A faithful companion



A pencil drawing of Max, Susan Estep’s loving companion for many years. Drawing by Susan Estep

I remember clearly the day I read the “Pet Ads” wishing for a dog, and then there it was. The ad read, “Golden Retriever-mix puppies, $25.00.”

I had always wanted a Golden Retriever but couldn’t afford one. I immediately called the number listed and the person who answered gave me directions to a farm.

The next day I drove to the farm. It was a beautiful sunny day in May. When I pulled into the driveway a woman came out of the two-story colonial house. Right behind her came a beautiful Golden Retriever, the mother of the puppies.

She told me in a rather disappointed voice that her retriever had gotten out of the house one day, disappearing for a few hours. A few weeks later she had 10 brindle-colored puppies.

She wasn’t sure what kind of dog the father of the puppies was, only that he was black.

There were two males left. She had sold all the others. I followed the woman to a shed near the house, as did the Golden Retriever mom. She opened the door and out bounced two beautiful balls of fur that ran and played. The mother dog eyed and nuzzled them at times as if she knew they soon would be gone.

I happily watched the pups play and wrestle. Then I picked one up and he immediately began to wriggle and nip at my nose. When I picked the second pup up he lowered his head shyly and wagged his tail a couple of times. I felt an instant bonding. I knew he was to be my dog.

I paid the woman $25 and reassured her he would have a good home. I drove off with the little ball of fur that I named Max.

Max cried all the way home, not unusual for a puppy. I’m sure he was grieving the loss of his mother and brother.

Max was quite shy at first, hiding himself behind the couch or under the bed, coming out only to eat or be taken for a walk. He retreated like this for a week or so, then gradually began accepting love pats and hugs from his new mother—me.

As Max adjusted to his new home, he became playful and tested out his new territory. One day he discovered how much fun it was to grab the end of the toilet paper roll and unravel it into the living room.

He looked up at me with his chocolate eyes as though to say, “Look what I can do.” I laughed. Max would run around in circles and tumble, head over heels. He would bark at his reflection in the mirror as if he thought I had brought a new dog into the apartment. He was such a joy.

I loved him very much but I wanted the best for him and I did not feel I was giving him the best life.

However, I, on the other hand, went through severe bouts of depression that lasted for weeks at a time. Some days I would spend most of the day in bed, only getting up to take Max for a walk and feed him.

I began to question myself, and whether I was being a good enough caretaker of Max. I loved him very much but I wanted the best for him and I did not feel I was giving him the best life.

I finally placed an ad in the Daily News Record. It read, “6-month-old Golden Retriever-mix puppy, great temperament, playful and affectionate.” I decided to screen out all the people who answered the ad if I did not think they were the appropriate person(s) to raise Max.

One day a woman called. She and her husband lived in the country and had several acres of land, lots of room for a big dog to run and play. She told me that she had a son in college and they had lost their German Shepherd a few months earlier. The dog’s death had saddened the whole family and they wanted another dog.

This sounded like the perfect match. So I arranged a time with the woman and her husband to come and visit Max to see how they interacted. She told me when her husband got off work that evening, she would call for directions to my apartment and they would come by.

A couple of hours later I began packing Max’s toys and food bowl, blankets, etc., because I was sure this family would want Max and I felt I would like them. Max started sniffing the packed box of items and whining. He knew something was wrong.

In a few minutes a knock came at my neighbor’s door, and at this sound Max ran over by me pushing his body against me and whining loudly.

The author and Max. photo provided

I began to cry as I saw the love Max had for me. He didn’t want to leave me. I was his mom. It was in that moment that I decided that I would never give Max up.

I called the woman and cried as I explained why I decided not to give my dog away. She said, “I kind of thought you might not be able to part with him. You talked about Max in such a loving way that I could tell you had bonded with him.”

I had many more times of severe depression, but when I was sad and down, I looked at Max and he would put his head on my lap and look up at me as if to say, “It’s going to be okay. I’m here for you.”

Max taught me to live in the moment as only a dog can do, and to enjoy every second of life as it comes.

Over the next several years Max grew in stature and beauty, an 80-plus pound dog, mostly black with some golden streaks and the Golden Retriever body. His nose was a little longer than a typical Golden, but he had the full plume of a tail that he carried high. What a gorgeous dog he was!

Max soaked up his world like a sponge. He learned many words—objects, names of animals and people. His hearing and senses were keen. He could hear me unwrap a slice of cheese and in a second be there to share it.

Max loved to smell all kinds of scents—other animals, people and flowers. Yes, he loved to smell flowers. Max explored his world daily. He enjoyed looking out the window, watching cars and people go by.

He liked being outdoors to play ball, Frisbee or to tree squirrels. He watched the snow fall and tried to catch snowflakes in his mouth. When he watched a flock of geese fly over he stared at them as if wondering why they were making such a fuss.

Max would run to the door when I would tell him friends or family were coming. He knew everyone’s name and all of his friends brought him treats and loved on him. He especially liked Grandma and Grandpa’s visits. Dad always gave Max a back rub. Max loved this and if Dad forgot, Max would back up against him to remind him. My mom and I loved to give Max hugs but Max was still shy at times with female affection and would duck his head when we tried to give him a hug.

Max and I enjoyed cuddling up on the couch to watch TV. His favorite show was anything with animals. Sometimes he would jump up off the couch barking and running to the TV, pushing his nose against the screen as if to say, “I’m here. Don’t you see me?”

Max was a wonderful companion. I loved him and he gave me unconditional love without hesitation.

Then one day in September 2004, Max couldn’t eat. He threw up blood. When I took Max to the vet, my parents went along, because I knew the news wasn’t going to be good.

The vet did tests and x-rays that revealed the worst. Max had a large cancerous tumor on his adrenal gland. He was bleeding internally. There was nothing they could do. Max had normal signs of aging, but I did not know he was so sick. I was sad and angry. I wasn’t ready to give Max up yet, but I also didn’t want him to suffer.

As the vet led Max back into the examining room, we were all in tears. Max sensed our sadness and came to comfort each of us, saying good-bye. He went over and looked out the window for the last time then turned back to the vet as if to say, “I’m ready now.” As the vet administered the drug, Max folded his paws, put his head down and closed his eyes. My dad gave him one last back rub and I whispered in his ear, “I love you, Max.” My mom, dad and I left that day with a sadness and loss that still lingers to this day.

I had Max cremated and his remains were buried in a pet cemetery an hour from where I live now. My family and I have visited his grave occasionally.

I still feel Max’s presence around me. He brought challenges and purpose to my life. He was no accident. I think God made sure I read the pet ad and picked the shy dog. Max was meant to be my dog for 12 and a half years. Max saved me from myself—my sadness and despair. He taught me how to live.

SUSAN ESTEP is a resident of Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, Va.


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