We collected Maya from the airport on a cool Oaxacan night. Luisa and I located and walked to the packaging area where we believed Maya would be waiting for us; we entered the small building, greeted the night duty clerk, and asked to collect the dog from Guadalajara. He looked at us blankly for a moment; our hearts skipped a beat, a yelp from a storage room refreshed his memory. We completed some paperwork, and the man disappeared into the back to fetch Maya. I absentmindedly tucked my shirt in, hoping to make the best first impression.
This was no ordinary dog (as she was bred in Mexico, Maya seemed an appropriate name); I had chosen the Belgian Malinois breed as I wanted a dog loyal and brave, a dog that would love and protect our other dog, Chewy the Yorkie (who Luisa had adopted after our arduous journey across West Africa). Chewy needs a companion, a friend who will be by his side every day to give him the type of interaction we cannot and to ward off predators and keep him in check, as his prey instinct will often lead him into danger. She was to bring youth and strength as I age, to be a constant companion, every moment of every day spent together, as we continue to travel the world. I had deliberated about adopting another dog for three long years since we “rescued” Chewy. The timing now seemed just right; after over a decade of traveling with us, our two children had reached adulthood and were determined to settle down and start their own lives. Maya was going to fill the void left by the children; she would fill my hours with exercise and training and love and companionship. She was no ordinary dog; she was my new best friend.
I had heard scary stories about the Malinois breed, but my research had determined that, as we would be together constantly and she would receive the necessary mental and physical stimulation, any aggression or bad behavior would be avoided or corrected. The first step to ensuring that she got the best start was to find a place to stay for a few weeks where she could socialize with other people and animals, a safe, walled, and lawned area where she could find her feet and get to know Chewy and us. The camper was ready for her parked at a campsite in Oaxaca; I had spent the last few months preparing and learning and was as ready as I could be to welcome the new member of the family after the long wait.
The dispatch clerk approached the counter carrying a black and gold dog crate which we took and laid on a table. I opened the crate door, reached in, and withdrew Maya, a black face, tan coat, and the deepest brown eyes which locked onto mine. Love at first site. I carried her out of the airport complex, and she sat quietly in my arms and looked at me intently. We gave her some water and returned her to the crate for the ride back to the camp. She did not whimper or bark; she nibbled my finger gently through the cage door.
Maya was perfect.
Her first adventure with us would be an overland journey from southern Mexico to the Arctic Ocean from December to March! I needed to ensure she was trained and ready for the journey and many future travels and adventures.
We soon settled into a routine. At sunrise, after sleeping through the night, she would wake me with a gentle sigh and noisy, high-pitched puppy yawn. She would join me on the bed, and we would bond for a few minutes while I gathered my thoughts; she would chew gently on the ring on my thumb and the silver chain around my neck while I rubbed her warm pot belly and scratched her chest, I would dress, brush my teeth and fill a pocket with her food, only the best food for my girl. Quietly we would leave the camper, and after she relieved herself, we would walk, train and feed from the hand. Gradually her training progressed from sit and stay to specific commands like up, come, and heel. This training, combined with the hand feeding, bonded us until, eventually, she was my shadow, as intended. After training, we would wait for a German friend’s puppy, Gypsy Maria, to come outside for a play session as the sun rose. After Luisa woke, we would take Maya and Chewy for leash training, usually walking to the local bakery, passing many stray dogs and loud vehicles as we walked, she needed to be accustomed to loud noises and other extreme distractions, and Mexico offers plenty of that. Maya liked to walk directly behind Luisa protectively. After the walk, Maya and Chewy would sleep, and I would go about my day. At lunch, we walked and trained, and after a late afternoon walk and play session with all the other camp dogs (Diego, Koo, Gypsy, and Mogli), Maya would sit or lie beside me until it was time for a belly scratch and bed, she never complained when put to bed in her crate, beside my bed. Sometimes when sitting quietly together, she would look at me with a deep, almost sorrowful look which endeared her to me further, she was here to protect and love us, and I was here to protect and love her. Over the course of the month, she calmed an anxiety that I had been suffering for the last few years, she chased away the thoughts which plagued me, and she made me so very happy. She was strong, gentle, intelligent, playful, and obedient.
The day she died had been a near-perfect day. Maya played and stayed with me while I washed the camper and tidied up in preparation for a visit from our kids, who were staying in an apartment in the city. We walked and played and trained three times that day; she had been within touching distance most of the day, and I listened to music and was more content than I had been in a very long time. Jessica and Keelan arrived with Luisa, who had been in town, stocking up on groceries after a dental appointment.
Jessica and I walked the dogs; I showed Jess how to call the dogs and feed them by hand; even Chewy, who is famously resistant to training, had begun joining in with the training and followed little Maya’s lead; Maya was good for us all. Someone left the camp gate open, and the dogs ran off to have a look at who was coming or going, returning to us when called. Maya bounded towards me, sat at my feet, and received her treat and a scratch behind the ears. “Good girl.” We walked on, and a minute later, she approached Jessica, sat, took a treat, and suddenly dropped to the ground, convulsing. She bit down instinctively as I reached into her throat; assuming there was a blockage, there was none. Fellow travelers ran to her aid, and we performed CPR before a new friend rushed us to the vet. She died in my arms. I could not save her; the trained EMT could not save her; the vet could not save her.
Devastated, we returned to the camp with her body, a friend who accompanied us to the vet made sure that we returned with her. I found a shady spot beside a tree and dug a grave in the hard earth, Keelan by my side. We laid her to rest with her blanket and her blue chew toy in shock. There had been no warning at all; one moment, she was there with us, full of love and life, and the next, she was gone. Keelan found a granite slab to lay upon the grave, the next day, new friends brought a plant for us to plant beside the grave, and I carved her name into a section of wood.
We are still heartbroken and utterly confused; our research suggests that she either suffered heart failure or a seizure of some sort. She had no symptoms of any illness at all, she was inspected by a vet two days before and declared to be in perfect health, as expected, and all of her vaccinations and treatments were up to date. Her death shook us to the core; I was wholly invested and in love, and we had done everything possible to ensure that she had every opportunity to grow into a wonderful, healthy, and happy dog. I still feel like I failed her; my job was to love and protect her, but I could not save her when she needed me most; my only consolation is that there was nothing I, or anyone else, could have done; her death was so sudden.
We love you, Maya; you will never be forgotten and not soon replaced.