Max was a stray chocolate lab my family found when I was in fifth grade, and from the day we brought him home, he never left my side. He’d sleep on my bed, sit by me at the table, get excited when I came home from school, and even when I went off to college, he waited. My mom said he’d go in my room and lie on my bed and wait. It was super sad. I never understood why, even today as a 21-year-old, I can’t comprehend his unwavering loyalty.
Last summer, when I finally had enough of being on my own, I moved back in with my parents. Max was waiting front and center. But he wasn’t alone. My mom had brought home another bird — a caique parrot — and dubbed him SnoopDog. He was one of the first to squawk and announce our arrival.
That bird was like a growth. Wherever you went, he had to follow. He was even table trained. His favorite pastime (besides clinging to shirts and riding on your back) was chasing around the dogs and trying to bite their tails. He was not a nice bird most of the time, and the dogs feared him.
Much like dogs, birds need to be taught socialization skills. Dogs, birds, cats, they’re all social creatures and need to be introduced to others, or they can become mean, skittish, untrusting, even depressed. This bird, however, didn’t care much for making friends. The bird wanted to be top of the hierarchy and made sure all the animals knew their places.
On one particular day, I heard the familiar squawking of SnoopDog. I went to investigate, and off by the couch, there was SnoopDog and Max. Snoop preening the fur on Max’s tail, and Max looking like he was falling into a nap.
It wasn’t the strangest thing I’ve seen, but it was enough to make me watch. The bird was usually chasing Max to bite his tail, not clean it. From then on, the bird was abnormally nice to Max — leaving him alone when they were on the floor together, usually just piggybacking rides around the house.
The behavior stopped completely for a few weeks after I caught them, and they went back to ignoring each other. Every so often, I’d catch the bird walking over to Max, watching him with a curious gaze and then walking away. It wasn’t like before. It was more like he was checking in on Max than outright comforting him.
A couple months passed, and it became more obvious to me and my family that Max was sick. In April, we found out Max had leukemia, and he passed at the end of May.
Dogs have been known to smell out illness, and while birds aren’t known for doing the same, birds are known for understanding pattern and facial features associated with different responses. So, while I’m not one to believe in miracles or things that have no logical standing, I like to think that maybe Snoop saw the pattern change in Max and decided to be there for comfort in his last days.
Dealing with the fallout was hard. So I did what I do best and made it about me.
It’s sad to say this, and I’m only saying this in retrospect, but I learned more about myself by watching my dying dog and annoying bird interact in that moment than I have by crying during an identity crisis. Maybe that makes me shallow or selfish or naive. Maybe I’m just not looking deep enough, I don’t know. But I learned my fear restricts possibility, cancer’s a bitch, and maybe I’m trusting all the wrong people.
Mostly, I learned loyalty doesn’t mean acting like nothing’s changed. You can’t ignore time and pretend everything’s fine; it doesn’t work that way. Loyalty is recognizing that things have changed but waiting by the door anyway. Max knew I was different when I finally came home, and I knew he was off, but he was just as happy as he would’ve been when I was coming home from school. Loyalty is also recognizing the change and adjusting accordingly; I guess sometimes that means preening fur instead of biting it.
It’s months later now, and I no longer live with my parents. I have a big-kid job, in a big-kid city, and an apartment with two roommates and a dog. And just like I couldn’t stand SnoopDog, I cannot stand my roommate’s actual dog. Sometimes, though, he jumps up on the couch and lays his head on my lap, and I remember Max doing the same when he wanted my food or an ear scratch.
So I give him ear scratches. And I smile.