We got the call on the day after Thanksgiving, which also happened to be my birthday.
I was standing in a massive hotel lobby, surrounded by every one of my four siblings, their families, my one surviving pair of aunt/uncle, and my dad and stepmom. We were in the middle of a rare Johnson family reunion, taking turns standing in front of the three story Christmas tree the hotel had so beautifully decorated and we had so conveniently borrowed for the backdrop of our family pictures.
In the middle of all the joy, my friend from 'back home' was in my ear, saying, "Judy, I hate to tell you this, but Max ran away on Wednesday and we just can't find him."
This was not the call I'd expected. Every one of us had been worried that our elderly cat would decide to say his final goodbyes the minute we hit the road for Dallas. In fact, when my husband got the text from my friend, saying, 'Call me as soon as you can', I was sure that my birthday would from that day forward be associated with the day our beloved cat died. But the cat was fine. Still hanging out comfortably on his favorite folded up blanket.
Instead, the dog was gone.
We still called Max our puppy. Maybe it's because we'd never had a younger dog before we got Max. We spent the kids' childhoods moving all over the country and a dog was a bit too labor intensive for our lifestyle. We got the cat from a shelter in the mid 2000s and knew we'd commit to the dog when the time was right. Then, after we'd settled in Upstate NY, and thought it was our last move, we'd adopted Kylie.
She was an elderly, pure bred poodle, as sweet as the day is long. We had five great years with her and finally lost her, mainly to 'old age', just after we uprooted from NY and made the move to Colorado. She was never energetic. She was more the type who loved curling up with you to watch movies. Or sit next to you on the front porch, enjoying the weather. When we took her to meet the new vet in CO, and the doctor asked us how Kylie was doing on her 'daily hikes', we had to hold back our laughter.
Kylie was not a fan of the minimal one loop around the block, much less a hike through the many open meadows and mountain trails we now lived in the midst of. She'd been bred for years, before we'd found her at the shelter. She was a tired ole girl and just wanted to relax away the rest of her life. So we loved her up for her last years on the planet.
Not soon after we buried Kylie's ashes next to one of our favorite local trails, we found Max.
Or, more accurately, I went to work one Saturday morning and came home a few hours later to reports by the children along the lines of 'we found this great dog and dad said we might get him!' This was a bit of a surprise, as we'd just had a family meeting the week before, and the hubby had decided it might be good to settle into our new Colorado life a bit more before we decided what kind of dog we'd get next.
I guess a week was enough 'settle' time, because, while out running errands that day, they'd seen this precious floppy eared soul sitting at the back of the enclosure in the middle of a pet adoption fair.
Max and his siblings has been born to a farmer's dog and were barely tolerated. After a few of Max's siblings got hit by cars on their remote country road, the neighbors called the local shelter. Max was just over six months old and not sure who he could trust in the world. But he was calm, and he was loving, and he seemed to need a bunch of kids as much as they needed him.
I met him the next day, as the kids brought him to the Rec Center where I work. I'm a mama, deep in my soul a mama, so all I could see was another little creature who needed some nurturing. I was game.
We had so much love and life to share with Max that we intimidated him a bit in the first few weeks. We had to remind each other to give him space, give him time to trust us.
He slowly learned that the warm bed would be there every night and the tasty food would fall into his dish twice a day. He loved his crate, filled with soft pillows and blankets by his new fan club. It took him a bit to learn that we were trustworthy. By the end of one day he would be snuggling on the couch with one of the kids and by morning he'd seem to have forgotten that we were his new forever family. But we were patient and showed him over and over again that we weren't going anywhere.
We made endless memories, in the year and a half that we became his and he became ours.
On a good day he'd get in a two hour hike up mountain trails with one of our teenagers, then a second one when Dad got home and needed to be outdoors to shake off too much time at a desk. With great gusto he'd run frantic circles around our back yard, sometimes chasing a ball and sometimes just chasing his own spirit.
