The Dog Who Saved Our Fam­ily

Reader's Digest - - Life Well Lived - BY GRACE EVANS

WE MET MAX at the cargo pickup area of Alaska Air­lines. A stan­dard poo­dle born on Valen­tine’s Day in 2002, he came to us in a small blue crate. We had adopted him from an out-of-state breeder, and our only re­quest was that he have a calm de­meanor, able to en­dure the pok­ing and cud­dling of our eight-year-old daugh­ter and six-year-old son.

We were a sweet lit­tle fam­ily— me, my hus­band, and our chil­dren, So­phie and Jake. But for years I’d felt as if we wouldn’t re­ally be com­plete un­til we had a dog. Also, my hus­band trav­eled some 200 days a year for his job, and I knew I’d feel safer with a large an­i­mal sleep­ing by the door.

When we opened the crate, the last piece of our puz­zle fell into place. With his curly black hair and in­tel­li­gent eyes, Max was beau­ti­ful. He was so small that he fit into the palm of my hand, his big paws lap­ping over the sides. He was also scared. As I pulled him close, I felt his heart pound and won­dered if we’d done the right thing, tak­ing him from his mother. But it was too late. So­phie and Jake were al­ready fight­ing over who would hold him next.

Over the fol­low­ing months, we spent end­less hours watch­ing Max play with his Kong toy or roll around the liv­ing room rug. Like most poo­dles, he was smart. He mas­tered house-train­ing quickly and never chewed on our fur­ni­ture or shoes. He had lit­tle in­ter­est in his kib­ble and never quite saw the point of play­ing

We wanted a guard dog, but we had no idea how much he would pro­tect us

fetch, a pur­suit for—sniff!—dogs. He con­sid­ered him­self one of us.

Some days af­ter school, I’d find Jake curled up with Max in­side his crate. When I sug­gested that my son get out of the dog crate, Jake yelled, “Max wants me in here! We’re broth­ers!”

By his first birth­day, Max had grown into a vig­i­lant 50-pound guard dog. He manned the front door like a Marine, bark­ing fe­ro­ciously at ter­ri­ers and Chi­huahuas walk­ing by. At night, he sit­u­ated him­self so he could watch all three bed­rooms and the back door. I felt safe with him there, es­pe­cially when my hus­band was away. Some­times, when I was miss­ing my hus­band a lot, I held Max close. It com­forted me as I longed for the man who made me laugh, the man I adored.

Years passed. The kids grew and started mid­dle school and high school. Then one day, shortly be­fore So­phie’s se­nior year, our world fell apart. So­phie dis­cov­ered an e-mail ac­count full of mes­sages be­tween my hus­band and one of my friends. They’d been hav­ing an af­fair for years.

My hus­band in­sisted on a di­vorce. I grieved so deeply, I felt as though

I’d been wid­owed. I tried to keep ev­ery­thing sta­ble for So­phie and

Jake: mak­ing meals, pay­ing bills, let­ting them know I was there for their grief too. But see­ing the weight of my sor­row, they hes­i­tated to lean on me. So they turned to Max.

Jake, in par­tic­u­lar, was bereft. He was a 15-year-old boy in a home with no fa­ther, strug­gling to be­come a man. I some­times caught him cry­ing as he suited up for foot­ball. Un­so­licited, Max would lick Jake’s hand—he no longer waited for a cut or a scrape. He sensed the wounds were much deeper.

So­phie went off to col­lege. She loved school and made the dean’s list her first se­mes­ter. But when she stepped off the plane af­ter her sopho­more fall se­mes­ter, she looked like a home­less per­son. Her hair was mat­ted. She had a blan­ket draped around her. I was shocked, won­der­ing where my beau­ti­ful girl had gone.

She didn’t go back to school. In­stead she stayed home sleep­ing all day, curled into Max. When he kept jump­ing off her twin bed, she set up a sleep­ing mat in our liv­ing room.

She lay there cling­ing to him, 15 to 20 hours a day. All that time—as I strug­gled to get her help, try­ing to fig­ure out what was wrong—max lay by her side. I re­al­ize now he was keep­ing her alive. A few months af­ter com­ing home, she told us what had hap­pened: At col­lege, she’d been raped.

Some days I’d find Jake curled up with Max in­side his crate. “We’re broth­ers!” Jake said.

As So­phie turned to al­co­hol to numb her pain, our home filled with ten­sion. Jake started smok­ing pot to calm him­self. On bet­ter days, he’d take Max for hikes in the hills above our house. Max leaped at the chance to get out. But he al­ways re­turned to So­phie’s side.

Truth be told, Max was the sta­bi­liz­ing force in our fam­ily then. He was the one we turned to when we could not turn to one an­other.

Around this time, I hired a “house healer,” hop­ing she could rid our home of the neg­a­tive en­ergy left from the di­vorce. The woman shooed me out, al­low­ing only Max to stay in­side. She went through the house, clear­ing it of bad en­ergy. Af­ter she fin­ished, she said, “You know this is a very spe­cial dog, right?” I nod­ded.

“He’s here to play a very im­por­tant role in your fam­ily,” she said.

Af­ter that, things slowly started to turn around. I was able to get So­phie into a res­i­den­tial treat­ment fa­cil­ity. We sold our house and moved to a pret­tier one, with fewer painful mem­o­ries. Jake went off to col­lege.

And then, sud­denly, I was alone. I had loved my fam­ily wildly, all of them, and they had left. Ex­cept for Max. He fol­lowed me from room to room, look­ing at me as if I’d hung the moon, some­times stay­ing so close I nearly tripped over him. When I saw this el­e­gant an­i­mal look­ing at me this way, I started to see it too. Maybe I was wor­thy of be­ing adored.

As time went on, Max grew deaf and blind. His joints be­came creaky. He grew less perky on our walks. Some­times I’d look at him and say, “Don’t even think about it.” I felt I’d lost so much that I couldn’t bear to lose him too.

One day, I found him par­a­lyzed in the hind legs. A few days later, he went into con­ges­tive heart fail­ure. Jake flew home to be there when we said good­bye. By then, Max had stopped eat­ing and drink­ing. All he could do was lie on the floor. So Jake pulled the sleep­ing mat out again— the one So­phie had used for that ter­ri­ble year—and lay be­side Max all night. I took a pic­ture: a boy and his dog. A boy and his brother.

When we took him to the vet, I thanked Max for all he’d done for our fam­ily. Pulling him close, Jake said, “Thank you for be­ing there when I felt like no one else was. You were my best friend.”

Then Max was gone. Yet all along, he had known what we were just learn­ing: Even with­out him, we were al­ready com­plete.

When I saw Max look­ing at me, I started to see it too. Maybe I was wor­thy of be­ing adored.

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