The Most Gentle Friend

Some nights you know you are going to dream. There are days when something happens and you know you are not finished with it, hard as you try to walk away from it. May 28, 2001 I was looking for my camera. I could not find it. The camera did not matter; I could walk away from that. It was the reason I wanted my camera I could not walk away from.

Molly was lying under the table, her head resting on the floor. Her old, wise and wizened face resting between her legs on the ground. I wanted some pictures of her. On her last full day at home. I was not sure that was smart, but when I saw her lying there I did not care; I wanted to capture her somehow, to save her, to keep her forever with me. And I could not find the camera. I figured it was God’s way of saying, “Don’t.” Don’t let this be your last image of her. And so I stopped looking for it. But I knew I would dream of it. And I did.

I was on the floor in front of her taking pictures. The telephoto lens was bothering Molly. She was moving and doing things that made taking her picture difficult. She was not cooperating. I figured it was Molly’s way of saying, “Don’t.” Don’t let this be you last image of me. I figured she was saying remember me on our walks in the morning. Remember me walking down that little road behind the Giant the first day we stopped for my food. Remember me when I got four, count ‘em four, rocks in my mouth one morning. Remember how we used to walk the woods and I could read your body language, you’d only nod your head or point and I knew which way you wanted to go and I went there. Remember me with my stuffed toys that I brought to everyone who visited us. Remember me barking at people with my head in my food bowl. Remember how I liked to eat. Remember me on Christmas morning opening my presents. Remember me when my muzzle was all black and shiny. Remember me as the at first reluctant teacher of that young whippersnapper and then later as her guardian and role model. But do not remember me like this.

And so I will not. In time. But not today. It is May 29.

I awoke several times on the way to morning. I said a prayer of thanks for Molly’s life each time. I finally arose around 5:30 AM. When I came downstairs Molly was asleep very peacefully, like she was after a very pleasant and satisfying day. I figured maybe she had to dream too. She was lying half on and half off the Saints throw blanket. Her front half was on it. She lay on her right side–she can no longer lie on her left side–with her head toward the dining room. She looked so peaceful. I stood there quietly in the dark watching. And then her right front foot began to move from the ankle down. It was moving like it would if she was running and I knew that in her dreams she was running. Probably chasing a ball her brothers had thrown. Maybe scaring some birds or following a deer into the woods like she did when we first moved here. But she was running in her sleep. She was happy there. It felt soooo good to see that. So I stood and watched for a while and she kept running in her dreams. The way she wanted to remember her life too. I suppose it was going out the night before that settled it for her, that guaranteed she would be dreaming last night.

I went to my office and Maggie came down, as she does. I let Maggie be the one to decide when to go out these days. The walks to the bottom of the street have been my weathervane. That is how I have seen and measured the changes in Molly.

Maggie came and got me. We went upstairs. Molly was not lying on her stomach but making no sign of wanting or needing to get up. I looked and Maggie was still in the family room at the bottom of the steps. I motioned her up and went to the door. Maggie entered the hall and instead of coming to me at the door with her leash she made a left into the living room. Softly, quietly, and ever so gently–you could really see Maggie’s whole demeanor change, she was really trying to be gentle–she walked over to Molly and she ever so gently lowered her head to Molly’s. It was so wonderful to see them. Molly was unaware but Maggie seemed to be saying good-bye. I know it is human of me to think so, but it was so clear. She was saying goodbye.

Maggie and I walked in silence to the bottom of the street as we almost always do. We walked a good bit quicker than we had been for some weeks. Molly always slowed us down. When we reached the bottom of the street I let Maggie off her lead and she did her business then walked alongside of me, not running after anything this morning. She just looked over at me as if questioning. We walked a few more steps and I said, “We’re going to really miss Molly.” And Maggie made no response–count one, two–then she turned her head and looked up the street toward the lamppost. Maggie knew we were alone but she heard Molly’s name and did a head turn as if she had to look and see and convince herself it was true, that Molly was not there. And in her head turn was the hope that somehow she would be there.

For months Molly has inexplicably stood in the street near the first lamppost. Somedays she would be scratching at what would become her cancer-ridden leg. Other days she just stood there staring as if in a Mexican standoff with some canine grim reaper. In recent weeks she joined us walking down the street. Looking back I think she decided she was going to do it on sheer willpower. She knew the end was coming and I think she made up her mind to make the walk. And then one morning she could not make it and I had to carry her home.

Maggie and I headed back home. Every day we have done that Maggie cannot wait to start pulling on her lead. I give her an end of it as we walk up the street. As soon as she finishes her business she walks alongside me and starts looking at the lead, waiting for me to give her an end of it. Eager to start playing. This morning she walked behind me as if she had things on her mind, things she needed to think about. Once I put her back on the lead she begins immediately to play with the other end of it. Tugging on it, chewing on it. She begins in the middle of the street. I often think I should not let her play in the street but she is so playful I cannot deny her.

