When Belle first peered through the French doors at me this morning, eager for our walk, the Hollow was still dark and blanketed in fog. It was beautiful but eerie ... the new sunlight created a world of gray. Silhouettes of trees were specters lining the back ridge.
The fog had begun to lift by the time I stepped outside; there was a hint of a clear blue sky above. Water droplets clung to every leaf, every weed, every naked bough, sparkling in the new sunlight.
By vantage of height, I spotted the herd of deer crossing the road far ahead of us at the bend; the dogs were oblivious, though, noses to the ground, "reading" the tales of the night, Max limping along with the hop, hop, step rhythm he's developed lately.
We're not sure what's causing this latest limp. We thought it was his elbow dysplasia acting up again, then we thought it was a cut on his paw pad, then we thought maybe it was an injury to his ankle. But feeling, prodding, poking - no reaction. No growl. No curled lip. Not even a flinch.
Whatever it is, it doesn't stop him - he jumps up from his bed, ready for his walk, and hobbles up the path. He pounces and plays with Belle, charges off into the woods after deer or phantom smells.
He grins in his goofy way, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, loving life.
Before Christmas, Tom and I teamed up for his annual checkup, herding him into the back of my Hyundai like shoving a cow into a chute. At the vet, they muzzled him, which always breaks my heart, even though I know it's necessary. He doesn't like being poked and prodded up there, especially if they get near his rear-end, and when he curls his lip in a silent snarl, it even scares me. I don't know that he would actually bite someone, but I don't want to take a chance. (When they're through inspecting him and take it off, he's all grins again. No grudges or lingering hard feelings, sweet puppy.)
For his elbow dysplasia, and subsequent swelling and arthritis, the vet gave us the okay to add aspirin therapy to the special regimen we already follow with him, and at first it seemed to help. But maybe it felt too good and caused him to over-do it again with some midnight run through the woods with Belle.
I worry about his elbow, about him going lame or causing injury to his other joints by putting too much pressure on them ... but now,mostly, I worry about his heart; the vet discovered he also has a heart murmur - the first stage of congestive heart failure.
It doesn't come as a surprise. Max is a big dog ... a very big dog. I knew his size must put a load on his heart, already knew big dogs don't live as long as smaller ones in general.
But now I see the numbers on each day I have with him. I'm aware of the countdown in a way I wasn't before the diagnosis. The vet confirmed that larger animals don't live with this as long as smaller animals. Any day, his heart could stop in mid-run or I could find him curled up in his cute way, nose tucked under a forearm, and realize he's gone, not sleeping.
I feel cheated. Max is only 7, but every dog we've owned has lived into their teens. He already looks like an old man dog, and that breaks my heart, because inside of him is a perpetual 4-year-old boy. Just a puppy, full of innocence. Playful.
But I also feel blessed that he picked us to share his life, however long it may be. I'm determined to help make each day he has left special. I owe him that for the joy he's brought to my life.
He wandered up from nowhere one Saturday afternoon, this big fluff of black fur. I didn't realize he was so young - he was almost as big as Charly, our white lab mix. I didn't know much about German Shepherd puppies, so I didn't recognize the signs that would have told me he wasn't much more than 8 weeks old... his ears that lay flat, his solid black fur and liquid black eyes.
It didn't matter, though. He wasn't ours. We figured he belonged to a neighbor and would wander back the way he came, eventually. The next morning he was still hanging around, but we put Charly in the garage so he wouldn't follow us, and headed for church.
When we returned, the puppy was gone. Back home, we imagined, and we were relieved; only a few weeks earlier, we'd had to put Charly's brother Chewy to sleep after they got into a terrible, bloody fight on our back deck. An Alpha Dog feud gone bad.
My heart still ached, missing Chewy. I wasn't ready for another puppy. Wasn't sure I'd ever be again, and certainly not for another male.
Two weeks later, Tom heard Charly barking in the woods at the back of our property. Following the sound, he discovered Charly standing and barking over that same black puppy, only now the puppy was so weak it couldn't stand. It obviously hadn't eaten much, if anything, since it left our house.
Tom carried him home and we gave him a little food. Poor thing was starving, but we took it easy so he wouldn't get sick.
I sent out emails, called the vet, the police, the animal shelter. Nothing. No puppy reported missing.
He joined me and Charly on our morning walk, moving slowly and not venturing far from my side, even when Charly wandered into the woods after something. I had never met such a calm puppy! But there's no telling what he had gone through before he found us.
We kept him, of course. I was going through the ache of my first 'baby bird' preparing to leave the nest, with two more stretching their wings and ready to fly as soon as possible; Max was the baby I needed at the time to distract me from my soon-to-be-empty nest.
He gradually gained strength, and size, and helped Charly rediscover his "inner puppy". And despite Max's dominant size, there was no doubt who was Alpha of the pair: Charly.
We noticed the limp when he was about a year old or so, I think. A trip to an orthopedic veterinarian revealed a genetic elbow dysplasia that could cause lameness within a few years. It was too late for surgery, but the special food and supplements seemed to do the trick.
Until we got him a puppy.
Charly had always been an old man, merely tolerating Max's antics, but Belle threw her whole self into playing. Literally.
Despite his pain, Max is ecstatic. What a wise dog/puppy. He knows what's important in life, and passes the lessons on to us, as all good dogs do...
Lessons from Max
Set a good example - others look up to you.
Stay young at heart.
Play through the pain.
Be gentle when necessary ... but be ready to fight.
Sometimes a snarl is all that's needed.
Sometimes a grin is all that's needed.
If you need your belly rubbed, speak up.
Look for adventure.
It's okay to learn from someone younger than you ... even if they're of the opposite sex.
Accept help when you need it.
Sometimes you need people.
You're never too big to cuddle.
Smile when you're happy.
When you find a good home and people who love you, stay put.
Thanks for choosing us, Max. I love you!