“Dad, are you feeling okay?” My father in-law was sweating profusely and his coloring was off, not his usual florid pink….more gray.
“I’m fine”, he said, “just a bit tired this morning.”
He wasn’t fine, though. Even as oblivious as I can be, I could see he was in trouble. So I called Deb down from upstairs to have her take a look at him. She was an E/R nurse and it only took her a minute to say “call 911”. Her father was in the throes of a full blown heart attack. Not surprising, considering how active he was for a man of 75. Bill was a force of nature, a bull of a man who somehow managed to navigate through our china-shop lives without getting more than a bruise or a scratch, or maybe the occasional cold. But today he was in trouble.
I could go into the details, but since this story isn’t really about Bill (his tale comes later), I’ll just tell you that he managed to make it to the hospital and went through the angioplasty procedure there with flying colors. He was home a few days later and ready to resume his normal rigorous routine of home repair and yard mowing. You’d be tempted to say “All’s well that ends well”…..but you’d be wrong.
“Dad, are you feeling okay?” (Deja-vu all over again). Once again Bill’s coloring was off. But this time, instead of the healthy pink or ashen grey, Dad was yellow. Not a yellow tint, but a blatant taxi-cab yellow. Another dash to the hospital confirmed that somehow, during his angioplasty he had contracted Hepatitis C, a nasty blood borne illness. The hepatitis was attacking his liver and throwing his blood chemistry off, causing his skin to have that yellow glow. The bad news was, except for the heart attack, he had been a perfectly healthy man. However, this hepatitis was incurable and would eventually kill him.
The weeks and months that followed were nightmarish for us all. Dad, who was normally the life of the party and raring to get going on any new project, had overnight become a frail old man, unable to navigate across the room, or sometimes not even able to dress himself. He endured the cruelty of his condition as best he could. And as we cared for him at home, we all did our best to deal with the level of care he needed, choking back our outrage at the injustice of his being saved from his heart attack only to have contracted this horribly debilitating disease.
The days stretched into weeks, and months as Dad’s condition continued to deteriorate. With his liver under attack, his blood chemistry would swing violently one way or another, and this began to affect his ability to think clearly. This marvelous man, this husband and father, would forget how to dress himself. Never at a loss for words before, Bill couldn’t find the words he wanted anymore. And so, was often unable to express his thoughts or needs to those of us, his family, who now cared for him night and day.
My own efforts were mainly limited to emotional support for my wife, her mother, our kids, and yes, for Dad too. Dad and I would sit together as he tried to describe his day, his feelings, or the details he wanted me to handle after he died. The lion’s share of Dad’s care fell to his wife of fifty-five years. Gert began and ended her days taking care of Bill, helping him dress, bathe, eat and move from bed to chair and back to bed. When Deb returned from work at the end of her shift at the hospital, she’d fill in for Gert as best she could and more than once provided her mother a shoulder that Gert could lean and cry on.
As time dragged on, our days became a never-ending series of Dad’s mishaps as his mind and body gave way to the ravages of his disease. Each day was a replay of the previous one, with his condition worsening in an excruciating day by day manner. And over time, the pace and quality of our existence slowed to match that of Dad’s. So much so that we all descended into a hellish depression and it became a struggle to console each other anymore.
I realized then, that as Dad’s condition was only going to get worse, something would have to be done to change our focus and (hopefully) his.
And so I now come to the subject of this story (finally).
It was the 1st Christmas since Dad’s diagnosis and the dark cloud of his condition had kept any light of the holiday season from warming our home. I arrived one night after work and walked into my in-law’s living room where Dad & Gert were seated. Their inability to deal with their situation (or each other) anymore was palpable. How do you deal with your life or your loved one’s life when there’s just too much pain and not enough hope?
But I was going to give it a try anyway.
Unzipping my jacket in showman-like fashion, I presented them with the tiniest ball of fur they had ever seen. The little Shih-Tzu puppy was all of 8 weeks old and weighed about a pound and a half. Two large Marty-Feldman-like eyes peered out of the little ewok face, taking in the new surroundings with a very serious gaze. I had belabored my decision about getting a puppy, knowing that everyone already had their hands more than full with taking care of Dad. But my instincts told me that if we were going to pull out of our depressions, all of us (including Dad) needed to focus on life, not death. And there are very few things in this world that say “LIFE” more than children and puppies. Since another child could not be arranged (at least not quickly), I figured a puppy was just the ticket. And it would have to be a puppy that was so immediately loveable that no one would be able to object to my new family addition. Hence, I chose this little champagne & white Shih-Tzu. And it was obvious from everyone’s reaction….I was right.
