I’ve been getting just a ton of really great, wonderful e-mails from readers of Marley & Me. The good news is that I just love hearing from all of you; I laugh at your funny stories and share your ache at the inevitable goodbyes all dog lovers eventually face. The bad news is that I just cannot possibly answer each one personally, as I would like. I started out trying valiantly to do so. But with each week, the backlog grows. And as my agent keeps reminding me, ahem, I’m supposed to be working on a proposal for my next book, not spending all day chatting away. So instead, I want you to know that I do indeed read every single e-mail I receive, and that I’m enjoying them even if I can’t respond individually to most of them. Every now and again I will post one here on my blog that particularly resonates.
Which brings me to this very funny and very touching note I received from a medical doctor about his late, great (well, OK, that term is open to interpretation) dalmation, Max. As you will read, Max was a total character. Like Marley, he was one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs you never forget. Here’s his story. It’s long but worth reading to the end. From Tony C.:
Dear Mr. Grogan,
I bought your book, Marley and Me, this afternoon while waiting to board a flight at LaGuardia Airport in New York. I don’t know what drew me to it- perhaps the subtitle, “The world’s worst dog”. I laughed and thought, “no way.” I’ve already finished the book. Couldn’t put it down.
I wanted to thank you for bringing back a rush of memories about my old Dalmatian, Max. He was my Marley.
I got Max when I was just finishing my first year of medical school in St. Louis in 1991. I drove 180 miles to a place near the Lake of the Ozarks, to a backyard breeder my dad had told me he had found in a newspaper. Dad figured I needed some company.
Max was one of only two pups in his litter. His three other siblings were stillborn. I was told originally that I couldn’t have him, because he was already promised to another family. However, when it became apparent that he had a “patch ear”- Dalmatians are born completely white, with no spots- and they didn’t want him, because a patch ear is a disqualification flaw for a show Dal. It’s a totally black ear. Their loss became my lifetime gain. Boy, did it.
I went to the kennel to meet him, and was immediately greeted by a rambunctious black and white ball of fur who would not stop climbing on me. I knew he was for me. I paid for him, the best 190 dollars I have ever spent, and drove back to St. Louis with my new companion. I had already chosen his name.
I suppose I should have known I was in for trouble when on the drive home, he wouldn’t stay still unless I allowed him to climb up into my lap. Once there, he would curl into a ball and go to sleep. Occasionally, I’d try to move him to the passenger seat. I’d set him down, and he’d immediately crawl across the parking brake and into my lap, where he’d once again fall asleep.
I wasn’t as forceful with him as you were with Marley. When I put him in his box the first night, the whining drove me crazy. I went to the kitchen, and moved Max and his box into my bedroom so he wouldn’t disturb my roomate. The whining wouldn’t stop. Finally, I relented, and put him in the bed with me. Not quite good enough. He finally quieted down and fell into a sound sleep when he was right next to my head. This started a tradition. He wouldn’t settle down until I let him next to my head.
He was a wild puppy. My roomate and I would go out for an evening to douse the pressure of medical school. Upon our return, we’d be greeted by Max jumping up and down on the couch, with the garbage strewn all over the house. It was as if he had to spread the garbage so that it would cover the entire floor. And when we came home, he’d be standing on the couch with his tail flying around, looking at us with his bright brown eyes as if to say, “Hey! Look what I did while you were gone! Isn’t it great?”
We took to keeping him in the kitchen when we were out, to limit the damage. We built a small barricade, about three feet high. That kept him out of the rest of the house for about two weeks. He’d climb right over it. The barricade gradually grew in size to nearly seven feet tall- we left six inches from the top of the doorjam. People who would come into the house thought we were holding King Kong in there. They were pretty much right.
Max found some new playthings while in the kitchen. His favorite was taking down the dishrack. He wouldn’t do anything with the dishes, but we had steak knives with wooden handles. For a while, at least. He’d get them down on the floor and chew all the wood right off them. We couldn’t afford new ones, so our guests thought we were like Aboriginies or something.
One night, we came home, and he had learned a new trick. He’d managed to pull up a corner of the linoleum tile in the kitchen. Once he got a corner up, it opened up a whole new world. We let him out, and to our horror, he had stripped the entire floor of the linoleum tile. He was quite proud of himself. Suffice to say, our landlord was less than pleased.
Like Marley, he turned into a monster. Dals usually reach about 55 pounds at maturity. Not Max. By the time he was a year old, he was already 75 pounds of pure, unadultered fury. Windows? Forget it. He would crash right through them. Screens? Lasted about 10 seconds. Tug toys designed to last three months? Lucky if they lasted three hours. He could unwrap the cover and core of a softball in about 10 minutes.
