Alison O'Connor: Maxi helped heal my broken heart but now we have to say goodbye

'No more of the familiar tap tap of small terrier paws around the house' — sixteen years on, our much-loved dog is gone
Alison O'Connor: Maxi helped heal my broken heart but now we have to say goodbye

The beloved family dog, Maxi, who Alison O'Connor recalls first meeting 16 years ago: 'He scampered across the floor, a ball of black fluff with a patch of white on his chest. He fitted into the palm of my hand...'

This column is being written much earlier than normal. I fear I won’t be able to write it afterwards. There are just a few hours left before something awful happens and my psychological state is veering between disbelief and desolation.

At 6.30pm we will, as a family, arrive at the vets with our 16-year-old dog Maxi. He is being put down. I can’t quite believe it is happening, but I yet know it is the correct decision. 

Maxi has given us so much for so long. Now we must do the right thing by him.

After incredibly good health for so long — although he has been on heart medication, he’s not a total miracle dog, you know — he took a turn for the worse about two weeks ago. We were hoping it was a canine bug that’s been going around. But it’s just time catching up with him.

It’s been a weekend of tears and trying to make just a few more memories with a little guy full of personality who has been at the centre of our family for so long. As the kids have kept reminding us over recent days, they have never known a life without him. The waiting is just horrible but there is a gift in having a chance to say goodbye, to go back over old times, and let it all out when it comes to how sad we’re all feeling.

I hardly remember life without him myself. We grew up with dogs but, after moving to Dublin, for years the comfort of canines had to be reserved to visits home. But then I experienced a traumatic late pregnancy loss and felt pain and grief unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. 

One morning shortly after that I woke and decided we needed a dog. I rang our wonderful vet Dick — whom I already knew — and told him my story and, within 72 hours, he was back to say a puppy had been abandoned in a local park and did we want to come and see him. No obligation.

That first moment I saw Maxi remains imprinted on my brain. 

He scampered across the floor, a ball of black fluff with a patch of white on his chest. He fitted into the palm of my hand. On the way down there, my husband had been giving it the “we’ll take a look at him and have a chat about it after” vibe. But he knew, he says — watching that moment of connection — that the decision was already made.

The pup was eight weeks old. He started out as Max but by later that afternoon — without any input from me — he had been given the name Maxi López, after an Argentinian soccer player. There was a World Cup on at the time.

The healing power of a good dog

At that point, I was in the early stages of a high-risk pregnancy that required a really tedious amount of lying around the place and still dealing with the raw grief that often floored me. Having Maxi to care for and cuddle and have fun with is what got me through. It helped to heal my broken heart.

'Over the years when there was upset or a row, it was to Maxi the children turned for comfort.' Stock picture
'Over the years when there was upset or a row, it was to Maxi the children turned for comfort.' Stock picture

So the arrival of a newborn baby after such pampering and individual attention could have been a recipe for disaster. But Maxi was a hero. We made sure to pay him attention, though. I can’t understand people who cast the dog out in the cold once a child arrives. Ultimately it shows such a lack of wisdom, because the connection between dogs and kids is just a magical thing to observe.

He tolerated all the toddler maulings. 

As time went on, it came good though. There were all the walks to and from nursery school, a total of 11 years of first days back at primary school, and all the intervening school runs over the years.

If I had the space, I’d go into the time he was kidnapped years ago by a local homeless man who kept him hostage overnight. The guards had warned me not to approach the man as he was violent. But after returning home from yet another frenzied search, l couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Maxi being led along the path outside. I ran out in bare feet, grabbed the lead from this man saying, “thanks a million for finding my dog”, pulled Maxi inside and banged the front door closed.

Over the years when there was upset or a row, it was to Maxi the children turned for comfort. It was always amazing to see how this helped to calm them down. In recent times as they’re old enough to come home from school alone, Maxi is always there to greet them at the front door. 

But it isn’t just the children. I could write my own academic study on the soothing qualities of having a cuddle with your dog — the oxytocin seeping through your system as the hormone works to soothe those frayed nerves.

A few months ago, a much-loved aunt of mine died. She had been in a nursing home and had become very frail. She adored Maxi. I’ll never forget the last time we brought him in for a visit — not long before she died. We sat him on her lap. She smiled and began to stroke him — even though I’d have sworn beforehand she would not have been physically able to do so given her condition.

As someone who has worked from home for many years, we were a double act in my office. Maxi would lie on the floor — well, never the actual floor, he has high standards when it comes to comfort. There always has to be something soft, preferably fleece, lying underneath him.

As my husband likes to say, the dog may have been abandoned, but it was in all likelihood 10 minutes of desertion in a city park followed by 16 years of luxury and love.

Now, lest you all think he was without flaw, he was not. Maxi was always mean to puppies — lovely enthusiastic creatures who would bound over to say hello and get a right cranky ‘ra ra ra’ for their trouble.

In the kitchen we have ‘Maxi’s armchair’. As he’s gotten older, he has laid determined claim to it and our minder — who adores him as much as we do — wraps him up in a fleece blanket, whereupon he tucks in his little head to snuggle up to sleep. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to even look at that chair after today.

Maxi never won top prize

He saw us through the pandemic.  He saw us through a recent bout of Covid.  We had hoped he’d survive for the first in-person Harold’s Cross Community Festival in three years. He’s come second twice in the dog show. We had high hopes for taking top prize in the geriatric category this year — surely on the grounds of age alone.

But it’s not to be.

The time is coming close now. The beach was always Max’s happy place, especially West Cork beaches. We can’t deliver that today but there is a beach near to the vet. We’re diverting to that stretch of sand on the way. Beforehand.

He’ll be gone a few days by the time you read this. No more of the familiar tap tap of small terrier paws around the house. I’ve a feeling it will still be hard to believe then.

 

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