This morning she did not take the lead in the street. She made no move as if she wanted to. I began to think that odd. Then we hit the sidewalk and she looked up at me and I thought that meant she wanted the lead so I dropped the free end for her to grab. She did not. She continued to look up at me and I saw her eyes were sad. Sadder than usual. She did not want the lead. She ignored it all the way home. This was not a morning for play. Maggie definitely knows. She knows.

At home I saw Molly was awake now and I lay down with her, petting her, talking to her. Maggie came into the room. She licked me once. Once. Then she went to the other side of the blanket and she lay down facing Molly. She made no attempt to keep me from Molly. My kind words to Molly did not get a stir from Maggie. She was keeping vigil. Maggie knew. And that made the pain, the sadness all the more bitter and all the more sweet. These two really did have a very special bond. One that we humans will never understand. We see it in our human terms and we can, to an extent see it that way. But it is their relationship and it grew very special in these nearly two short years.

I sat with Molly, feeling badly that I could not just spend the next two hours with her, but I could not. It hurt too much. So I went downstairs.

Later I heard her moving about. I came upstairs and she was drinking water. And drinking water. And drinking some more water. Then I began to give her those heart treats. Three of them. I went to the door. Molly did not follow. She remained in the kitchen. I went to the kitchen. She turned to the counter with the treats on it. She wanted more. As I began to unscrew the lid the tears just burst forth, I did not know they were coming and I could not stop them. I shook three more into my hand. I could not see the lid through my tears as I tired twice to replace it, unsuccessful each time. I gave her the treats crying like a baby. Somedays you know you are not finished crying. Today is one of those days.

And so we come full circle. It is May 8, 2010 and before lies Maggie, my sweet, sweet Maggie, the puppy with party ears who feel over sideways one day while walking in the woods at the bottom of the street. The same one who so tenderly bid our Molly farewell.

She lies on the concrete patio her old, wise and wizened face resting between her legs on the ground. Just as Molly had a decade ago. Oh, sweet God, this hurts so much but it is so beautiful the symmetry of this cannot deny your hand.

It began a few months ago. Maggie came down to my office. She lay under the table behind me to my right. I did not know why. But she did.

I thought it was for some sentimental reason, some anthropogenic explanation I conjured. But Maggie knew she had changed inside. She knew a bad thing had arrived and she came to my lair to feel safe. Perhaps to hope?

Things seemed fine. She grew older and greyer. She walked a little slower. Spring was coming and when the mornings were no longer cold but not yet hot she pranced and played as she did the days she first arrived. Such a gentle spirit at heart.

So many times we walked down this street together before the daylight. So many, many things she taught me. I wrote many of them down if only I had saved them. She taught me much about life.

She took care of Missy from the start. Look who taught her. We’d walk down there and for years Missy when released from her leash ran like a bat freed from hell. At times she disappeared on the trail of a deer and she’d be gone a little while. After waiting I would whistle. I have a special whistle just for my girls. My girls.

Maggie was so obedient, by far the most willing and desirous of pleasing of any of our wonderful dogs. She would immediately respond to my whistle.

She sits by me on the outside patio and I have no doubt that if I said, “Maggie come,” she would rise, wheeze, hack, cough and come obediently and submit herself to me for whatever reason I had called her. She is just that way.

So when I would whistle, Maggie would immediately appear. But she always stopped in the road and turned sideways to look for her sister. She would not come until Missy appeared. It was her way of assuring Missy was okay.

It was love.

It was love humans write about in songs and odes. It is love they try to immortalize in poetry, but it is a love humans will never understand, smart and more evolved as we are.

And so it has been almost 11 years since Maggie joined our family. As I look at her now I see our old girl. She rests peacefully, but she is watching for that same grim reaper Molly sought.

I was away when she was diagnosed with cancer and I returned and need to be with her. In the last day I have given her more ear scratches and physical contact than I have in the last month. I am ashamed. I want to touch her forever. She is soft, broken, she has lost weight, her tail wags, I see our old girls and I see a ghost of her former self.

Her life feels so precious to me, how can I end it. How can I say time is up? I am torn, tortured. If she has a good hour in a day is that not worth preserving?

We both know it is our last night. She is not leaving me. I am not leaving her.

Here is what she and Missy have taught me. Maggie knows she is dying. She has cancer. She had cancer once before. Now it is in her lymph nodes. She has lost weight. Her backbone is prominent. Her hind quarters, once generous from a good life, are now thin.

She has known it since she first began to spend the day with me in my lair. I could not save her. I could not prevent any of the things that my loved ones were born to or that they have suffered. That is hard to accept, the moreso for an animal.

