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I adopted almost-one-year-old Rufus from a Boca Raton no-kill animal shelter in 2009. I hadn’t gone to the shelter with the intention of adopting; I went with my friend Amy to help her return the traps she’d been using to capture feral cats and get them spayed or neutered. But while I was there, I wandered into the dog room, saw what looked like a friendly cartoon fox, and the rest is history.
Falling instantly in love with Rufus (who was being called Paulie at the shelter -- blech) and wanting to rescue him weren’t my only motivations for adopting him. I had a nine-year-old dog at home, Max, who was starting to show signs of old age. I was concerned he wouldn’t be around much longer -- my last family dog had died of cancer at nine -- and I selfishly didn’t want to go through losing him without having the comfort of another dog. I had already started worrying that the end was near.
A month before we got engaged in 2002, my ex-husband and I adopted Max from The Humane Society of New York. He was two-and-a-half at the time, and even though I wasn’t crazy about the name Max -- it’s the most common male dog name in the US, not to mention the name of one of my dead grandfathers (I named Rufus after the other one) -- he came when I called him at the shelter and sat right in my lap, which the shelter employees said he’d never done with anyone else. That was enough for me to bring him home and keep the name.
Probably a third- or fourth-generation mutt, Max was a continual source of amusement during my marriage thanks to his vocal personality and ridiculous appearance. He has the eyes and coloring of a chihuahua, the head of a small pit bull, and the body of a corgi. His tail had been slammed in a door by his original owners’ child, and it just slumped at the end of his body with no live connection to his nervous system. Ultimately, I think my ex and I probably loved Max more than we loved each other, and we split up after two years.
In 2006, Max moved with me back to Florida, where I’d gone to high school and where my parents still live, and then back to New York, with Rufus in tow. It was 2011, and Max had already outlived my last family dog by two years. I solemnly accepted that my first year back in New York could be Max’s last year alive.
But it wasn’t, by a long shot.
Max is now 14, and the thought of his inevitable death is like a constant dull headache. He has no known serious medical problems, but he’s a goofy sack of elderly-dog symptoms: skin and ear infections, a slowly growing fatty (and benign) cyst in his groin, cataracts, poor coordination, and general fatigue. I can’t take him on walks; he just doesn’t want to…walk.
Every night before bed, I go through a ritual of affection with him in hopes of making sure he knows he’s loved just in case he dies in his sleep. A few weeks ago, at 3 am, he let out a shocking howl that woke up both Rufus and me. Max’s eyes were still closed, and he seemed to be in pain. I moved his paws a bit, and they were limp.
I felt the blood rush to my face as I thought, Oh my god, it’s happening. I stroked his head for a few moments, and then I lay on my back and put him on my torso. He put his head down on me, still seeming weaker than usual. If these were going to be his last moments, I wanted him to feel comforted.
But after a few minutes, he got off me, walked to his corner of the bed, plopped down and sighed. He seemed OK. I tried to sleep for the next three hours, but I kept wanting to check on Max. By the time my alarm went off, he was awake, and he clumsily hopped off the bed and followed me to the bathroom. Whatever had happened -- a seizure, a nightmare, who knows -- it had passed, and he seemed to be unaffected by it. In fact, he even had some energetic, playful spurts while interacting with Rufus that morning.
Sometimes I think Rufus is the reason Max is still alive. They really enjoy each other’s company, and Rufus is so exuberant that I think it inspires Max to stay as active as he can. But it’s in the moments that Max is whining for no apparent reason or sleeping in the middle of the day that it hits me again and again and again that any day could be my last with him.
When I take Rufus to the dog park and get in conversations with other dog owners, I tell them I have an elderly dog back at my apartment and that I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be around. Expressing my worry out loud makes me a little more comfortable with what will happen sooner or later.
But it keeps being later. I’ve been saying “This could be Max’s last year” for five years. I’ll eventually be right. I may already be. I don’t want to be right, but I accept it. It’s the not knowing when I’ll be right that makes watching him fall asleep every night such a bittersweet experience.
For now, Max seems relatively comfortable -- old, but comfortable. I think I know his personality and body well enough to know when it’ll be time to make that horrible decision; I don’t know if that’s emotionally any easier than coming home one day and finding he’s passed away while I was out.
I just want him to know he’s loved, however and whenever it may happen. Until then, it will constantly be on my mind.