Max had his peculiarities. He could be resting on the couch, and I’d say, “Max, want to go to bed?” and he’d leap up and sprint into the bedroom. By the time I got there, he’d be lounging on the bed with a “what took you so long?” look in his eyes. When I had to study, he wouldn’t leave me alone. He’d climb up in my chair with me and put his paws and snout right in my textbook. He was a real character. I bought a harness for him. I’d take him to the nearby park, attach his harness to him and lace up my roller blades. He’d pull me around the park until I made him stop. But, like Marley, when I was sick or just not feeling up to it, he knew when it was time to shut it down. In those instances, he’s simply climb onto the couch with me, lay in my lap and go to sleep.
I moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1995 to go through my surgical residency. My then girlfriend, now my wife, moved with me from Long Island. Max became the third member of the house. Or, perhaps, the first member. Cathy would freak out when he climbed in bed with us, so he had to be broken of that. It took a while, but he did it. He’d sit with his head on my side of the bed while I scratched him. When he had enough, he’d saunter off into my den and climb up onto his new “bed”.
We never did totally break him of his love for sleeping on the furniture. Cathy and I would go out, and he’d go to sleep on a couch we allowed him on in the dining room. When we came home, the pillows on the living room couch would be tossed around. It was obvious he had been up there. He never could hide his guilt. When he did something he knew he shouldn’t, he’d “smile” at us when we got home. He’d pull his lips back and sort of snarl- it’s called a “smarle” and is a peculiarity of the breed. We’d go over to the living room couch and it would still be warm.
We moved to Florence, South Carolina when I finished my training. Max was eight at the time, and like Marley, was beginning to slow down. He’d still play whenever I wanted. We’d play tug, we’d play fetch, we’d wrestle, whatever I wanted to do almost every night. And as soon as I wanted the roughhousing to stop, I’d just say, “OK, buddy, that’s enough,” and it would end, and he’d come over and lick my face and plop down in my lap to get a belly rub. He knew exactly what the game was.
Gradually, he slowed. He started having trouble with his hips. He began to drag his back legs a bit, and the outside steps that he had once bounded up with consummate ease became his nemesis. As he started pushing 12 and over, he really slowed. He started doing things like messing in the house, which he never did. I never scolded him. I knew it wasn’t his fault.
He started to fall down on the wood floors. Cathy would call me and tell me he couldn’t get up. I’d come home, and as soon as he saw me – much like Marley was with you – he’d spring right up to his feet and greet me as if nothing was wrong. I told Cathy he was just being lazy- but I knew all was not right.
I spent more and more time with him. I’d just lay on the floor with him for hours on end. He loved it. He would curl up right next to me and go to sleep. I’d rub his belly and scratch his ears- oh, man, how he loved that- for hours. I knew the time was coming.
On November 29, 2004, the time came. He was having a terrible night. He was pacing fitfully and wouldn’t lie down. When he finally would lie down, he’d whimper as he tried to get up. I spent all night on the floor with him trying to comfort him. I took him outside, and I couldn’t get him to come up the stairs- not even with a bait of hamburgers. He just stared at me with this forlorn look in his eyes, as if to say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it anymore.”
I called my vet, who was kind enough to come over and take him to the hospital. I was afraid I couldn’t get him into the car. I cradled his old muzzle and gave him a kiss. About an hour later, I got the call – I knew what was wrong. His hips were OK, but he had a spur on his lumbar spine that was compressing his spinal cord. There were two options- operate on a 12 and a half year old dog, or- do the right thing. Which, sadly, I did.
I was a wreck for about six weeks. I had to take one day off work, something I’ve never done, not with 104 degree fevers, not with having my gallbladder out, not with multiple sinus surgeries. Each day, when I would drive home, I’d pass the animal hospital. I would cry each time. About six weeks after I put him down, I went to thank my vet for his help in Max’s last hours. I got about three words out of my mouth and my voice started to break. Dr. H. just put his hand on my shoulder. He didn’t have to say anything. He knew what I wanted to tell him.
Last February, we got a new Dalmatian puppy, Casey. He is a lot like Max, but different. He has his destructive tendencies; he’s already dug through the dry wall in three different spots in our laundry room, which is “his” room. But I never scold him. Never even crosses my mind. Even if it does look like a scene from “Escape From Alcatraz” in there. I know he’s not trying to be destructive. And I know, much to my chagrin, that his time will come, too. But like Max, I’m going to make the most of it. We have no children. He is our child. Just as Max was.
I haven’t had time to vent much after Max’s death. I feel sort of stupid about it. I see human suffering every day, but not one instance, not one, has touched me like that dog’s passing did. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t wonder if something’s wrong with me.
Now, after reading about Marley, I know there’s nothing wrong with me. Like you, I’m totally normal. Thanks, Mr. Grogan. Thanks for a wonderful trip down memory lane. Something inside me can rest more peacefully tonight.
Sincerely, Tony C.
Whoa there now, Tony. My wife would definitely like to disagree with you about using me as a standard for normal. But let’s keep telling ourselves we are. Thanks for your story… I loved it, especially the part about Max racing into bed at the slightest invitation. Such a guy!