When you’re young ten years seems like a long time, but as you get older you come to realize it can go by in a flash. A decade ago today, I walked out of the Humane Society in Newark, New Jersey with a black, labrador-mix mutt on a leash. I took him home to my ridiculously tiny studio apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, and named him Mister President.
He was less than a year old then, and already fairly large. He had, at the end of each of his long, lanky legs, an almost comically oversized paw, suggesting that though he was no longer really a puppy, neither was he quite a grown dog yet. The folks at the shelter told me that he was seven months old, but I never really knew whether to believe that or not. Like a lot of dog pounds, they were doing their best with too many dogs and too few staff, and had little to offer in the way of prior history or other vital information, so I’ve never known his actual birthday.
That first week, he was frightened and cagey, and I was too, truth be told. I was single and I valued my then relatively carefree lifestyle, so the idea of raising a dog — being responsible for another living being — was more like a suit of clothes I was trying on with idle curiosity than a mantle I was accepting with a full awareness of all its implications.
In the back of my mind, I almost expected to chicken out and take him back to the shelter within a week or so. But I hung in there and so did Mister President, and at some point there was no going back. He had become Man’s Best Friend.
Now it’s ten years later. Ten great years have passed with this very singular character by my side. He doesn’t talk and he doesn’t write and his listening and comprehension skills are debatable, but he’s incredibly expressive and incredibly empathetic nevertheless. I know him so well that it feels as if we are in a kind of perpetual silent dialogue; his moods and his needs and his troubles are transparent to me, and probably vice versa.
Whether you believe in treating animals as little people or as dumb creatures, it’s hard to deny that owning a pet is a kind of relationship, a pairing of personalities. You train one another, you adjust to one another, you learn to trust one another. You care for one another, too, in an admittedly lopsided but nevertheless reciprocal way.
That duty of care-taking has become progressively more urgent and more medical, as over time Mister President has succumbed to the atrophy of old age. A human decade makes for a canine septuagenarian, and arthritis has found its way into his hind legs. For at least six or seven years, I’ve been supplementing his diet with glucosamine and chondroitin, to help stave off the disease. As it inevitably worsened, his veterinarian added an advanced anti-inflammatory available by prescription only. We also kept his weight down and moderated his physical exertion.
Earlier this fall though, he started showing markedly worse stiffness in his legs, and I would hear him yelp in pain when over-extending himself. Then, a few days ago, it got so bad that he can now barely support himself on his back legs; he walks mostly on his front two, dragging the rear two behind him lamely. I’m working with two veterinarians to try and relieve this situation, but for me it feels exceedingly grim. Earlier this evening I managed to get Mister President to walk down the street a bit, and he did so with such wobbliness, such obvious, excruciating discomfort, that I broke down and cried in the middle of the block.
I read somewhere once that adopting a pet is virtually the same as signing up for some future heartbreak, because pets so infrequently outlive their masters. If we truly love the pet, we do whatever is in our power to postpone that heartbreak. For Mister President, that day is not necessarily here yet — I’m not giving up on him by any means — but it has come into focus in a very real, very frightening way. When I look at his once fully jet black coat, now turning in many places to a distinguished but shocking white, I know that full heartbreak is closer than ever.
It’s not time to get funereal yet, though. Actually, what I meant to do was to celebrate this anniversary, because it’s a significant one. This dog has made my life immeasurably richer than it would have been had I never brought him home. He taught me loads about all manner of things, but mostly about what it means to care for another living being, and how rewarding it can be. I’m grateful to him for every minute of that decade. Best ten years of my life, really.