STILL: AB/SHUTTERSTOCK, DOG: ONETOREMEMBER/SHUTTERSTOCKWe met Max at the cargo pickup area of Alaska Airlines. A standard poodle born on Valentine’s Day in 2002, he came to us in a small blue crate. We had adopted him from an out-of-state breeder, and our only request was that he have a calm demeanor, able to endure the poking and cuddling of our eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. (Owning a dog has these major health benefits, fyi.)
We were a sweet little family— me, my husband, and our children, Sophie and Jake. But for years I’d felt as if we wouldn’t really be complete until we had a dog. Also, my husband traveled some 200 days a year for his job, and I knew I’d feel safer with a large animal sleeping by the door.
When we opened the crate, the last piece of our puzzle fell into place. With his curly black hair and intelligent eyes, Max was beautiful. He was so small that he fit into the palm of my hand, his big paws lapping over the sides. He was also scared. As I pulled him close, I felt his heart pound and wondered if we’d done the right thing, taking him from his mother. But it was too late. Sophie and Jake were already fighting over who would hold him next.
Over the following months, we spent endless hours watching Max play with his Kong toy or roll around the living room rug. Like most poodles, he was smart. He mastered house-training quickly and never chewed on our furniture or shoes. He had little interest in his kibble and never quite saw the point of playing fetch, a pursuit for—sniff!—dogs. He considered himself one of us. Did you know that dogs have these superpowers?
Some days after school, I’d find Jake curled up with Max inside his crate. When I suggested that my son get out of the dog crate, Jake yelled, “Max wants me in here! We’re brothers!”
By his first birthday, Max had grown into a vigilant 50-pound guard dog. He manned the front door like a Marine, barking ferociously at terriers and Chihuahuas walking by. At night, he situated himself so he could watch all three bedrooms and the back door. I felt safe with him there, especially when my husband was away. Sometimes, when I was missing my husband a lot, I held Max close. It comforted me as I longed for the man who made me laugh, the man I adored.
Years passed. The kids grew and started middle school and high school. Then one day, shortly before Sophie’s senior year, our world fell apart. Sophie discovered an e-mail account full of messages between my husband and one of my friends. They’d been having an affair for years. Here are the signs you might have a cheating spouse.
My husband insisted on a divorce. I grieved so deeply, I felt as though I’d been widowed. I tried to keep everything stable for Sophie and Jake: making meals, paying bills, letting them know I was there for their grief too. But seeing the weight of my sorrow, they hesitated to lean on me. So they turned to Max.
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Jake, in particular, was bereft. He was a 15-year-old boy in a home with no father, struggling to become a man. I sometimes caught him crying as he suited up for football. Unsolicited, Max would lick Jake’s hand—he no longer waited for a cut or a scrape. He sensed the wounds were much deeper.
Sophie went off to college. She loved school and made the dean’s list her first semester. But when she stepped off the plane after her sophomore fall semester, she looked like a homeless person. Her hair was matted. She had a blanket draped around her. I was shocked, wondering where my beautiful girl had gone.
She didn’t go back to school. Instead, she stayed home sleeping all day, curled into Max. When he kept jumping off her twin bed, she set up a sleeping mat in our living room. She lay there clinging to him, 15 to 20 hours a day. All that time—as I struggled to get her help, trying to figure out what was wrong—Max lay by her side. I realize now he was keeping her alive. A few months after coming home, she told us what had happened: At college, she’d been raped.
As Sophie turned to alcohol to numb her pain, our home filled with tension. Jake started smoking pot to calm himself. On better days, he’d take Max for hikes in the hills above our house. Max leaped at the chance to get out. But he always returned to Sophie’s side. These are the signs addictions counselors want you to know about.
Truth be told, Max was the stabilizing force in our family then. He was the one we turned to when we could not turn to one another.
Around this time, I hired a “house healer,” hoping she could rid our home of the negative energy left from the divorce. The woman shooed me out, allowing only Max to stay inside. She went through the house, clearing it of bad energy. After she finished, she said, “You know this is a very special dog, right?”
“He’s here to play a very important role in your family,” she said.
After that, things slowly started to turn around. I was able to get Sophie into a residential treatment facility. We sold our house and moved to a prettier one, with fewer painful memories. Jake went off to college.
And then, suddenly, I was alone. I had loved my family wildly, all of them, and they had left. Except for Max. He followed me from room to room, looking at me as if I’d hung the moon, sometimes staying so close I nearly tripped over him. When I saw this elegant animal looking at me this way, I started to see it too. Maybe I was worthy of being adored.
As time went on, Max grew deaf and blind. His joints became creaky. He grew less perky on our walks. Sometimes I’d look at him and say, “Don’t even think about it.” I felt I’d lost so much that I couldn’t bear to lose him too.
One day, I found him paralyzed in the hind legs. A few days later, he went into congestive heart failure. Jake flew home to be there when we said goodbye. By then, Max had stopped eating and drinking. All he could do was lie on the floor. So Jake pulled the sleeping mat out again—the one Sophie had used for that terrible year—and lay beside Max all night. I took a picture: a boy and his dog. A boy and his brother.
When we took him to the vet, I thanked Max for all he’d done for our family. Pulling him close, Jake said, “Thank you for being there when I felt like no one else was. You were my best friend.”
Then Max was gone. Yet all along, he had known what we were just learning: Even without him, we were already complete.