Marcus and I lived under the same roof for only a few months, but he taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons about life and love.
We said goodbye to Marcus on July 3, the day before Independence Day. He was an old dog, and it was his time to go, but he died happy. And he taught us a lot about living and loving while he was here on this earth, lessons I will never forget.
Before I get into those lessons, I’d like to provide a brief summary of what we know about his life. My girlfriend Susana adopted him 7 years ago, after her marriage had fallen apart and her ex-husband took custody of their two dogs. On her way to Chinese medicine school one day, she passed a mobile adoption van operated by the city animal shelter. She initially focused on a light-brown female “hound” that she found adorable, but she also noticed a cute and noble black Lab mix who was resting in the stifling heat. He might make a good therapy dog, she thought. While at school a few days later, one of Susana’s classmates told her the adoption van was parked on 23rd Street, and encouraged her to stop by on her way home. After school ended Susana found that her bicycle tires had been slashed, so she walked her bike up Fifth Avenue to where the van was parked. The adorable hound was gone, but the black Lab mix came over to her bike and sat down. She was told his name was Marcus. The proprietress of an adjacent shop, whose family had found Marcus on a Brooklyn street, came over to Susana and told her her family had fallen in love with Marcus, but couldn’t adopt him. There was also a man who said he wanted to adopt Marcus but didn’t have room for another dog; he said to Susana, “You probably want one of those little frou-frou dogs anyway.” Rising to the challenge, Susana decided to adopt Marcus on the spot. She took him home, whereupon he jumped onto her couch and made himself at home. Thus began a beautiful, remarkable relationship.
Susana was fond of referring to him as Marcus Aurelius, the Amazing Mutt. I sometimes called him Wonderpup, or Marcus the Miracle Mutt, because his longevity was miraculous. Not long after she adopted Marcus, Susana learned he had heartworm. Had he been sent to a shelter that tested for heartworm, he likely would have been euthanized, and we would never have known him. As it was, Marcus had to endure the arduous treatment for heartworm, which involved painful injections in his hips; that may have contributed to the degenerative muscle condition and weakened hindquarters that plagued Marcus in his final years. About a year after the heartworm incident, Marcus was mauled by a pit bull in a dog run in Carl Schurz Park; he nearly died, but pulled through. Several months later, Marcus received an electric shock on an icy street corner, due to a poorly insulated wire that ConEd hadn’t yet repaired. But he survived that, too. On a dark October night two years ago, after Susana and Marcus had moved up here to Western Massachusetts (and met me), Marcus was hit by a car in front of my house. Amazingly, he walked into the house, bruised but not broken. We thought his days were numbered, but he gave us nearly two more wonderful years.
Marcus was the sweetest, most gentle soul imaginable. Once Susana and I realized our relationship was getting serious, I introduced my three boys to her, and then to Marcus, although I was a little wary beforehand of how Marcus might react to the boys. I needn’t have worried; upon meeting the boys, he rolled over onto his side to accept head pats and belly rubs. Last November, when Susana and I bought our new house together, the boys were most excited about Marcus living with us. They came to regard him as the fourth brother.
Marcus taught me a lot about how to be gentle and more sensitive. As his condition worsened over the last year or so, he could no longer climb stairs, and he needed to be helped over a small landing and down a ramp to get outside to do his business. More recently, he needed help just to get up from a sitting position, and often needed one of us to hold his hips up as he walked around the yard. His worsening condition required us to be gentler and more sensitive to his needs. The gentleness and sensitivity came easily to Susana, who is an acupuncturist, but it was a bit of a challenge for me. But Marcus was very patient with me, and forgiving of my initial heavy-handed attempts to help him. The lessons in gentleness and sensitivity have served me well, particularly when I’m with my 84-year-old father, who has mobility issues of his own, due to his advanced Parkinson’s disease.
Susana has said Marcus taught her that love means listening, and I think that’s very true. In the obvious sense, we had to listen for audible cues from Marcus (e.g., whines, cries, yelps, changes in breathing) that signaled various needs. In a less literal sense, listening meant being more attuned to Marcus’s physical difficulties and the fear he must have felt as his body started to betray him. It is that art of listening that I’ve tried (with varying success) to apply to my human relationships, which will always be a work in progress, but which I hope will now benefit from having known and loved Marcus.
Perhaps Marcus’s most important lesson was about how to live. He was always fully present in the moment, never thinking about tomorrow or regretting past mistakes (yes, I know, he was a dog, but sometimes we need the animals in our lives to remind us about the importance of being present). He loved everyone he met, and was happiest when people were around. He essentially served as Susana’s receptionist, rising to greet every patient who came to get treatment, even as it became more difficult for him to get up. As Susana suspected, Marcus turned out to be an excellent therapy dog. He would often sit under Susana’s treatment table as she attended to her patients, who considered Marcus a healing presence. Even as his body broke down, Marcus never lost his appetite (food was one of his great loves), and he continued to enjoy life, right up to the very last moment.