He quickly picked up on the 'keys' cue and whenever any of us went to run errands he sat up tall by the side door, eyebrows raised, ears perked high, seeming to ask with facial expressions alone, "Do I get to go too??"
He was happy to just go along for the ride. He never minded hanging out in the truck or minivan while groceries were selected or library books picked out. He loved just being out, seeing people coming and going across the parking lot, smelling the unique smells that every part of town inhabits. It was an added bonus if the trip ended up at 'that stoplight', the one that led to the dog park a few miles from home.
For the first time in our kids' lives, they had a true puppy. A dog who could be riled up by a raised eyebrow or pitch change in their voice. A dog who ran twice as fast as they did, but always circled back to find his people before the trail got too long. A dog who held promise of many more years of memories.
When I first heard the news that Max had run away I was not surprised, especially once I heard the details of his escape. We'd told my friend that Max didn't need a leash when he was in our yard. The weather in November is chilly enough that he's motivated to do his business and get back inside. So on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a day after we left town, she came over to our house and started the routine of taking care of the animals.
She opened the sliding back door and watched him run to his favorite spot in the back corner of our yard, the place where the woods begin. She sat quietly at our picnic table, waiting for him to finish his business. Once he was done he looked back at her.
He held her gaze for a long minute, then he turned and ran.
I have no doubt that it was nothing that my friend did wrong. She fed him exactly as we'd told her to. She tried her best to pet him and love on him, when he'd allow her to get close, which wasn't very often. She is an animal loving person and has the skill of knowing just how much room to give him. But when he looked back and saw her sitting at that picnic table, something in his brain clicked.
His family was gone. And he had the wide open woods in front of him. He was going to go find them.
By the time she ran down to her house and got her car, he was long gone.
She spent the next 48 hours, including much of her own Thanksgiving holiday, searching high and low for our puppy. With her own teenagers riding along to keep her company, she drove the mountainous roads in our town. She called every shelter, vet and sheriff's department she could think of. She called friends who live locally and begged them to be on the lookout for a very lost, probably cold and hungry puppy who was just looking for his kids. And then finally, she knew she had to break down and call us to let us know he was gone.
Through the rest of our reunion we tried not to think about the fact Max was not at home. We tried not to think about the fact it was cold out and, in our town, he had about as much of a chance of being found as he did of just being hopelessly lost in the wilderness. We all knew that he was not the trained hunting dog who would naturally know how to forage for food and create shelter. He was our puppy, who was born in a barn, and neglected until he came to our house, where he was promptly spoiled rotten.
The drive back to Colorado, from Texas, was a long one. The letdown after a much anticipated vacation with people we love and rarely get to see was punctuated by the fact my friend had not called to say that Max had been found. The quiet cell phone meant he was still out there, somewhere.
We got back on Saturday night. We found his crate, along with his water and food bowls, carefully placed on our back patio, by my friend who was hoping he'd just come back home when the hunger got the best of him. She said some nights the food would be gone by morning, but that doesn't mean much when our trash cans are regularly scavenged by bears and other wild animals.
She continued to beat herself up, blaming herself for his escape, even though I continually reminded her that she'd done everything right. Our puppy was just not interested in the basics of care. He wanted his kids. And there wasn't much she could do to stop him from going to find them. Once we got into town, I told her to leave the hunt to us. She'd done enough, tortured herself enough, and it was time to let us put in some detective work.
Sunday, which normally would have been used for unpacking and watching football, my youngest son and his daddy drove all the same roads my friend had been driving, hoping that hearing their voices would bring Max out of his hiding place. They hiked all the trails at his favorite dog park. They called shelters and sheriff offices. In the middle of the night Sunday I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, praying that in the end we would just find out, either way, what had happened to our precious boy. When it became apparent that sleep would not come, I got out of bed and made my way downstairs.
I checked the back porch. Crate still there, door open. Food and water dishes, still full. I opened the sliding door just a crack and whistled. A few times I called his name, trying not to wake the neighbors, but still reach as far as it could go into the woods behind our house. No rustling. No energetic little brown dog running toward his warm home.