Gert, who had been sitting with a deadpan expression, pretending to be watching some TV program, suddenly broke out into a huge smile and started gushing baby-talk at my little companion. Dad, who had spent the last several days in a silent depression, sat up, grinning from ear to ear, and started chattering away about the size of our new family member. And in that split second, that’s what he had become, our newest family member. The puppy was unimpressed with the adults in the room and while they gushed and ooh’d and ahh’d, he commenced perusing the room, sniffing this and that. When he was satisfied that our home was marginally acceptable, he expressed his satisfaction by squatting on the carpet and having a pee, this much to the delight of my mother in-law.
I was amazed! This from a woman who fussed over every little spill or coffee cup ring, and she was positively in love with this miniature mutt who had just whizzed on her floor. (Go figure)
Deb determined that our new addition would be named Maximillian, “Max” for short. Although I argued at the time that we should call him Murphy since he never barked, but just “mrrphd”. Max didn’t seem to mind though and took to his new moniker like it was meant to be.
And suddenly, the world changed for us all. Dad was still sick and still facing death. He still required the same level of care. But somehow, our focus (and Dad’s) was no longer his care. We were all too taken with life with this little charmer. Max of course was fine with all this attention and was quite happy to be the recipient of the occasional doggie treat or piece of cheese. Dad would gleefully watch as Max displayed his prowess at hunting down and terrorizing the multitudes of stuffed toys he began to accumulate. Max would “grrrph” and “mrrrph” and Dad would cackle with laughter as Max pounced on a fuzzy squirrel or his favorite, a little white sheep. But when Dad began to tire, Max was more than happy to curl up in his lap and take the occasional nap.
It wasn’t all fun and games for Max, though. It’s not an easy task, being a micro dog in a macro world. When he was fully grown, he didn’t weigh over 3 ½ pounds and only stood 8 inches high. The winter after we got him brought snow 2 ft deep. To help the little guy out I dug a random track through the back yard to accommodate his basic needs. Stubborn as he was though, he would try to go off the track to do his business somewhere his nose said would be more appropriate. Introduce 8 inches of dog to 24 inches of snow and you get the idea…
Likewise, he had “socialization” issues. Being king of the hill at your own home doesn’t mean squat to the other dogs in the neighborhood, i.e., the boxers, labs, etc… Max must have had bad eyesight, because he would invariably bark warnings at the neighbor’s dogs, only to have them approach in all their massive girth and send him into a yipping panic attack.
It’s tough to have a lion heart in a chipmunk body, I guess.
In Max, Gert found a friend that she could give and receive affection…something that sadly, had become a rare event since Dad’s diagnosis. It’s hard to open up to love when it’s accompanied by so much pain and regret. So most of us will end up walling off the bad things not realizing that the bad things are the cost of admission for all the good we could receive if we just allowed ourselves to accept what life gives us. And finally, Dad was able to focus on life and love in its purest form. Cause that’s what dogs give us.
And then came that day in June of 2003, when Dad had finally had enough, when he just couldn’t fight it anymore, and we all said goodbye. And though we were all saddened by our loss, we were thankful for the time we had with Dad. And even more thankful that Max had been able to bring our family together prior to Dad’s parting.
Max helped carry us through some very tough times. Dogs do that for us, don’t they? Somehow, their love transcends everything. That wonderful, unconditional love is the gift they bring and we gratefully accept.
That July, less than 2 months after Dad’s death, Jennifer was married in our backyard. Max was there, embarrassingly dolled up for the event. He endured the indignity of it all with his usual aplomb. And he was quite willing to defer much of the attention to the bride, seeing as it was her day after all.
In the months that followed, however…we began to notice Max wasn’t moving quite as well or as often as he usually did. His scampering gradually reduced to a slow walk and he tended to list toward one side or the other. A trip to the vet showed that Max had a degenerative bone disorder. His hips had never fully formed as a puppy and now were getting worse. He was slowing down because he was in a lot of pain. So we gave him the pills the vet prescribed and took him home to care for him as best we could.
Now that Dad was gone and Max no longer had to look after him, it was our turn to take care of our little guy. And this we did gladly. Max was looked after and cared for and treated with all of the dignity and loving care we could muster. Instead of Max running up for a treat, we’d have to seek him out. We’d pick him up, oh so very carefully, because any movement was painful for him.
But eventually we had to make that last trip to the vet. Max had deteriorated to the point that we weren’t sure if he’d see another sunrise. The vet offered little hope and said that she could put an end to his misery or she could try one last time to turn him around, but it would be expensive. Deb and I looked at each other, we didn’t have a lot of money, and Max was probably too far gone at this point. But he was “family”. He had been there when we needed him. And we couldn’t walk away without trying everything we could to save him now.
So we gave the vet the go ahead, praying that whatever treatments she had would be enough to bring Max home to us again….But in the end, Max had to follow Dad.
And so we experienced Max’s “Maximum Love”. But it came at a price.
A price that I’d gladly pay again…and again…and again.