My industrious assistant Max the Pekingese died today. Why write about it on this blog? Well, I dedicated the second edition of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting in part to him; I hope that’s enough of an excuse.
Max joined us nine years ago, after he was found wandering the not-so-mean streets of our town, Garden City. I’d never had a dog before. We had discussed, in an altogether sensible manner, how we might go about getting one, but that was short-circuited when we found ourselves providing a home for Max on some three hours’ notice.
Max had a tough last few years. He ruptured a disk, then developed cancer. We lavished him with care and attention, to an extent that was clearly irrational. But he was part of our family; we had no choice. Time and his ailments took his best steps away from him, and over the past couple of years I cut quite a figure in the community: we’d go out walking, he’d make it a couple of blocks, or a few houses over, and I’d carry him home.
Max was endlessly adorable. With his infant-sized body, his fluffy coat, and his big eyes, he was a living teddy bear. He also had an imperious, Winston-Churchill-as-dog quality about him, with his dignified manner, his smooshed-in muzzle, his snaggle teeth, and the way his bowed front legs give him a rolling gait, a swaggering waddle, like a sailor on shore leave. I was aware that he triggered in me instincts designed for things other than spoiling a dog, but I didn’t begrudge him his success at duping me.
In his prime, he was a grab-bag of endearing behaviors. We’d walk for miles; he’d do his best to insist on going the way he wanted to go. He’d bark the moment anyone set foot on the walk to our front door. He’d chase and savage an assortment of stuffed things. When he was hungry, he’d park himself in front of me and shift his weight back and forth from one front paw to the other. During nighttime thunderstorms, he’d insist on clambering to the highest point of our bed, which usually meant he’d end up draped over my head. When we’d be having a serious discussion with our daughter, Max would seek to lighten the mood by doing his party trick, which involved pivoting on his front legs and energetically spinning around on his rear, his ears flapping. In other words, he was scratching his ass, but he’d obviously gotten enough of a response from this routine that he had decided to turn it into entertainment.
Of course, Joanne and I were entirely too pathetic. We’d give him dopey names. We’d sing bits of doggerel in his honor. He spurned dog food, so we prepared entirely upscale meals for him.
But I’d never describe myself as a doggie person. I have no time for “unconditional love” folderol. For the longest time I struggled to articulate to myself how I saw my role, until I read Adam Gopnik’s article “Dog Story,” in which he says that dogs are “the dignified dual citizens who plead the case for all of mute creation with their human owners.” That captured it perfectly for me. (That’s why he’s Adam Gopnik and I’m the contract-drafting guy.)
The life force I saw in Max is the same life force I see in every living creature. We humans deserve the hell we inflict on each other; animals don’t deserve the hell we inflict on them. I wish I could do more to stop the endless savagery and destruction we visit on the natural world, but looking after Max was all I could do.
There are of course countless Maxs out there, so sentimentality is an indulgence. But I’ll permit myself to indulge for a moment, just to mark the passing of a dignified companion into memory.