I signed up for a Craigslist account and posted a heartfelt plea, along with an recent picture of Max in both the lost and found and the pet sections. I also scoured the 'found' listings, hoping that I'd stumble upon our boy. Lots of pit bull mixes and Chihuahuas, but no medium brown dog with floppy ears. I went to the back door, called for him one more time, then fell into a fitful sleep on the couch that is nearest the door where he just might reappear.
The most heart breaking part of the experience was helping my youngest son handle his grief. Max was his friend. Max was the loving constant in his life, when older siblings were pushing too many of his buttons. I cried along with him on Sunday night, as he sobbed to me, "But I was supposed to grow up with Max!"
A big part of his grief came from the not knowing. His mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. "I can see him in my mind, curled up in the wild...cold and suffering!" he cried to me. I assured him that there was just as much chance that someone had found him and was still trying to figure out who to call so we could be reunited. I hoped it was true.
As I snuggled up with him on my king sized bed on Sunday night, trying to help him drift off to sleep while Dad and his older brother did one more lap around the dog parks and neighborhood roads in the dark, I found myself telling him stories of the day I felt my deepest grief, the day I lost my mom. I told him about the days after she died, a handful of years before he was born, and how deeply sad I'd felt. He held my hand as I cried new tears for her, understanding for the first time these stories of a grandmother he never knew.
On Monday I found myself searching for him in the woods along the road as I drove to the grocery store. Maybe he was somewhere in those shadows, hunkered down, waiting us out. Maybe he was injured, just a short distance from home, and unable to even hobble the short distance to help.
Once back home I went to the back door and whistled, calling his name, a few times every hour. Part of me wanted to believe he truly was 'okay'. That he was in someone's house, being fed, maybe bathed, before they drove him to the shelter, where we'd find him. But part of me knew that sustained temperatures in the teens, along with wind gusts in the high 70s didn't make for a very friendly climate for a skinny dog surviving in the woods.
My older son went to his college classes on Monday, then spent the rest of the day driving around Denver, visiting every shelter he could find, hoping to see a familiar puppy's face. He came home tired and defeated.
We all went to bed on Monday night with heavy hearts. What we didn't know was that we wouldn't sleep for long.
Just after midnight I awoke to my daughter's voice, screaming, "He's BACK! Max is BACK!" Within seconds of sitting up in bed, there he was, running down the hallway to our bedroom. It was hard to imagine it wasn't a dream.
My husband, Max's favorite hiking buddy, sat up and said, "Max?" in a surprised voice.
It was all the encouragement he needed. Two seconds later a very dirty, smelly dog had jumped up on our bed, a place he was never allowed before he got lost.
There was much petting and grinning and pronouncements of "I can't believe he's home!"
He was home. Smelling like a dead animal and thinner than we'd ever seen him, he was home.
My daughter had been asleep when a scratching sound woke her up. Then she heard a tinkling sound, like dog tags clinking against each other. On a whim she climbed out of bed and made her way to the back door. And there he was. He'd found his way home.
In the days after, as I slowly introduced his system to healthy food, we had hints of his trials. Apparently he had not found a friendly person to feed him and protect him from the wind. He coughed up several piles of pine needles and bark. After a very long bath (with two 'repeat and rinses') he made his way to his cozy crate and sunk down into the fluffy blankets. He slept away most of two whole days.
And then he was back. His energy was back. His joy was back. Our Max was back.
The day after he returned we had temperatures that fell below zero and many inches of new snowfall. We all recognized that if he hadn't come home when he did, he probably wouldn't have made it. The conditions were just too brutal.
But he did make it. With whatever God has in heaven that protects the creatures of the earth, our Max was watched over and led home at just the right time.
Our puppy thought he could find his kids, after they dared to leave him for more than a day. He ran and ran and struggled and struggled. But in the end all it took for him to find them was the simple act of finding his way home.
Back to that sliding door that leads to the place where he is loved.