Maggie the Wonder Dog came to us a few short months after the death of my first child, a Cocker Spaniel named Ashley, who predated my whole marriage and family life.

When Ashley died, I decreed a year of mourning; there would be no dog to automatically “replace” her. It was a noble thought. I did not fully consider at the time of this pronouncement that my husband was deeply into the demands of his doctoral studies and my child was deeply into the demands of third grade social life. I got bored and lonely pretty quickly after Ashley’s passing in June of  1999.

In September, TMIM took  it upon himself to surprise us with Maggie. In response to his call,  I came home early  from work to find a shyly submissive big black Lab mix creeping toward me  when I walked in the front door .That first night, we heard Maggie barking relentlessly in the backyard. She had treed a possum. Through the years, Maggie continued to bark relentlessly, at visitors, trespassing cats, UPS trucks, and anyone else with the temerity to enter her field of vision.

The one page medical record that we got with Maggie told us that she was about two and a half years old, and  that she’d had one litter of puppies before she was spayed. We learned at our  first vet visit that she had heart worms. Several hundred dollars later, she was fine, and she settled into the family. She and I spent the most time together, ambling through the neighborhood or dozing  away Saturday afternoons on our big old couch in the family room. Despite the fact that I was the one who walked, fed and brushed her most of the time, Maggie considered TMIM as “alpha.” She clearly preferred him to me; it was kind of cute, really.

She was a nervous girl; lots of things spooked her. She was particularly bothered by men in ball caps and/or sunglasses. Sudden noises startled her. She calmed down over the years, but never became the social butterfly we had hoped. At The Kid’s soccer game, she would sit as far away from the group as her leash would allow, looking away from the action. When she and I walked on our neighboring cul de sac, where the other dogs played off leash, she would submit to inquisitive sniffs from them, and then wander off, nosing at random bushes.

She was an unrepentant food thief, enjoying among other things, a stick of butter, one of my very expensive Christmas chocolate bars, and countless bagels my trusting husband incautiously dangled at her nose level. In addition to these more traditional treats, she had a real fondness for Dove cleansing bars, box and all. She survived her dietary crimes, as well as two tumors.

Maggie rode with us from North Carolina to California in 2001, and blazed the return trail with TMIM in 2008.  She adjusted to our new bicoastal life with us, and seemed to thrive in her old environment. TMIM reported that one afternoon he had been unable to find her in the backyard, and finally realized that she had hopped the two foot high planter wall to find a cool spot to rest under the azaleas. When I visited, we happily resumed our meanderings.

“I’ve been trying to decide whether to tell you this,” said my husband during one of our daily phone calls.  Before I could complete my mental inventory of all of the things I would not want to hear, he went on to explain that Maggie had been diagnosed as having a degenerative  neurological condition that caused her back end to disconnect with her front end. She would eventually lose the use of her rear legs while remaining completely alert mentally. It sounded like the cruelest possible ailment for a dog who loved going for a walk second only to eating.

The diagnosis was made during the summer of 2010. Maggie became increasingly unsteady on her feet. Getting up and down took longer. It was nerve-wracking to walk her: we had no idea of how long this irreversible disease would take before its dreaded conclusion. Watching her stand sometimes was like looking at a particularly well worn card table- one set of legs stood at right angles, but the other pair stood at a tilt such that you expected it to collapse at any moment.

And yet she remained with us. I took to calling her “Wonder Dog” when I moved back in June. Really? A year after we were told to expect the worst, and you are here? I started taking her for more walks, far shorter than our old ones, but still. I can’t say that it was any less nerve-wracking, but she enjoyed it so much. (In the past, I’d lost several good sweaters after she snagged them with her toenails in her jumps for joy at the sight of the leash. I learned to step back about as soon as TMIM learned to stop thinking his bagels were safe when she was nearby.)

Just days ago, Maggie was running and jumping when I picked up the leash.( She could jump right to the end; she just couldn’t stick the landing anymore.) She went down for the last time Sunday night in the kitchen. It was appropriate, I guess; she’d spent so many hours there waiting for someone to drop something or toss something in her direction. (Have you ever peeled carrots at a dog? Fun for the whole family.) And now she is gone.

It’s a cliche to say that I learned things from my dog, but I have. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be much good at anything to leave a gaping hole when you leave the people who love you. I have also learned that you can’t let the fear of something bad happening stop you from taking the walk.

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