In a way, I am both the luckiest and the unluckiest person in the world. I’m twenty-four, reasonably socialized, and have never experienced the pain of personal death. Sure, I’ve had distant uncles and grand-parents pass on, but no one I’ve felt genuinely close to. For that, I’m probably fortunate. However, each year, the gap between my inevitable experience with mortality and I has closed in, tighter and tighter, and as I write this, I am preparing to say goodbye to my best friend.
I met the Rat, formerly known as Snowball, when I was only seven. He was the size of a small cantaloupe and skated across the living room floor. Three months old. He howled all day and night, worse than a hooker scrounging to pay rent. At night, we kept him in a crate tucked underneath the stairs, so we wouldn’t hear him barking, which I felt to be an unbearable punishment for what occurs to me now must have been a legitimate hellion. New pet owners must feel exactly as new mothers do.
Within the first year, we moved him upstairs, into the laundry room. I taught him, “Bed time!” and wherever he was, he would run to his kennel. We took him to obedience school, but we decided that we had either failed as teachers or that he was dumb as a rock. The alternative is that he was always secretly smarter than us, knew it, and took advantage of the fact that he could choose to only come when we called “Cheese!” or “Car ride!”. He wasn’t much of a showman, but you could always count on him to balance on his haunches for minutes on end when a chunk of cheddar was raised above his head. He had fine tastes and would turn up his nose at plastic squeaky toys and rawhide in favor of real T-bone. He would make a special exception for the odd sock.
When he was into his independent adult years, we felt the Rat was well behaved enough to graduate to the family room couch, where sometimes he would roam the room and bark at approaching animals in his territory, but would more or less sleep soundly. When I left for film school, I felt the impending loss of my respectfully aged animal and begged my parents to allow him to sleep with me. I was spoiling him, but only because it might be the last time I’d ever see him, and I felt he deserved it. I trained him to bounce off and on the bed with the help of a footstool, when I was fed up with lifting him because the mattress was too high.
I went away to school. When I came back a year later, it only took him a couple of sniffs to remember me. He felt less bulky, more fragile, but he could still join me for bedtime. His harness had started to fray, but I was afraid to jinx his lifespan by investing in something new, so I simply sewed up the old one. I left again, to travel to England, and felt the cold grip of fear every time I got an unexpected call from my parents. I started planning the commemorative tattoo I would get in his honor – a paw print with his distinctive eyes inside, one blue and one brown. This was almost four years ago. The longer I stayed away and felt the fear, the more I came to accept the Inevitable End. I had to release the fear or it would destroy me. My two-year Youth Mobility Visa expired and I returned to Canada. My best friend was still there to greet me.
He had a tendency to hurt himself occasionally doing stunts he used to accomplish with ease – he strained his back leaping off the back porch at our summer home to chase a squirrel. For several months, he couldn’t jump off and on the couch. It was clear that his eyes were starting to cloud and his tail seemed a bit too stiff to wag all the time, like it used to. But he still knew who I was. He still loved compulsive foot licking (an OCD trait I’m sure he inherited from me, sans the licking feet part). His primary goal in existence still seemed to be to sit at my feet at the kitchen table pleading for, nay, expecting cheese and broccoli. He almost never barked, and in my mother’s opinion, this was a good thing.
When we moved to a new city, it took the Rat some time to adapt. He had some misfortune with the tricky stairs. One night, he slipped on the corner and fell two stairs back into the wall. It was comedic for six seconds until I saw blood drip from his chin. He’d knocked out the trademark snaggletooth that characterized his distinctive under-bite. I spent the night on the phone with a jaded graveyard ER vet, holding a tampon to the unfortunate dimwit’s bleeding mouth. On another occasion, we determined the Rat got into the neighbor’s yard and ate something he shouldn’t have, when he began shitting blood for a week. That was fun. Because we were in a rented house with our landlord’s furniture, I decided it was best that he remain sleeping in my bed, with towels layered underneath. Though I secretly didn’t expect him to, the blood-shitting eventually ceased, and I felt like I had my old friend back again. He was a pain to drag out on a walk, but when we took him off-leash and let him run home, and you’d better believe he was keeping tracking of just how far away he was, you’d have sworn he was a jackrabbit.
