For my partner
I still remember on the first day of grade one, the teacher told everyone in my class to write about their best friend. My best friend was always Ruby. Ruby and I spent hours playing together after school and then slept side-by-side on my little half-sized bed.
“You must be very close,” she teacher told me after I’d showed her my story, smiling. “Tell me more about Ruby. What’s she like?”
“She’s black,” I said, and when the teacher looked a little uncomfortable with my word choice, I added, “But she has some white spots! She’s a miniature terror.”
The teacher relaxed a little. “’Terrier’,” I can remember her correcting me. “The word is ‘terrier.”
Ruby was given to me when I was six after my parents had gone through a particularly rough break-up. My dad was always away on business anyway, so I remember wondering what all the fuss was about. I actually think I saw him more after they’d split than I did before. Nevertheless, Mum felt really awful about it and came home one day with this tiny little black puppy. I was really into Pokémon at the time and wanted to call her after one of them, but Mum wouldn’t let me and insisted on giving her a ‘normal’ name. I agreed to call her Ruby because my favourite colour was red, but believe me I wasn’t happy about the compromise.
Whatever her name was, I just adored her from the get-go. She had just so much endless energy and we’d run around the house together, knocking things off stuff and crawling under furniture. She fit perfectly into my old Cabbage Patch Doll clothes and so when no one was looking (because I wasway too old for dolls), I would dress her up as various characters and take photos with Dad’s digital camera.
As I got older, so did she. She still slept on my bed, but after I got a double there was much more room for her and she used to spread out completely over the other side. My girlfriend wasn’t happy about that and suggested she sleep on the floor instead.
“Why don’t you sleep on the floor instead?” I also suggested pleasantly. “She’s been sleeping there for eleven years.” We broke up later that year, anyway.
My final exams were in winter and I have this great memory of her napping on my feet under the desk because I had my little heater on down there. When she dreamt she used to twitch in her sleep and it would tickle.
Before university I took a gap year and went backpacking through South America with a couple of friends. I had an absolute ball and I will neverforget some of the fantastic experiences I had, regardless of what happened.
But when I got home, Mum hugged me and welcomed me and mid-way through me gushing about Brazil she interrupted. “Honey,” she said. Her tone worried me. “Ruby’s sick.”
I just stared at her for a moment. “What do you mean sick?”
She swallowed. “She has cancer. I didn’t want to tell you while you were over in America and having the time of—”
“Mum!” I said. “She’s Ruby! How could you not tell me!” Come to think of it, Ruby hadn’t been rushing up to the door to greet me the way she always used to. I stood up and called out for her, slapping my thighs. “Ruby! Ruby! Here, girl!”
She didn’t come, I had to go looking for her. She wasn’t in any of the usual places: lying in the sun on the porch, sitting in the kitchen staring hopefully at the fridge or terrorizing birds in the yard.
When I did find her, she was curled up quietly in my bed. She looked like someone else’s dog; her fur was ragged and had thinned so much I could see her grey skin underneath.
I hadn’t seen her for ten months, and in that ten months she’d aged a whole lifetime.
Her cloudy eyes were looking at me as I entered. There was no tail wag. No bouncy jumping, tail-chasing, barking welcome home. She was so still.
Ruby was sick. I sat down on the bed beside her and put a gentle hand on her back; I could feel every bone in her spine.
Mum had followed me to my bedroom. “She missed you,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. “She still sleeps on your bed every night. Even though you weren’t here.”
And she was, she was still sleeping on her side like she was waiting for me to come back and lie on mine.
I will never forget that awful grinding guilt I felt for leaving her. For abandoning her when she most needed the love and comfort I had always been there to give her. It left a deep hole right in the centre of my stomach. The worst thing was, I could never explain to her how I felt or how sorry I was.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” I repeated to Mum. “I would have come back.”
