• Hilary Kelley

This is her.

The day I got her, she refused to walk.

The day I got her, taken by Park Pet Supply in East Atlanta.

I had lost a friend to cancer the night before. Crushed and exhausted, my then-husband and I went to PetSmart on a whim, to coo at the dogs up for adoption on the sidewalk. She looked at me with serious brown eyes from the kennel she shared with her brother and I was smitten. She didn’t fuss, or wag her tail ecstatically, or do much of anything resembling puppyhood. She sat, leaning against the side of the kennel with her head cocked to the side, which looked impossibly uncomfortable but she would favor the position for many years to come. A Great Pyrenees/Catahoula mix, she was three months old and already 30 pounds. Her brother, even bigger. Her name was Mocha and she was the most beautiful dog I'd ever seen.

It was Cinco de Mayo, and though I wasn’t prone to easy puns (I was 24 and convinced I was an intellectual) something about her led me to change her name:

“Maya. It’s Cinco de Maya,” I laughed.

After I signed the papers with jittery hands, she was extracted from her sibling and placed in my care. We went immediately to get her a collar and leash, soon discovering that it was unnecessary, as Maya wouldn’t take a step further after legally becoming part of our family. The rest of the day, as we ran Saturday errands and visited with friends, I held her big, floppy body against me and wondered if we’d unwittingly adopted a lame animal. I gave her the benefit of the doubt; our respective traumas had brought us together.

. . . . . . . . .

Maya at Arabia Mountain

The rest of the story is familiar. If you’ve ever been in love with a good dog, then you know it: she had a wild youth, days when I questioned if she was actually going to fit in with our family, and an eventual mellowing. I developed an amused fondness for her stubbornness and need for comfort. She became a great and constant, if extremely jealous, companion; seeing me through a divorce and three more relationships before I met my current husband (and her future dad). Her walks became shorter as she aged, until the most we could do to get her some sunshine was wander around the back yard. Eventually, that was too much.

Maya and one of her friends, Nick, during the snowstorm of 2014. Photo by Parker Davidson

Her death was a difficult one, of course. A splenic tumor made it so that she couldn’t keep any food in her stomach, advanced heart disease made that inoperable, and arthritic knees ensured that her last days were spent mostly immobile. On the final day, she let us know that she was tired. We made the appointment for that afternoon.

. . . . . . . . .

When you have a big and tall dog, people are strangely compelled to remind you that big dogs never live as long. I’d heard it often from the time she hit her adult size. As a result, I was always accompanied by an awareness that Maya would die sooner than later. Looking back, I wish I’d ignored them, that I’d lived more in the moment with her, that I’d stopped scrutinizing her every cough or limp as she advanced in age. I was preparing myself for the pain of losing her instead of just loving her every day.

No matter how I’d prepared, though, when the day came it hurt even more than I’d imagined. Even though I didn’t question our decision after the fact, the pain moved through my veins like ice, leaving me foggy and numb. We took her to the vet, made arrangements with the crematory, bawled in the parking lot, and then in the car, then went to eat something to clear our heads. After lunch I felt like I might be out of the woods, but when we got home and I walked in to see her empty bed, and the towels and waterproof pads on the floor from her hospice, I lost myself again. My husband, Kyle, went into the kitchen to put some things away and came back to find me sitting quietly on the floor, hands searching softly for some shape of her. In that moment, strange as it was, I wanted to touch the dried vomit on the rug and lay down where she was ill and gather up to me any last bit of her, get her ever-shedding fur on me, scrape together something. Without me explaining this, Kyle walked over and gently (firmly, but gently) gathered up the towels and pads. “This isn’t her. This wasn’t her,” he said. I knew he was right.

Over the next few days that feeling stayed with me; the need to touch, to gather something. If I had just two more minutes with her, just this, just that. I always come back to understanding that we did what was best for her, no more and no less.

"Harrison," a portrait I made for the Fisher family

It's made me consider my role as an artist, especially with the clients for whom I’ve made portraits as memorials to departed companions. I can always appreciate the sentiment and get misty over the stories that accompany the request emails. This was a member of the family, a real contributor to the household dynamic, and now they’re gone. That desire to grasp at something, anything, is so powerful. The need to keep them around, somehow, is a motivator that I now understand fully.

I’ve had dogs all my life, but none were closer to me than Maya became. I explained to a friend before she died, “She’s been through everything with me.” And my friend, in her wisdom, concluded, “And she got you here.”

What a gift that was, really. At the barest of times, when I wanted to give up on myself, I knew I had to persevere for her. In the end, she kept us both going.

Kyle, myself, and Maya, taken a few days before she passed. Photo by Erin Dodd

I have Maya’s ashes in a pretty box on the mantle, resting for now until I decide where I want to take her. The list keeps growing: she loved to swim in Lake Lanier, she loved to roam around Arabia Mountain, she loved to drink out of Sweetwater Creek. I have a lock of her beautiful, mottled fur to do something with, when inspiration strikes. I have photos taken by another sweet friend of the three of us, I have stories and videos and I’m surrounded by the friends who knew and loved (and lived with) her to remind me of the wonder that was this giant sweet girl. When I’m reaching out to grasp at something to bring me closer to her, I need only to look around at the life she gave me.

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