cranky Spaniel was no threat, because he arrived with no teeth at all.

Max has not been the worst dog, certainly nothing like the nightmare of the Spaniel. Actually, Max turned out to be a very good  boy. Initially, I didn’t give him much credit; in fact, after we had him for a week or so, I was ready to take him back to the shelter.

He came from a neglectful situation, they said. He’d been crated too much and bored children had pulled on his ears so that he was ear-shy. Over time, he forgot to yelp when his floppy ears were touched and his manic episodes dwindled.

When you see images of the average wild dog, Max is basically the product of one of those, bred with a Chesapeake Bay retriever. Pretty, but also pretty average, except for golden eyes to match his golden coat.

photography of three dogs looking up
NOPE – Photo by Nancy Nobody on

The first day at home, he burst out of the house and ran full tilt out of the back yard and out of sight. All the kids chased him and found him being rescued from a swimming pool. He managed to locate the only birthday party in the neighborhood and then he wrecked it. The following weekend, he ran off again and ate a huge bird house. I gave that neighbor a gift card and received a lecture on how I am not qualified to manage dogs.

He had many jailbreaks over the years, and we tried not to take it personally. He just loved to run, and he was clearly built to expand those big lungs like an imitation cheetah. I could not enjoy a walk with him, since he was stubbornly impossible on a leash. Drag and gag was standard, with the occasional near-dislocation of my shoulder if he was startled by a squirrel.

Don’t worry. Some dogs will make it out of this story alive.

His best event was cuddling. The kids allowed him to bathe their feet, even when the slurping noises were becoming too much for the rest of us. As the years passed, he had fewer feet to lick, and seemed most happy when dug into a hole under the porch or dug into an old couch. Yerdad would yell at him to stop staring at dinner time, and when he shouted, “Rug!” Max would dutifully lay down where the rug used to be, one paw extended forward to remind us that he remembered how to cheat.

When the emergency vet told us he had cancer, a Max-sized part of my heart crumbled. I sternly asked the vet if he was positive about it, that this wasn’t just a very bad cold in a very old dog. He assured me that cancer was the thing.

We spent the rest of the weekend sleeping and feeding Max meat and I had more than one big cry. I was so relieved to be able to bring him home, after it felt so much like a last ride. This was a reprieve, a pause, and didn’t we want to make him some kind of steak shake?

I have developed a weird detachment about emergencies. Somehow, even after a lifetime of emergencies, I am still surprised at how well I manage crises. Focus is suddenly not a problem, I recall perfectly whatever goes on, and time slows down to a manageable pace in which I never have trouble deciding whether or not to put on shoes.

This emergency taught me why that is. I realized that I am better at emergencies because it forces focus on the very basic things, and all the weird mental and emotional clutter is shoved aside. It’s as if there is a brain radio, finally tuned into a strong station’s signal. The static goes quiet. All I have to do is feed everyone, give medicines, clean a little and maybe build a fire. For snow emergencies, I make hot cocoa. For dog emergencies, I contemplate diapers.

Max needed to either get diapers or behave on a leash. For the first time ever, he walked without yanking. He did have a strange new tendency to list to the left, so it was still not completely normal.  We ventured out for only a quarter mile and he was almost too tired to get back up the steps.

The regular vet was skeptical, and then, so was I. Elderly dogs don’t usually develop lymphoma, he said. This was going to be hard to diagnose now that Max was on steroids, but he should definitely be seen in case it was an infection.

We bundled Max into the truck, which is still and will forever be upholstered with his crazy-sheddable gold fur. Once in the exam room, the doubts piled up more and more. His biopsy was negative, other than his neck, his nodes were normal.

“You mean, he’s just a very old dog with a very bad cold?” I said.

“Probably. I think we can move along with treating his infection and find out.”

And so, now Max is not capital D Dying, but back to little d dying in the usual, old dog way.

I’m delighted to give him all kinds of meat and let him lick feet all day long. He is still a very good emergency.


Do you have a favorite pet? Are they all jerks? If you are incorrigibly adopting everyone, I have no good advice for that, yet. There’s a commenty box down there somewhere…

Obligatory book link!

Waddaya think?

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