“I know,” Mum said simply. She took a breath. “We have an appointment at the vet tomorrow. I made them wait a couple of months so you could come back. The vet’s been telling me to think about how we should—”
“Don’t say it. Please.” I touched Ruby’s warm little head. She was still looking at me. “Please. I’m just going to go to bed now.”
I had trouble sleeping that night. It was partially due to jet-lag, and partially due to the fact I was scared I was going to turn over in the middle of the night and squash little Ruby. She was so fragile.
I tried to imagine how it must feel to have your best friend suddenly disappear with no explanation. She must have wandered around the house, waited by the door, lay by the front gate and waited for me to come back but I never did, not until now. I felt deep in my heart that waiting for me had made her sick. She was old, I know. I read on the Internet that her breed usually lived twelve to fourteen years anyway, so it wasn’t exactly unexpected. But she’d been fine when I left, and she wasn’t fine now.
I accidentally did flop my arm onto her in the middle of the night, and it made her whine. A piercing, frightened noise that startled me. I sat up and turned the light on. My first thought was that I’d broken something, so I felt around gently to see if I had. Under my fingers and all over her stomach I could feel solid lumps. When I touched them, she whimpered.
Those brown eyes just looked at me. She shifted uncomfortably and then closed her eyes again. I turned over, staring at the numbers on my digital clock. Six hours left. I put my arm around her to keep her warm.
The vet was just down the street, and I had been planning on taking her on her last walk there. She used to love walks, she’d pull on the leash so strongly that it would half-strangle her and she’d make these hoarse gasping noises. It wouldn’t stop her from getting to whatever she wanted to smell, though.
This time, she just stood hunched in the middle of the pavement and looked at me. When I gently tugged the leash, she took a single step.
“She has bad arthritis,” Mum told me. “Probably best if you carry her.”
I couldn’t make eye-contact with the vet when we went inside. I knew how he was looking at me and I didn’t want to see it.
“It’s for the best,” he said. “She’s sick, she’s in a lot of pain.”
“Then give her painkillers,” I said, looking down at the furry skeleton that used to be my bouncy little puppy. I don’t even know why I said that, because I knew it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.
Mum and the vet looked at each other.
The vet was busy filling some syringes in the corner of the room. “You don’t have to watch,” he said gently to me. “We have a lovely rose garden out the back, you can go sit out there if you want.”
Ruby’s big brown eyes were looking quietly up at me. “No, I’ll stay,” I said. I wasn’t with her when she was sick. The least I could do is be with her now.
The vet nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I’m going to give her two injections. This one,” he said, holding up a clear syringe, “makes her feel all lovely and relaxed. It will make her pain go away and she’ll be very peaceful. After she’s feeling like that, I’ll give her this one.” He held up a syringe full of pink fluid. It seemed an ironically cheerful colour for that liquid to be.
“What do I do?” I asked as he came over to the bench with them.
“Just hold her,” he said. “It doesn’t take long.”
He was right. After he’d given her the first injection, she relaxed and her head lolled over my arm. She had been looking at me, but her eyes rolled back in her head. She sighed. It ached to hear it; it was restful, peaceful. It was as if she’d been holding her breath and waiting to release it.
The vet finished in just a few seconds. In those seconds, I said goodbye to my best friend. My best friend, my playmate, the character who’d shared by bed for twelve short years and always been there to love me when I was sad – I watched her die in my arms. There would be no more wet kisses in the morning. No more leaping around my feet when I came home from school. I watched her last laboured breath and felt the last gasp of life slip from her. I watched until it was over and she was gone. Then it was just me, just me bent over this stainless steel tray with an empty little body in my arms.
The vet let me cut a rose from the garden to put in the box with her body, and we dug her grave in our back garden near the flowers she always used to rip up. We buried her with her blanket so she would always be warm and comfortable.
I loved my Ruby all of her short life, with all of my heart. Ruby was my best friend even though she was just a miniature terror, I’ll never have another friend like Ruby.
RIP Max, my partner’s Forever Friend, 2000-2013.