A few days before Christmas, my mum and dad left four year-old me with my Grandmother for a few hours because, they said, they needed to do a little shopping. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. I’d been pining after a walkie-talkie doll for what seemed like forever, so I remember being excited at the implication that they would be picking one up for me.
Besides, my gran kept a store of books and toys, all selected from the various second-hand stores and charity shops she frequented, in a secret cupboard , and was apt to let me have not one but two biscuits as a treat, so I was happy to oblige.
Sure enough, under the tree there was a cardboard box. But it wasn’t doll-shaped.
Instead, it was filled with an old blanket and, I realized as I got closer, a small, wiggly puppy who tried to scrabble his way over to meet me.
“Where’d he come from?” I asked.
“He’s yours, for Christmas!” My mother explained.
“When do I have to give him back?”
My response, now famous in family lore, speaks to the flaws in my character: not only am so much the pedant that I take everything absolutely literally, I was already worrying about the heartbreak of having to return him in the new year. There was no living in the moment for me, even as a pre-schooler!
Of course, I did not have to give him back. That wooly little ball of sharp teeth that scampered out of his makeshift bed and into my lap that afternoon would become my best friend, forever consigning the plastic doll I thought I wanted to the realm of the also-ran.
Max-a-million, his kennel name, but always known as Max, was sixteen weeks when my parents picked him up. Four months is old for a pup to go to a new home, but although he was homesick for the first little while, he seemed decide early on that he was here to stay. To that end, he dug small holes all over the garden in anticipation of stored treasures to come, and claimed a spot by the kitchen radiator that was as cozy for him as it was inconvenient for the rest of us to maneuver around.
He also determined that his job in life would be to protect me, his ersatz sibling, from the world. As I played in the garden, he would follow my every move, investigating along with me, nosing the pebbles I collected and the daisy-chains I made. When I walked on the garden wall, he would jump up and follow behind me, navigating its low castellations with cat-like ease. It was only when the wall ran out that he would become flummoxed by his doggy body: where I could turn around, he was stuck performing a slightly graceless commando roll into the compost heap.
He was, we discovered, a character of Joycean complexity living in an unassuming canine disguise. He had an abiding hatred of the neighbourhood foxes and would routinely double-back on his walks to exact vendettas upon whichever bushy-tailed miscreant had earned his ire. And yet he displayed surprising weakness for the guile of cats, always giving them the benefit of the doubt, right up until the point were they unceremoniously bopped him on the nose, or otherwise expressed their distaste for his friendly advances.
Likewise, his culinary tastes were remarkably broad. Having once been the beneficiary of an accidental gift of a pan of dropped lasagne, he developed a love of Italian food such that nothing could make him appear faster than the smell of melting mozzarella and provolone. He would shamelessly entreat whomever was chopping vegetables for a prized piece of carrot, but would turn away in disgust from even the suggestion of celery. Once, when one of my fishermen great-uncles brought fresh crab for my father, the smell of the delicacy reduced our poor dog to uncontrollable drooling and howls of frustrated epicurean desire.
We emigrated to Canada when he was nine years old, but despite his relatively advanced age, he took the change in his stride. Snow was a miracle to be celebrated with frantic bouncing in drifts and exuberant barking at snow shovels. Walks in strange river valleys were expeditions of great interest from which he would return home, happy and exhausted, to relive his experiences in noisy dreams by the fire. As though he had been born and raised on the prairies, he was dutifully wary of porcupines, bemused by hares, and incensed by the very presence of squirrels in his garden. Watching his adaptation, the joy he exuded at each new sight, smell, and event made our own experience of adjustment that much easier, that much more like a grand adventure.
In many ways, Max became the sibling I never had: my childhood friend and playmate, enduring being dressed in doll’s clothes and made to sit a tea parties with long-suffering grace; my companion and confidante as a teenager, his soft face and warm touch easing those many, now-forgotten adolescent miseries.
But he was also my mentor, teaching me lessons about life and how to live it. His unerring gentleness with me and my small friends, despite our demanding behaviour and irritating whims, implicitly gave me a model for the steady, loving hand I strive to use with my own children. When he and I were attacked by another dog, his fierce, unflinching protection showed me what it meant to love something more than your own life. And when he was sick, his soft tongue on the back of my hand and the knowing look in his clouded eye taught me that death was not something to be feared, but a welcome rest for a tired friend whose old bones were aching though his heart would always remain true.