Recently, my older dog became deathly ill. It was Labor Day weekend, which meant the closest vet was 100 miles away since we don’t have any vets on call for after-hour emergencies in my area. After leaving Max at the hospital, uncertain if I’d ever see him again, I came home to walk my other dog. The two dogs always walked on a coupler, and Logan didn’t want to leave the house without Max. I had to coax him outside. He’d stop on the street, turn back to look at the house, and refuse to move. I was crying, dreading seeing any neighbors. Logan was enduring his own form of despair.
It wasn’t long and I ran into a neighbor walking her dog. As soon as she asked, “Where’s Max?” I burst into tears, apologized for crying, and rambled on about how his sudden illness and current hospitalization. This isn’t the first time I’ve walked these same streets weeping while a pet was near death in the hospital. People probably think I’d be more stoic by now.
The blood work showed that Max’s liver and kidneys were shutting down. I called my daughter Ania, who is a grad student in another state, warning her that Max may by dying. “Keep him alive,” she sobbed.
When I first arrived at the hospital, they put Max on oxygen and asked if I wanted to keep him on life support until he could see a vet. “We need to warn you that costs $500 for each half hour we keep him alive.” I drove this far to see a vet, so I agreed to pay. After I broke down crying, they ushered me into a private room to spare the other people in the waiting room any more anguish, since all of our pets had to be quite ill to be at the emergency after-hour hospital.
At one point, the vet returned to say Max was breathing on his own. A sign of hope. He suggested that Max may have been ill for a while and I may not have noticed. “Animals like to hide their illness,” he said.
I kept replaying the week, wondering what symptoms I may have missed. Max was at the lake, walking back and forth in the shallow water, like a senior citizen doing aerobics at a pool. This was bliss, not a dog suffering from a lingering illness. The day before he became ill, we took three walks in the misty rain, relieved to have a break from the Arkansas heat.
Eight years ago, I drove Max to this same hospital in the middle of the night when he was in status mode. Seizure after seizure after seizure. The vets kept calling me throughout the night, wanting permission to put him down. I was adamant that he wanted to live and told them that unless he was suffering, not them, I wanted Max to remain in the induced coma and kept alive because I believed he would live. “He has a less than one percent chance of living.”
Stubborn, I banked on that fraction of a percent. He did live and never had another seizure. There were no percentages being discussed this time.
Early the next morning, Max had to be removed from the emergency hospital to a regular vet, but they didn’t think I should bring him to our hometown vet because he was vomiting and could dehydrate in the long car ride. They moved Max to the day clinic across the street from the hospital. This vet wanted to do x-rays, more tests, and kept repeating, “Max is a very sick dog.”
When Max was home, the minute I’d start to put my shoes on, Logan would jump all over Max, eager for the walk. Now I had to go to Logan on the couch and coax him out the door. Once again, Logan stood in the road, refusing to move. I don’t know if he felt he was not being loyal to Max by taking a walk without him, or if he just didn’t see any point in taking a walk without Max. There are so many things I’ll never understand about how animals feel about life. Or death. I coaxed Logan out the door and walked down the street, sobbing, hoping I wouldn’t run into any neighbors. I had believed I’d be driving to Little Rock early in the morning and bringing Max home, not walking Logan alone while Max remained hospitalized 100 miles from home.
In the beginning, eleven years ago, Ania and I each carried a cat in a doggy pack, and rollerbladed around a pond at her school, while another dog, Barto, ran behind us. Having lived in Arizona before moving to Arkansas, I thought I saw a javelina, which didn’t make sense but I felt compelled to check it out, near the baseball field, and tromped in the dirt to explore. There was Max running back to his littermates who were burrowed in the ground. We pulled Max and the rest of the litter from their hiding place, put the pups in the car with the rest of our critters, found homes for the other pups, but kept Max. There was something about Max that made me feel immediately connected to him.
Even though Max was already bigger than the cats, Ania wanted me to walk Barto on the leash while she carried Max in a doggy pack, the pack that was always intended for cats, not dogs.
Walking Logan, all I thought about was how Ania may never see Max again. Later that day, a vet who knew Max and had an office fifty miles from our home, called the other vet so they could have an honest vet-to-vet talk. They decided Max could be transported and he would have the same chance of survival with him, and did not need to spend another night at the emergency hospital. Convinced that this vet could take care of Max, I returned to Little Rock to retrieve Max. When we were loading Max into my car, Max gave me such a hopeful look as I placed him on his doggy bed, certain he was going home and this hellish experience was finally over. The vet assistant who had also worked at the emergency hospital said, “I’ve seen another dog like this. Didn’t you say you walked him this weekend? Maybe he’s suffering from heat stroke. It happens.”
