I woke up panting and covered in sweat. Every time I blinked my eyes, I could see him, white against my dark eyelids. He was dead – his body hard and cold. Yet he was alive - standing and walking –, and I was petting his matted lifeless fur. This was the second nightmare about Max I’d had in a couple of months.
Max was eleven years old when he died on June 17th, 2015. I worked early that morning. After my shift, I drove to my boyfriend, Drew’s, house on the other side of town. We spent the day preparing for our trip to Maine the next day – packing, running errands. Around lunchtime, we ended up in the section of town by my house. I knew the dogs were alone, so we thought about going home to grab lunch. But we didn’t. Instead, we got lunch at a sandwich shop nearby and continued our errands.
I spent the rest of the evening at Drew’s house, and then, around 11 o’clock, we took separate cars over to mine. We got out of our cars. I remember smiling about something when I saw my mother walking out of the house and into the driveway. I walked up to her and saw her face. The smile fell from my own.
“Max is dead,” she said quietly.
“No...” My voice trailed off.
I dropped to my knees in the driveway and started to cry. My chest tightened, and I couldn’t breathe. My mom cried watching me, devastated and soaking our driveway in tears. After ten minutes or so, the flow of tears lessened, and I felt nothing but defeat. I fell backwards so I was sitting on the pavement. Drew sat next to me.
“I wanted to tell you before you came inside,” my mom said, “because he’s right by the door.”
My eyes welled up again.
“Do you want to come inside?" she asked.
I nodded, and they both helped me up from the ground. We walked into the house, and I almost tripped over my dog, wrapped in a blanket so I couldn’t see him. Buddy was lying next to him, and got up to say hello to me. My mother’s fiancé, Tony, was inside, and looked apologetically at me. I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter and started to cry. Nobody spoke.
When I had finally run out of tears and sat in silence with everyone else, I heard my brother’s car outside. My mom got up and walked out to him. I stood by the open door. I saw Nick throw his keys into the darkness and walk away from my mother. I shut the door to the house behind me and walked out to him. He was crouched down to the pavement, sobbing. I cried as I watched him and re-lived my own version of this moment. He stood up, and my mom and I hugged him in a bundle of tears and heartbreak.
We followed Nick into the house. He looked at Max’s body and continued to cry. Buddy walked over to greet his owner, and Nick tried to stifle his tears. I returned to my stool, and Nick sat next to me. Around 12:30, my mom told both Tony and Drew that they didn’t have to stay and should go home and get some sleep. I walked Drew out to his car, and he apologized repeatedly. I just wanted him to leave. I didn’t want to stand out in the driveway; I wanted to be inside with my family – with my dog - before I couldn’t any longer.
Eventually Drew went home, and I walked back into the house. My mother stood across the counter from my brother and me. Someone told a story about Max – the time he chased the man over the fence - and another - the time he ate an entire chocolate cake my mom had made my dad for his birthday - and another - all the times he kicked a tennis ball directly at one of us, so we would kick it back and he could catch it in his mouth.
As it approached 1:30, my mother brought up the inevitable. Would we take him to emergency care that night or in the morning? My brother wanted to take him that night. So I agreed with my big brother, while silently voting for the next morning; I wasn’t ready to say goodbye even though Max was already gone.
My mom said, "Okay, we’ll take him tonight," and I erupted into tears and sobs.
My mother, knowing me all too well, decided we would put him in the back of the car that night and take him first thing in the morning.
"Do you want to see him?" she asked us.
My brother shook his head no, so I did the same. My mother went outside to move the car closer to the door and opened the trunk. Then the three of us lifted Max’s body and carried it to the car. We placed him inside, and my mother asked again if we wanted to see him. We shook our heads and closed the trunk.
I couldn’t sleep. I got out of my bed, walked quietly through the house, grabbed my keys and unlocked the car. I opened the trunk. I looked at the lump of blankets and began to cry. I took a deep breath and lifted the blanket from on top of my dog. He looked like a corpse. He was a corpse, I suppose. I reached out to pet him and his body felt like a rock. His floppy ears were stiff and cold. I stood and looked at him for a few moments. I cried into his fur like I always used to. Then I gave him a kiss on his nose, covered him up and closed the trunk.
The next morning, we moved in silence. When we were ready to go, my mom grabbed the keys off the hook by the door, and we climbed into the car. As we drove to the emergency facility in Westford, I thought of the very first time my family drove to Westford with Max in the back of that car. Then he had been young, scared, quivering. Now he was completely still. And the tears from my eyes mixed with Max’s dried drool on the car window.
We pulled into the parking lot and my heartbeat quickened. I wasn’t ready. We all sat in the car for a moment before my mother opened her door and went inside the building to let them know we had arrived. I got out, opened the trunk and placed my hand on Max. My mom came back outside with two women and a cart for Max.
"You’re sure you don’t want to see him?" my mom asked us again.
My brother shook his head but wrapped his arms around Max and said goodbye. I did the same and pushed the blanket back from his face just enough to give him another kiss.
The women lifted Max onto the cart and wheeled him inside. My mom followed. My brother and I waited outside the car, alternating pacing with sitting on the ground crying. Neither of us spoke. After about twenty minutes my mom came back out to the car with two paper plates, one inverted on top of the other. I stupidly thought, Those are his ashes. But my mom lifted the top plate to reveal something else: a paw print, made in clay, with Max’s name beneath it. I cried more than I think I would have if it had been his ashes.
"It’s still drying," my mom said. And she covered it again. "But it was very nice of them".
She looked at our faces and gave us both a hug. Then we climbed back in the car – my mom, my brother and me – and left Max behind.