July 3, Marcus’s last day on this earth, was simultaneously one of the saddest and most beautiful days of my life. It was a perfectly gorgeous summer day, and Susana and I spent most of it sitting with Marcus in the shade on our back lawn, with the birds chirping overhead and the brook babbling in the background. Marcus was pretty worn out, and spent much of the time sleeping, but he wasn’t finished with life. While Marcus was napping, Susana says she felt his ethereal soul rise just before the full moon at 2:51pm. He was rising to greet the moon, she says. At the time, he was sound asleep, lying in the shade by her side. Her left hand was on his chest and it began to vibrate as she felt his spirit lift. However, his corporeal soul was still enjoying this earth because about an hour later I arrived with a hamburger for him. As soon as Marcus smelled the hamburger he lifted his head and then enjoyed eating the hamburger morsel by morsel.
A short time later, Susana went into the house to change her clothes and prepare for the last leg of Marcus’s earthly journey. I was left alone with him for the last time. I looked into his beautiful eyes as I stroked his head, which was perfectly shaped for petting. I repeated a promise I had first made to Marcus about a year ago, when we could no longer deny the inevitability of his decline. Although I don’t think he understood the words I spoke to him, I know he heard me, and I like to think he understood my meaning, based on the way our eyes met. I then lay down in the grass beside Marcus, my head next to his, and rubbed his belly while I listened to the rhythm of his breathing.
A few minutes later Susana came out of the house, picked up Marcus in her arms, and carried him to the car while I fed him bits of roast chicken (another of his favorite foods). We drove the short distance to the vet’s office, and Marcus let Susana carry him inside without fear, resistance, or hesitation. We settled him onto the floor of the examination room so that his head rested on Susana’s thigh, and he was cradled between her legs as she and I caressed him. The vet administered a sedative, and Susana sang the heart sutra to Marcus as he drifted off to sleep. I sang the bedtime Sh’ma (substituting the word “dog” for “God” in the English translation), followed by the Beatles’ “Good Night.” The vet recited the St. Francis prayer after administering the drug that would end Marcus’s life. Then yin separated from yang, and Marcus was gone to the other side.
Susana notes that Marcus picked an auspicious day to transition, as it was during the full moon celebration of guru purnima, when devotees express gratitude to their gurus. She thought of him as a bodhisattva, a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others, because he helped awaken her to love. While it was Susana who saved Marcus from the shelter (and from an uncertain, and possibly bleak future), it was he who saved her from loneliness and despair. She told me that observing me with Marcus, and my attempts to be gentle and patient with him, made her love me more. That made me realize how much I love Susana, and how her devotion to Marcus helped to open my heart to her love.
The morning of July 4, our first without Marcus, Susana and I hiked up to the tower on Goat Peak, which is part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation, which rises in back of our home. It was a walk done in Marcus’s honor, one he would have loved. At the top of the tower, as we watched the clouds roll in around us, we gave thanks to Marcus for his wonderful being. On the way down the mountain, Susana remarked that Marcus loved fiercely, without condition or reservation, and expected love in return (which he got, in spades). How unlike humans, she commented; we’re so full of doubt about our lovability and worthiness, and often hesitate when allowing love to enter our lives.
We were never sure how old Marcus was; Susana thought he was about 12 or 13, but the vet said he was at least 14, and possibly as old as 16. While I miss Marcus terribly, and his absence in our home is palpable, I am happy for him. He lived a long and beautiful life, and showed us how to live and love. As he was a rescue dog, we know hardly anything about his life pre-adoption, but we suspect it may not have been very pleasant. I cannot fathom how or why anyone could have abandoned such a sweet and wonderful being. How fortunate was he to have found Susana, and how fortunate are we to have known and loved him.
The evening of July 20, when Susana came home from her afternoon shift at the acupuncture clinic, I announced I had something to tell her. “It’s about a promise,” I said as I led her to the living room couch. “It’s a promise I made to Marcus,” I continued as I took her hand. “I promised him I’d take care of you.” I then took the ring from my pocket and asked Susana to marry me. She said yes.
We haven’t yet set a date, or made any real plans for our wedding, but I know when the day comes, Susana and I will walk down the aisle accompanied by the spirit of a smiling, tail-wagging Marcus.
Thank you, Marcus, my good friend, for the life lessons, and for opening my heart to a most beautiful love.