Lessons and Love from our Dog, Max
The scared light-brown dog, all skin and bones, hopped out of the rescue lady’s van in the parking lot of this non-descript strip mall. One of his legs was bandaged after the surgery. His brown eyes opened, fearful and bewildered, and he seemed to be searching for his owners.
“Max is totally in shock,” said Elizabeth from the rescue agency, in her South African accent. “For the past two weeks he looked in every door, every corner, every vista for his home, not knowing that he’ll never find it again.”
Abandoned by his previous owners, Max was completely underweight and neglected. His hip bones jutted through his wiry fur, like peg legs about to pop through. His skin hung from his rib cage like a thin sheet draped over a skeleton. The poor pup looked like he hadn’t eaten in a month. His health history was painful to hear: hit by a car a few years earlier, degenerative disc disease, arthritis, and severe separation anxiety.
“Okay, I think that’s it,” she said. She gave us instructions and paperwork, choking back tears. She handed us the leash, wiped her cheek and said her goodbye.
“You be a good boy Max.” I held to leash and stared at the quivering canine.
It was January of 2010. I was two months into recovery from labrum surgery, and very much battling through one of the darkest times in my life. Two days ago I’d received a letter in the mail from the State of Colorado confirming the finalization of my divorce. I was injured, depressed and lost; Max and I made quite a pair.
For my entire adult life, happiness came in the form of accomplishment. That sounds completely shallow, but it’s true. As a professional athlete, it’s easy to mistake happiness and fulfillment with goals accomplished, routes ticked, and attention received. When I won my first climbing competition, an open-armed community of my fellow gym climbers celebrated me with a ribbon and a box of Clif Bars. When I climbed my first 5.14, sponsors courted me with praise and contracts, and my image was printed in climbing magazines. When I free-climbed El Cap, I completed a lifelong dream and more adoration came in. When I established the world’s hardest crack climb, I felt like I could retire and be happy the rest of my life.
But as I grew older, the joy in a goal accomplished, a prize won, and a bit of adoration received felt less meaningful, more hollow. The climbing goals and exotic trips held less value and appeal.
Saying Max was a scared dog would be putting it lightly. It would be like comparing a small fern to a giant sequoia, or a teaspoon of water to a great lake. We hardly knew anything about his previous life, but it was clear that he didn’t get any of the attention or love that he so rightly deserved. He slowly opened up to us, and by slowly I mean it took several months for us to receive two small tail wags when we walked in the door. Clearly he had been hurt and was nervous about opening his heart up again to anyone. After the divorce, I could relate.
Since I was sidelined by injury, Max became my constant companion accompanying me everywhere. If I went for a walk around the neighborhood, he worriedly followed me, hoping I wouldn’t abandon him along the way. If I went to the mountains, he was by my side, never having seen dirt, rocks, hills, or sticks before. If I trained in the garage, he sat on the pads watching me climb, befuddled by what I was doing. He obviously had never been exposed to much in his previous life, but he was always up for gingerly trying something if I was by his side. It took much coaxing and patience, but eventually he would trust and follow.
As I started climbing again, I worried that I would neglect Max, that he wouldn’t get all the attention that he had gotten when I was injured. After all, I never had a dog as an adult solely for the selfish reason that it would cramp my climbing lifestyle; that I would have to think of another being outside of the next send, the next accomplishment or the next glamorous climbing trip.
But everyday I returned from climbing, Max would slowly rise from his bed, wag his tail and come to greet me. He would playbow, jump as much as his arthritic joints would allow, and sit next to me getting love and pets. He didn’t care if I got a high point on my project, failed miserably, or didn’t even climb at all; everyday that I came home was a happy day for him.