By this time, it was coming to occur to me that the main reason I was twenty-three and still living with my parents was because I’d quietly resigned to myself to the idea that I would go when he went. He was sixteen, but I rounded up and told people he was seventeen, because when you get to be a hundred-odd human years, you deserve every bit of praise and admiration you can get.
The Rat is two months past seventeen now. He entered a transition during the time when I realised he might outlive my sanity if I continued living with my parents any longer. I had begun spending more and more time with my boyfriend to a point where it was pointless to say I wasn’t living with him. Since I worked nights, sometimes I would break into my own home after a shift at three in the morning to say hello to the Rat. Eventually, I realised this was probably more disruptive than anything, as it got him excited when he should be sleeping, and therefore more likely to wake my parents up, so I did it less and less. I was busy and I determinedly trusted that my best friend had reached a point of sheer immorality and would remain frozen in his current freakish state until I eventually returned for him.
In August, the month of the Rat’s seventeenth birthday, he became ill. He completely stopped barking and yelped whenever he shook his head, and I surmised that he’d hurt his neck. For the first time since he was an excitable horny teen, he lost bladder control too, and began having accidents daily. All this, on top of the fact that he was night blind and almost entirely deaf. I was busy between the stresses of work and avoiding living with my parents, and I reluctantly accepted that this was the end, and that if at the end of my work week, the Rat wasn’t better, I would have to take him in myself, if my parents wouldn’t.
Naturally, the Rat got better. I fed him natural remedies and baby aspirin for arthritis. He stopped yelping and started making an effort to jump on and off the couch again. When I broke into my own home after work, and took the Rat into the yard, he would even run in circles like a madman, tail wagging, crouching playfully, nipping at aggressing fingers and toes. He would still dash for steak or cheese. He still loved to curl up in my armpit and snore sweetly on my bicep all night. His favorite midnight snack was still feet. I decided that any animal who could overcome such dire illness at such a late stage deserves to at least be given the opportunity to try to make it to a point where I can joke about him being nearly legal voting age.
But we are entering a new phase of change. My parents are returning to our old city to embark on their own separate new challenges, and I am assuming the responsibility of seeing my best friend into his final months, weeks, or days. I experienced genuine fright tonight – the first night I am spending alone with my old friend in my new home. There are more stairs than he is used to. There’s no living room furniture for him to curl up on yet. I have yet to install the baby gate on the stairs. There is no easy-to-access yard for him to run into at his leisure; it is a trip up and down a flight of stairs that no one wants to make more than once an hour. I don’t know what he will behave like on his first night home alone, when I’ll be experimentally fitting him with canine diapers. I want to believe that he has it in him to adapt just one last time, so that he can pass naturally, in comfort, in the company of the human that I believe he loves best. I hope it isn’t a fool’s venture.
He can’t bounce up and down the footstool anymore. But I still recognise my quirky old friend. He scratches on the stainless steel dishwasher just like he scratches on the door to go out at my parents’ house – an easy mistake to make when you’re only a foot tall, I tell myself. It’s a simultaneously depressing and hilariously befitting example of the level of intelligence I’ve come to expect from this dog, over the years. When I brought him up onto the bed with me, even though I told myself that I would try to train him to sleep on the floor, he immediately curled up and went to sleep, realizing for the first time this long evening that this was home.
And now, as I listen to him snore like a fitful freight train, I am left with the ultimate decision. How do I determine when the darkness in my best friend’s eyes overshadows the light? When should I tell him that I love him more than anything for all the years that he’s fought to keep me from experiencing mortality, but that it’s time for us both to let go? How? As long as I see light in those blue-and-brown eyes, I will fight alongside my old friend, even though the battle’s already been lost. I’ll fend off bullets with him in the trenches until he runs out of ammo. I pray that when the gun-smoke clears, the sun will still be shining, and that my best friend will finally be at peace wherever he decides to take his final rest.