Over the last few days Maggie has chosen dark, small spaces. She lies on her stomach in the cooler parts of the house. She prefers the dark and she orients away from people. She may not sleep at all. And she waits. Her DNA tells her to wait for that which stalks us all.

She is not afraid. She accepts. Her life is changed, it is ending and she accepts.

She walks up to me and holds her head down and walks into me. I grab behind her ears and scratch and rub. She stands there suspended in eternity. I stand there suspended in Maggie.

She was the prettiest of all our boxers and she was a gentle soul, a gentle soul. She loved nothing more than to have someone pay attention to her. She liked women who did so the best. The list is long I do not want to offend anyone by forgetting them so let me just say the list is long. And that is all she ever asked of life, notice how happy I am to see you.

What philosopher will top that?

Maggie was such a gentle soul until Missy came along. You need to know how much Molly was Maggie’s protector and mentor to smile an appreciative inner smile to know that Maggie changed one day. I forget the day but I remember it well. A strange dog challenged Missy and Maggie, ever the retiring gentle spirit went ballistic.

I was the most shocked person on the planet that day. Maggie stepped up as a beats, an ancient beast and she leveled that dog. She had never so much as growled at a dog before. Not once. But a dog challenged her sister, her daughter and Maggie forever changed.

Truth is I always had mixed feelings about that. I wished my dogs were not so aggressive but I was proud that Maggie was so fiercely and uncompromisingly protective. After that day they let few dogs into their lives, safely.

Family is important.

In case you doubted.

If Maggie was the first to know, Missy was second. She has been depressed for weeks, slowly realizing and letting go. But she has been so sweet. When they have been close and standing Missy has given her kisses, far more often than usual.

There have been times when Maggie was laying down and I have approached to lay down nearby, not really touching. Maggie will get up and leave. I have done these things for me. Missy knows what Maggie needs and she lets her have it. She does not approach Maggie when Maggie needs to wait alone for the thing inside her to feed. Missy knows hen to approach and when to stay away. She has distilled the flawless logic and wisdom of thousands of years and likely several species.

More amazingly, Missy has given Maggie and I time. Maggie approaches me with her head down and nearly nuzzles me so I can rub and scratch her neck and ears. Ordinarily, Missy would horn in on that and it would end in a jealous playful—or not—fight for my attention. Now Missy may come up for a pat on the head but she will lick Maggie and leave.

I have though at times Missy is afraid the thing stalking Maggie will take her too. For the last week or two Missy has walked way out in front and Maggie way behind going down the street. Went it is dark, the fears of most creatures grow stronger. Missy was no exception.

I have always believed that when we are ready to learn a teacher will be provided. I cannot tell you how many times in the last decade that teacher has included Maggie and her student Missy.

Let me tell you a little of May 8. Maggie’s last day among the living that we understand.

I awoke at 159 and really never returned to sleep. Among the many thoughts was our last walk down the bottom of the street. I decided to go when it was dark like we usually did over the years. The hours when only the three of us were awake and stirring. How many times did we do this, Maggie and I? Well over 3000 times probably closer to 3500. I got up at 430. The girls were pretty much ready. It only took me saying. “girls” to get their attention. I wonder if they had been awake since 159 waiting to do this as well?

Lynne was awake and up. The leashes were missing, in my car from our walk the day before. Maggie could not climb over a tree trunk across the path and she wheezed and panted all the way back to the car on that, our last walk into the woods.

I got the leashes and the girls lined up as ever. Maggie on the left and Missy on the right. I wondered if Maggie would live up to her name, “Waggie Maggie.” I call her that most mornings the last year because her tail was invariably wagging wildly as her circular time life began a new cycle. She was genuinely pleased to greet each day, I learned the value of that from her as well.

This morning her tail wagged so much I wondered if this was right, for the umpteenth time. I said only, “Waggie Maggie,” and “Hissy Missy” who usually does not wag her tail managed to do so a few times. And for the last time as a trio we headed out the door.

Missy walked ahead as she had been. Maggie walked behind. Each time I turned to look at Maggie she was looking up at me. She somehow got the sentimentality of the last time. Missy was not pulling she knew too?

Halfway down, out of the blue, Maggie walked around me on the left and took the lead, something she did maybe five times in a year. I think she did it for old times sake. It plucked the strings of my heart to see her doing one more time what she would never do again. No sooner did she take the lead than she relinquished it and fell back to her real labor, which was drawing breath.

We got to the bottom of the street and I unleashed the girls. Maggie stood in the middle of the street long enough that I had to tell her to get out of the street. Obediently, as ever, she did. I could say, “Maggie, die,” and I think she would have done it to please me.

