I never met Max. I didn’t have to. I felt as though I knew her (Max was actually short for Maxine) from everything my friend and colleague John said about her.
For all of the 10 years I've known John, his blue heeler dog Max has been a focal point in his life. She was his friend, his companion, his playmate and probably the best Frisbee disc catcher in this part of the country. Along with his wife, Max was John’s family, and he loved her in ways that he didn’t fully appreciate until she died a couple of weeks ago.
“I guess I didn’t really think about how much she meant to me until she was gone,” John told me the other day. “For 17 years, she has just always been there. Everywhere I went, everything I did, Max was right there as my little buddy. We hiked hundreds of miles together. We took dozens of trips together. It isn’t that all of my memories of the past 17 years are built around her; it’s just that it’s hard for me to think of anything we did in that time in which Max isn’t at least part of the memory.
“And now ... I don’t know. It just seems so strange not to have her there.”
John and his wife first met Max when she was about six months old. They carefully trained her and filled her life with activity and love. Though the activities became less ... you know ... active during Max’s later years, the love between the three of them continued unabated.
“For a lot of people, the family dog is part of a big group that includes a lot of other people: parents, children, cousins, uncles, aunts,” John said. “For us, it was just us. I’m not going to say Max was like our child, because I don’t know what it feels like to have a child. But Max was an important part of our lives. And we miss her.”
A lot of people have a hard time understanding John’s reaction to Max’s passing. To them, Max was just a dog — a really cool dog, with a ton of personality, to be sure. But still, a dog. John gets that, and he doesn’t expect everyone to understand. To be honest, he doesn’t understand it himself. He’s an engineer, and he tends to view life in very reasonable, rational ways. And the sense of loss he is feeling since Max’s death is neither reasonable nor rational.
But it is how he feels.
I could see it in his eyes the other day as I told him about an unreasonable, irrational feeling that swept over me as I drove along a busy street near the office building in which we both work. The Alzheimer’s care center in which my father lived for a period of time is on that street, and for some reason on this particular day I had a flashback to driving up this street so often during that time to visit my father.
“It’s been 10 years since Dad died,” I told John. “I’ve driven on that street hundreds of times since then. But today, for some reason, I just really missed him. I have no idea why.”
But John did. “It’s because you loved your dad,” he said simply, smiling in a way that suggested that he understands loving — and missing.
I’ve been thinking about John, Max and Dad the past few days, and it occurs to me that love is the ultimate two-sided coin. Dad used to say that “love is the greatest thing in the world.” And he was right. Love brings us the greatest joy and happiness we can feel in this life. But because we love, pain and anguish also come into our lives. In fact, I can’t think of a way in which you can have the former without the latter.
And John and I have decided that’s OK. If the exquisite sorrow of loss is part of the price we pay for the blessing of love in our lives, it’s worth it.
“I wouldn’t trade one of those memories for less pain today,” John said. “Not one.”
And I’m sure Max and Dad would agree, wherever they are.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com.