Doing life on her own terms
By M.C. Sungaila, March 2010, Updated February 2015

“She doesn’t have much time,” my mother said over the phone one April morning, “you should come down this weekend.” My dog, an almost 17-year-old white, coal-eyed Bichon Frise, who had been part of the family since she was four months old, was dying. Whether it was a recently-found tumor or a long-hidden hormonal imbalance, the problem was neurological, and Dr. Cohen told us there was little he could do for her. “If she were my dog,” he said, “I would take her home to be with the  family.” And so my mother did.

Machi started life at my parents’ home, where I still lived as I began my career as a lawyer, saving money to buy my own home. When I moved into a Los Angeles apartment 60 miles away, I took her with me. I was rarely home; the long hours I worked meant she spent most of her time alone. She became flea-bitten and confused by apartment living.

When, two years later, I bought a home a few minutes from my parents’, she hid behind couches and ate an entire bowl of foil-wrapped chocolates, prompting an emergency call to the vet. I was in a troubled relationship and navigating my way through the politics of law firm life. Machi absorbed the stress. Once I yelled at her as I lay crying on my bed and, contrary to my house rules, she tried to climb up to see me. She never forgot that yell, no matter how tightly I held her or how much I apologized afterward. Whoever said dogs live in the moment never knew Machi, whose memory and intelligence were deep.  

Once, on a visit to my parents’ house, as the time to leave came, I looked over at Machi. She was sitting up, looking out the window from beside the chair in which I was sitting. I called her to go home. As I did, she suddenly thrust her head down and pretended to be asleep. I took her home that night but, within the week, I returned her to my parents. It was clear she preferred her childhood home to mine.    


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Machi was always her own woman. She loved all of us (my father in particular), but she did what she wanted, when she wanted, on her own terms. She did not, as my mother liked to say, “pander” to anyone. That quality was in fact why I chose her. She was the only one of the litter to squirm off my lap when I tried to hold her. That quality was also how she got her name. Machi was short for Machisma, the female version of machismo.

Machi, sick, lay flat like a rug on my parents’ hardwood floor or the cool limestone of the bathroom. Her remaining joy was to sit outside, with a light breeze ruffling her hair, her body slowly and softly being stroked. It seemed to remind her of her middle years, when she would sit outside alone after dinner, sniffing the breeze. My father used to call it her after-dinner “smoke.”

Machi was a fighter. For years she lived with crippling arthritis and never complained; she just took shorter and slower walks. She accepted what was and kept going. She would never give up, no matter how wracked her body became.

And so, after a particularly painful night, the decision was unanimous. My father, who typically avoided  illness or death, drove us to Dr. Cohen’s. Machi cried out when the needle entered her paw. She looked surprised and perhaps a bit betrayed that we had taken the last thing she had—the fight itself—away from her. All three of us held her.   

The next day, I ran the treadmill, pushing through intense bursts of interval training. On the third interval, I wanted to give up. Then I thought of what Machi would do, and I pressed on.

Photo by David Heath of Western Exposure

M.C. Sungaila is a lawyer in Los Angeles. She and her parents now have one Bichon in their lives, Gigi, who was also Machi's longtime friend.