I’m being hard on myself. I had plenty of reason. Last Monday I got word that my dear friend Max, a 10 year old Cockapoo, had passed on. His mom found out that he had cancer a few months back and had gone to great lengths to try to postpone the inevitable. I remember staying with Max one night, just after his mom had gotten the news. She knew that the cancer was very aggressive and even if the chemo worked, it would be temporary. Granted, any and all fixes are temporary. Every dog will die. His people will die too. And no matter how much time you have, or how much you see it coming, it’s never really long enough. There’s always something else you wanted to do or say. But I thought that maybe I could just enjoy the time I had with Max. And I did. But I wanted to cry my eyes out when I said goodbye to him, not sure how long he’d be around. Not sure if this would be the last time. I controlled myself for the most part because I didn’t want to upset him.
Luckily, I saw Max many more times. I took him to the park that he loved, marveling at how well he was doing. I stopped wanting to break down every time I said goodbye to him. We had more time. More walks, playdates, and luxurious butt scratchings. I loved them all. Max was a great boy, “a good man,” as I liked to tell him. He was always so damned happy to go for a walk (as most dogs are, but especially him.) Max was very polite and so well mannered, he was such a pleasure to spend time with. So much so that I couldn’t really hold it against him when we went to the park and he went straight for the muddy water, followed by an enthusiastic roll in the leaves. He’d make a mess of himself, which meant more work for me, but it always made me laugh.
As hard as it was, I am so grateful that I got to spend some time with Max in his last few days. We weren’t sure when it was coming, but he had slowed down. His mom was understandably reluctant to leave him alone for very long, so I filled in the gaps as much as I could. Most of the time, I didn’t cry. But the second to last time I saw him, I told him that I wanted him to send my love to Mona. And of course, Mona was part of the reason why losing Max hit me so hard. That’s my problem with so much these days. I end up being reminded of things that I’ve been trying desperately to stuff into a box to deal with later. My problem is, later shows up too soon.
I had been putting off seeing my oncologist for a long time. I saw every other doctor and had all the appropriate exams. I just couldn’t face the idea of going back to the 9th floor. But I had to do it eventually, so I went on Thursday. The timing was bad. I was really heart broken about Max. My already shoddy sleep was worse than usual. I was sad and exhausted as I watched the numbers climb on the elevator. All I had to do was stand in that hallway and I was overwhelmed. My first visit to oncology with my husband and my stepmother- he and I making jokes the whole time in an attempt to not think about what we were doing there. I walked down the hall and looked at the floor to ceiling windows on my left. A memory of my dad standing there leveled me. I had to stop and catch my breath before I went in to oncology.
Thankfully, it was late in the day. Most of the people that had come for chemo were already in the back getting their treatments. I made the mistake of asking the receptionist if my chemo nurse was working that day. She smiled and told me that Nurse Jackie had retired at the beginning of the month. My face gave me away. Again, I was so close to losing it. The girl told me I could go wait in the vitals room and someone would be with me soon. I did lose it a little bit while I was there. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to see Jackie so badly, though I knew that she would ask about my dad, and that I would cry like a baby-just as I had when I went in for a treatment after my husband had left. I wanted Jackie to hold my hand and soothe my heart.
I pulled it together long enough to have my vitals taken and be called back to my doctor. She was so happy to see me. This was the woman who had cried when I showed up for my last appointment in a wheelchair. “Why do these things keep happening to you?” She had said. But back then, I was okay. I was in a wheelchair, but I didn’t feel broken. This time was different. This time everything was hitting me. This time I felt more broken than I had in a long time. And in the safety of her office, I lost my shit. It wasn’t for more than a minute, but I was relieved to get it out. We talked for a long time about everything. My exam went well and she promised to send a message to Nurse Jackie for me.
Going home, I felt so much lighter. Anticipation is so often my worst enemy. As a person who prides herself on being fearless, I’m a coward when it comes to facing heavy things. It seems so much easier to do anything else. I gave Max’s mom as much support as I knew how, but at the end, I ran out as soon as I could. I didn’t have it in me to smile, just imagining how much her heart was breaking. I couldn’t talk about losing Max and losing Mona and have any kind of decorum. I couldn’t talk about how empty the window seat would look without Max, watching me come to the door, then running to great me in the hallway, his heart bursting with joy. Just because I had shown up to see him. I couldn’t stand to say it. I couldn’t even think about it.
The thing about dogs is that they don’t hold back. We don’t expect them to. Maybe that’s how a dog manages to burrow its way into our deepest, most protected parts. That kind of honesty is hard to resist. The day before he died, Max greeted me with his typical unbridled enthusiasm. We walked around the block and I carried his now tender feet through the snow banks. We played fetch in the living room and sat on the window seat for a long scratch. I’m certain that he knew his time was up, but there was no fear. I looked into his eyes and only saw Max. A beautiful and honest creature that chased every ball that was thrown for him, knowing better than to waste an opportunity. Dogs are smart that way. They live every moment to its fullest potential, understanding that death is just another part of life.