Maggie did not wander from me, so I sat on the curb and she approached me for more neck rubs and we talked. We have been talking for a couple of weeks now about what we both now knew. She was breathing hard and her face was thin. Her backbone was way too prominent and hard. I saw two of her ribs and she had folds of Maggie everywhere on her.

We spoke of life and dying and time.

I asked Maggie if she had a kiss for me. For all her life those words were a signal for her to kiss me and she would. The last time she did this was last weekend. And I have been asking since I returned from out of town, where I was when she was diagnosed as terminally ill. Maggie has not kissed me and she will not. I understood why last night.

Last weekend she said goodbye to me, she kissed me goodbye and she cannot return from that. This week she has been busy trying to die. I wish she had kissed me one of the times I asked.

Missy joined us and it was time to go. For a few weeks now, maybe threor more, Missy had not been taking Maggie’s lead and tugging on it. It was something Missy always did and Maggie always tolerated. Once in awhile Missy would know Maggie did not feel well and would not tug those mornings. She has known Maggie was way too weak for that now. But on this, the last morning, Missy took the lead and pulled back on it turning Maggie around with an expression on her face I have seen 1000 times at least—what the hell is she doing it seemed to say. And Missy pulled and played and just as suddenly let go.

She knew it was the last time she would do so with her sister, her alpha, her mother and her teacher. I cried through a laugh.

Walking up the street a wonderful thing happened that will pass you, the reader, unnoted because you could not know how unusual and profoundly moving it was. Missy walked alongside me. Step for step. The entire way. She did it for me, she did it for herself, she did it to express our shared sorrow. Our solidarity in sorrow at this very moment.

We came into the house and I lost track of them as I fiddled with a thing or two. Very tired I was returning to bed. Before I did I wanted to know where they were so I looked first into the living room and there I peered into the past.

Maggie was there like nine years earlier. She lay on her doggie bed, he head down between her legs, facing the dining room—no poet’s license, it happened just like this—and right next to her and slightly ahead of her lay Missy. Missy never lays in there at that time of day. She was going to be with her Maggie as night turned to day for the last time. It was the sweetest, kindest, most faithful thing I have ever seen. These two beasts in ancient love we cannot understand. In ancient wisdom that surpasses our greatest accomplishments. Simple god given truth. It was time. The last time.

Later when day broke and people were about Maggie was downstairs with Missy and Lynne, Jason and Jonathan. I approached and she looked up at me. Smiling.

Her tail wagged wonderfully and for awhile. I tucked her some. And watched. She was with her family and she was happy to be so. I choked up at the beauty of that moment.

Adam would see her later. All that was really left was the waiting. As I write these words I am on my office. Maggie lies facing the northwest corner of my office, head and neck on the ground between her outstretched legs. Missy is nearby in an identical and I mean identical position and tears run down my cheeks. It is identical, down to the hooks in their right front paws.

We wait.

Until noon.

Gently I told her it was time and walked out of what had become our den. She made no effort to follow. She knew how her day would end. I do not know how she knew, I know only that she knew.

I had to return to her and give a last command, “Come.” I did not like myself doing so. We walked upstairs and everyone was able to pet and hug and kiss her. I gave her a chance to kiss me, she did not. I knew better.

The ride was nice on a beautiful day. Jason kept her company then gave her her own time to prepare. She jumped out the Pilot on her own. Peed, walked and smelled, pooped, then we sat in the grass with her and waited.

When we rose from the grass and walked back to the front of the vet’s Maggie walked along the ridge, the (low) high part of the lawn, the wind blew pleasantly, it was every minute she had ever had, it was every breath of God felt at Dolly Sods. Then she was on the parking lot asphalt.

We had to wait I tried to get her back on the grass, she would not step on it. Just as she had kissed me goodbye a week before she had said goodbye to the grass. She would not be returning to the grass ever again. Maggie faced the door and moved toward it, paused for some loving and then took a few more steps toward it as we waited. She knew what was to be and only wanted to get on with it.

A few dogs came and went. She stood the whole time.

Inside I lifted her to a stainless table covered with a folded blanket. She was breathing shallowly, several times she buried her head into my chest and we all spoke to her.

I was holding her. She went peacefully and quickly, her body went quite and limp and she fell into me. I set her down and lifted her head. She was gone and we left. Missy was waiting. She lies near me now in my office, less than an hour after Maggie left us. I miss her terribly already, we all do.

Before we took Maggie in a man with a pug went into the door we waited near, I stooped to tell Maggie “pugs are ugly.” She turned quickly and kissed me one last time. I cried like a baby as I do now retelling it.

This gentle loving soul was still teaching me what it is to be gentle, to know what people need, and to give it to them when it means the most.

— Prof. Charlie Yoe, from Terri from Linthicum, MD