Every morning when my kids get on the school bus, I tell them: “learn something new and make new friends.” This week my mind was wondering back to 1995, when every Friday afternoon, I took my dog Ness to a park near the Nature Reserve in Englewood. Ness loved that park because, just before sunset, it was often entirely empty and I thus let him walk next to me without the leash. We used to stop and look at the view of all of Bergen County from the top of the hill, watching the magnificent sunset just before twilight.

It was there, when one day both Ness and I got startled when a strange voice surprised us from behind. It was 84 year-old Max and his dog. Meeting Max and his dog on that one particular day marked the beginning of a Friday afternoon ritual; along the paths we always met Max and his dog: I was happy to see Max, and Ness was delighted to see Max’s dog.

Max was walking there daily, trying to forget his troubles, and enjoying nature and his dog. We quickly became friends and Max told me the troubles on his mind: his heart was aching because one of his sons had an unfortunate turn of events in his life.

Max also had great stories about childhood in the Bronx. He told me how he used to listen to Jazz that was played on his father’s radio during the nights. Max used to place his ear on the wall, stealing sweets moments after he had already been told to go to sleep. Later in life, Max told me, he took that passion for music and supported himself by working in a record store at night and studying music during the day. During summer vacations, he often traveled to Florida to have fun and spend time at the race-track, where, if luck was by his side, he tried to make a buck, saving for the following year.

I lost track of Max when a sign suddenly came up and forbade walking dogs in the park. I never saw Max again.

Years later, a woman came to my office and asked to see me. She said that a man named Max was talking a lot about me and that she wanted to meet with me. The woman was Max’s daughter in law. She regretfully told me that Max had passed away. I was really sad to hear the news, but cherished the moments I spent walking in the park and talking to Max.

Ness passed away since too. This coming March, it will be four years since I had to put Ness to sleep. After all, it was thanks to Ness that I met this lovely man Max. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend many summer afternoons with Max, chatting and getting to know him and learning new things from him.

That casual meeting, while walking our dogs, caused us to let our guards down, open our hearts to each other, and share our lives and our stories–Learn new things, make new friends.

I “paws” to think how wonderful it is when pets are around us, how positively they influence our lives — they make us laugh and relax, and perhaps they even make us – humans – be nicer to each other.

Dr. Ohad Barnea is a 1992 graduate of Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of Tenafly Veterinary Center and Cliffside Park Animal Hospital.

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