My dog Maxwell has degenerative myelopathy, an incurable disease that’s very similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). His back legs are pretty much useless right now. Sometimes he can walk, sometimes he can jackrabbit across a room, but mostly he falls a lot and has to drag himself around.
The disease is now working its way up to his front legs and it’s turning into a big struggle for him to pull himself up when he falls. His condition is degenerating a little faster than the vet had predicted, but we still have good moments. He still has fun.
When he was first diagnosed I put him in physical therapy and started him on some pain meds. We discontinued the therapy when he got worse. But he does get a lot of exercise and love, as he’s kind of a big deal at the gym where I work. He’s a boxer, 11 years old, and I’m his 3rd or 4th person (I’m unclear on the specifics of his early life) but once he was mine he was mine.
We’ve had some bad days recently. It’s been a lot of work for both of us. There are a lot of details but none of them really matter.
A few months ago I bought him a cart/wheelchair. I had visions of him tooling around the gym and going on walks but it hasn’t worked out that way. The cart itself is pretty cool, but as he’s a tall boy, it easily tips if he turns too quickly or leans over too far to sniff the grass. It also can tip if one of the wheels hits a doorway or the edge of a piece of furniture.
It is very bad when he tips over — we’ve had two rollovers, and both were traumatic. It can’t happen again.
So at first, he hated the cart, and he still hates it. But now that his legs are worse, he hates it a little less.
Yesterday I strapped him into his cart for a walk. He started off slowly, and when he realized he could move the pace picked up. It wasn’t long until we were jogging across a parking lot, going until the asphalt ran out and then we were on dirt, and we ran to the edge of that, until we hit some railroad tracks, where we stopped. On the other side of the tracks were trees and a bog. It was cool and breezy, a mild early summer morning.
And in that moment, as he lifted his head, closed his eyes and smelled all the smells, I was aware of all the layers of life surrounding us, the depth and the breadth of it all. Life blooms aggressively in Maine this time of year. Leaves are fresh and new, insects are feeding, and you can feel the woods teeming with birds and critters. Even the air is full.
Everything slowed down as the two of us stood there, breathing, listening, feeling the air stretch from here to the Atlantic, and then beyond, filled with life: things we’d never see, things we would never know.
We stood there quite a while. I thought about letting him go. I thought about the people I miss. He shook his boxer jowls, his legs wobbling beneath him, the cart catching his weight.
He turned to look at me, and we trotted back the way we came, a little more tentatively, a little more aware.