When I left Max with this other vet, he placed him in the kennel with an IV. “I’m adding glucose. This should perk him up.” Max tried to get up, hoping to come home with me. “That’s a good sign,” he said. I told Max I’d be back to visit him the next morning. Except he died in the morning, and my last image is of Max giving me that hopeful look he’d be going home with me. That image haunts me today. Maybe I should have just let him die at home in my arms?
Even more guilt.
I had to decide if I was going to pick up Max and bury him at home or have him cremated, but I wasn’t ready make the decision when I answered the death phone call from the vet. I believed that Max was going to live. I called Ania and she suggested that I have him cremated. She probably believed cremating would be easier on me since the two of us have held our pets while they died at home, then we’ve dug their holes to bury them, howling with grief.
A neighbor friend offered to bring Max home. This was such an incredible act of kindness. She called her husband to say I was digging Max’s grave, and he left his job to help me. I’m forever grateful for their compassion.
I wanted the other animals to have a chance to see Max one more time, to come out to the yard to say their goodbyes. All of us needed closure. The pets came outside, smelled Max, then ran back inside the house. Dead Max was unbearable for everyone.
This summer, while visiting an old friend, we were walking her dog, and she told me the hardest part of when her other dog had died was walking just one dog. She deliberately took other routes to avoid neighbors.
A week after Max died, the young neighbor girl came up to the door, a bit afraid to ask if she could walk Logan with me, thinking things may have changed now that Max had died. These kids liked to walk the dogs with me after they came home from school. Her younger brother usually walked Max since he was a bit smaller than Logan. Now, the younger brother stands in the yard and watches his sister and I walk Logan, unsure how he fits into the scheme of things since there is only one dog to walk. On our first walk together without Max, she kept bringing up Max stories. Our favorite dog-walking stories involve Max’s poop. He saved his poops for his daily walks and loved all the attention he got while the kids squealed in perverse delight, watching me pick up his steamy poops. “It’s a freshly baked Tootsie Roll. Want one?” I’d ask, offering the bag of poop to the kids. Who wouldn’t enjoy these great walks talking about Max’s poop and Logan’s farts?
Even though it has been one month almost to the day since Max has died, twice last week people yelled from their homes as Logan and I were out walking, “Hey, where’s the black dog? I haven’t seen him in weeks.” Do they really expect me to yell back: “Max died!” For some reason, I thought I’d finally be free of the dead dog questions. The first two weeks were non-stop questions, then endless sad stories of their dead pets. I dreaded every walk. Maybe Logan was trying to tell me something by not wanting to leave the house.
Logan and I will be out walking and I will hear a car slow down. I brace myself for another neighbor who is about to pull over and ask what happened to the black dog. When I say that Max is dead, they say, “That’s what I figured. He was old, right?” Then they go on and tell me about all the dogs they’ve buried in their yards and I hope another car will come down the street so they’ll have to move on before I need to endure any more dead dog stories.
One neighbor stopped to tell me how her parents just put down their old cat. But unlike me, who spent my first two paychecks of the school year on vet bills, her dad just killed the cat. “Cheaper that way,” she said as I hurried off not wanting to know the graphic details.
After these walks, I’ve gone home and looked up the weather of the day I last walked Max. 70’s and rainy. But the humidity. The damn humidity. I’ve researched causes for liver and kidney failure. Endless possibilities.
I don’t blame all those vets for not knowing what caused Max to die, but I do wish no one had assumed it could have been because of our last walk or because I somehow didn’t notice that he had been sick for a long while.
I’ve buried many pets, so this grief isn’t unfamiliar. It’s not that death makes me more vulnerable or immortal. It’s that while I’m immersed in grief over losing a dear pet, that immersion of grief blends in with all the other losses of life, and for awhile, I just need to be immobilized in this profound sadness.
When I’m in the yard, I notice the flowers the neighbor kids have dropped over the fence onto Max’s grave. One day I noticed a seashell with the words painted: Max was a great dog.
Max was a great dog. The kids get it.
Diane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom's Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.