I was at a party last night. Nothing crazy - just a few people, a couple of drinks, cards, a movie. My phone went off. I didn't see it. An hour passed until I checked it. It was my sister.
"We're taking Max to the hospital. Something's wrong with him."
Then my mom called, in tears.
"It's Max. He's bleeding internally. We're gonna have to put him down."
To take the call I had to interrupt our host's story and ask him to hold on a moment. In hindsight I should have taken the call in another room since it was late and the only ones left at the party were Asia and myself. Instead, I remained seated on the living room floor where my mother's choked and tearful words leapt from the phone and paced around the place, the silences in between words large and lumbering.
I didn't know what to say. Was the dog in pain? Was there no other way? Was it inoperable? How much time did he have left? Could it be done at home? A series of questions, all of them nearly rhetorical.
"I have to call you back," she said.
Then an emotional call from my sister. It was time to leave the party.
"Let me call you in two minutes, I need to leave my friend's house."
I called her back once we got outside. It turned out the in-home euthanasia might not be possible until Monday at the earliest. This meant the dog could end up suffering through the weekend in the best case, and in the worst case would have to endure the shock and trauma of being transported to an unfamiliar animal hospital surrounded by strangers for a second time only to be put down then and there.
"What does Mikey want to do?" I asked.
"I don't know. He can't talk right now."
"Where is he?"
"He's here, on the floor with the dog."
My vocal chords tightened and it was hard to fight back the tears. I couldn't push out any words.
My brother had been the one taking care of the dog all these years. He lived with him. I couldn't imagine the torment of having to make this kind of decision without the time to collect your thoughts and settle your emotions.
Hearing my mother sister and brother crying absolutely shredded my heart. Being so far away, I felt especially helpless in the face of death. When I lost my grandmother at the start of the coronavirus pandemic I felt something similar, but it's different losing a pet. The pain is different. The relationship is different. We humanize dogs, but they aren't human. Generally they are all of the best parts of us - loyal, protective, loving, playful, present, non-judgemental, understanding. This is why we love them. They aren't even human, yet they embody these traits and are smart enough to communicate them to us. And while I admit animals can also be fierce, violent, and perhaps, at times, even manipulative or cunning, these weren't the qualities of my dog.
He was gentle and kind, almost to a fault. He was as strong as a bear but never used that strength against another dog or person - only to drag you down the street when he wanted to say hi to another dog or sniff around a tree or fire hydrant. I can't even recall him ever barking. We got him when he was barely older than a puppy. I remember objecting to it because our apartment was too small for a dog and all of us were allergic. But my mom and sister insisted. We'd tried once or twice before to have a dog and it never worked out. My father was furious when Max appeared in the living room. I remember him saying that it wasn't fair to the dog to have it brought into a home and then sent away after a short time. I agreed.
But there was something special about Max. He was so calm. Like a Buddha. There was a certain unnamable contemplative quality about him that made him instantly likeable. When he got older and larger, his passivity seemed ironic or contradictory given his size, and I think this disarmed people. I don't know if it was his white eyebrows or white beard that created this feeling, but in his old age he seemed slightly anxious. When I was home over Christmas I would watch him pace the room, sit and lick his arm nervously or wedge himself into the small space behind my chair. None of those things gave me the impression he was unhappy or particularly stressed, but it did strike me as a little unusual. Then again, he was always a little unusual. I liked that about him. He was a great dog. I regret that I didn't get the chance to spend as much time with him as I would have liked. We only had him a year or two before I left New York to move to San Francisco.
I know I won't be satisfied with whatever I write here. Words fail. But I had to write something. I loved that dog. I'm thankful I got to spend time with him back in New York and take him on long walks. I'll never forget that unique mix of shock, joy and guilt when seeing him after a long absence, always half expecting him to have forgotten me, only to find him spinning and jumping with wild excitement in erratic circles while crying and spraying small spurts of piss. I remember talking to my brother one day while I was home, and him saying that this would probably be the last time I saw Max. Both of us had that knowing feeling that he was probably right.
"You're gonna cry when he's gone," he said.
"Yeah. I will. You will too."