Throughout Max’s first year with us my heart was in tatters. I desperately wanted to rediscover my place in life. I wanted to love again and let someone in, but old wounds acted as barriers to my heart. It was even hard for me to fully let Max in. I wanted to fill that accomplishment gap, to continue to tick those tangible goals that had propelled me over the past decade of my life. I wanted to send the project that I had come so painfully close to sending a few weeks before my surgery. I wanted to find my old place and to regain some grain of familiarity in my life. I spent months rehabbing and trying to get stronger. Going through pain and suffering all with the goal of clipping those magical golden chains at the top of my project. I would throw tantrums training in the garage when I wasn’t strong enough, get mad at myself for not being fitter. Max would look up at me with those same big brown eyes that he had the night we picked him up and wonder what all the fuss was about.
That next year I came painfully close to sending my project again. I wasn’t as strong as I was prior to surgery, but technique and muscle memory got me through. Unfortunately, my connective tissue failed and I popped another pulley in my finger, sidelining me for another six months. When I walked in the door that day, Max got out of his bed, limped over to me, wagged his tail, kissed my face and laid down. To him, it was still a happy day.
During this time, through Max’s consistent devotion and affection, regardless of whether I performed well or not, I was beginning to see why I was now finding so much less satisfaction in those big climbing achievements. I realized that, at the end of the day, how hard you were able to climb may not be the most important thing. I wasn’t changing the world by establishing the hardest crack climb on earth. All we have in this world, the stuff that’s really meaningful, are the people and beings, like our furry companions, that we love and care about, and that love and care about us unconditionally in return.
Over a three-year period, Max and I would go on slow, steady walks. His injuries from his past life were starting to catch up with him, turning his pace to a slow stroll instead of a brisk hike. We would lay in sunspots we found on the pine needles, sit and listen to the wind blow through the trees. He found joy in his slow walks, sunbathing and time in front of the fire. He didn’t regret or worry that he couldn’t run and play hard anymore. He took what he had and became a happy and content dog. We took trips to the beaches just to lay in the sand and listen to the ocean. With a slowly recovering shoulder and a blown finger pulley, I saw so much of myself in Max—I’d accomplished so much as a climber but now, sidelined by injury, I had trouble doing the warm-ups. And yet, despite Max’s arthritic gait and infirmed waddle, it was from this animal that I saw so much internal strength and qualities that I valued. I wanted to be more like Max. From him, I drew so much strength.
Having grown up in the “go get ‘em” accomplishment focused climbing community, it was a waste of a day if I wasn’t training more, climbing harder, or doing something to improve. Improving for Max was becoming more comfortable in his own skin, to enjoy things that he was robbed of in his previous life. I slowly found the same joy in climbing a classic 5.8 instead of a 5.13 trad route. I started to appreciate what life had to offer me, and found my true love of climbing again, regardless of level.
He slowly taught me to be happy with what I had, to find happiness with the simple and ultimately most important things in life. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid of abandonment, and had the strength to open up to a new person. Just as he had slowly and guardedly trusted us, I slowly let my heart be loved by another as well. With Randy, I found myself comfortable being, once again, patient, loving, vulnerable. Max was with us the day we got engaged and married. He truly was a family member.
Today I woke up without my best friend curled up in his bed at my feet. Muscle memory had me wake up, lean to the edge of my bed to check on Max, only to find an empty section of floor. He left us far too soon and unexpectedly. He was in the hospital for a bulging disc and suddenly died the night before surgery, no explanation or reason except that his body finally relented.
I used to have this fantasy, like a day dream: In it, Max would walk into the garage where I was training. He go lay down in his bed just as I’d be topping out my training project. I’d walk over and rub his head and say, “Mama sent, buddy! I am finally back!” And he’d just sit there, not caring one way or the other. Clearly I haven’t learned everything that he was here to teach me. But perhaps, even after his death, I still will be able to learn from him.
He taught us to be a family, to love and let people in, something I didn’t ever imagine possible when I first got him. Most of all, he taught me to take time and enjoy what we have.
The loss of Max hit me especially hard. He was there for me in my darkest times, never judging, never an expectation, just unconditional love. My only solace is knowing that he is finally free of all of his pain, running, playing, experiencing everything that was so unfairly taken from him in the first part of his life.
Rest in peace, our beloved Max.
You be a good boy