I remember picking him up at the farm. It was the summer of 2001, going into my freshman year of high school. Like any kid, I had always wanted a dog. We had one when I was little, but my best recollection is that I was a bit afraid of him.
Obviously, that sentiment about dogs changed. I’d beg and plead with my parents for a dog. They gave me the usual spiel.
“It’s a lot of responsibility. You’ll have to clean up after him.”
“I’ll do it, I promise!”
They probably had good parental reasoning for not believing me. Kids do have the tendency to say anything to get what they want. But this was different. I really wanted a dog. I even started taking an interest in getting a pet turtle just to prove I could take care of a living thing. I read up on turtles and got books out of the library. Granted a pet turtle is hardly the responsibility of a dog, but it’s the next best pet I could think of. After all, there’s no such thing as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Hamster.
I’m not sure when the switch happened, but I remember my dad asking me one morning in the kitchen what I thought about a Rat Terrier. “They’re like a Jack Russell, but cheaper.” Cheaper because Jack Russells were all the rage thanks to the likes of Fraiser and The Mask. Plus rat terriers come with a cool origin story, named by President Teddy Roosevelt after this breed of dog was unleashed on the White House to rid the seat of power of rats. At least, that’s how I remember the story. Feel free to fact check me.
So one summer morning we packed into the car and followed a lead for a rat terrier puppy. He was the runt of the pack, we were told, and the last to be sold. I have vague memories of the owner going to get him and bringing him over for the first time. Like a runt, he was incredibly tiny and shy. His black ears flopped forward over his pointy black, brown, and white face, just above his perfectly-placed–comically so–brown eyebrows and beady brown eyes.
Not that I could blame the little guy for being terrified of the strange monsters suddenly surrounding him. Nevertheless, we said we’d take him pretty instantaneously.
We placed him on a blanket in the middle of the backseat between my brother and me. He curled up and was quiet the rest of the way back home. That was pretty much the last time he was ever quiet. True to their description, rat terriers are about as active and hyper as dogs come. It took a while for him to come out of his shell. There was even a time when his bark was a novel thing, brought on by my dad slamming weights during a workout. Before long his piercing shriek of a bark seemed to be something of a constant in our lives.
“Play with me. PLAY with me. PLAY WITH ME!”
And when he played, he played. He’d hold on tight to chew toys to the point where you could lift him up. I’d pick him up by the armpits and he’d bounce off my chest and do a somersault in midair, landing perfectly onto the bed like some canine acrobat. (My brother and I called it “Suicidal Puppy,” which I realize now was pretty dark for a high school kid.) He liked it when you played a little rough with him and always came back for more. Needless to say, we had the perfect name for him, Rudy, like the Notre Dame football player.
Everyone knows when they get a dog that they live but a fraction of a human life. Rat terriers, due to their size, come with a longer life expectancy. I’ve seen anywhere between 15 and 20 years. But whether it’s 5 years or 20 years, you never think about that in the moment. The connection between man and dog grows faster than between two humans. Case in point, you’re much more likely to start hugging and letting a dog kiss you at first sight than you are another person. (No judgments if that’s your bag.)
The same held true for Rudy. As soon as he entered our lives, I never imagined him not in it even though I rationally knew he wouldn’t be some day. I remember him being the lone bright spot on 9/11 when he came trotting out of the car after football practice (ignorance truly is bliss) and he always came on our family trips, plopped firmly on the pillow on my mother’s lap, barking uncontrollably when he could somehow sense that my dad was pulling into a gas station.
We had four years together before I moved down to Oxford, Ohio for college. Of course, Rudy was there for the move, but he went back up to Northeast Ohio where he somehow managed to become even more attached to my mom, following her from room to room. (Unless my dad happened to be making eggs, then he’d switch favorites.)
I remember my cousin telling me at my high school graduation party to “enjoy college because it’s gonna go by like that.” He was right. I can still hardly believe that he gave that advice almost half my life ago. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course. Time moves on, perpetually faster by most anecdotal accounts. It’s only regrettable, if not seemingly cruel, that the life of a family member like Rudy should vanish in what feels like a blink.
I’ve moved quite a bit since college. There was a summer in Los Angeles, a couple of years in Chicago, a few years in Cleveland, a year in Costa Rica, another year in Cleveland, and now Germany. Because visits home became fewer and further between, there’d always be something different about Rudy each and every time. I don’t know when, but at some point, Rudy went from being the dog who could lock his jaw firmly onto a chew toy and be swung around the room (we didn’t do that, just illustrating the point) to bumping into things as he lost his sight. My most recent memories are of him being obviously blind, bumping his way around the house with that football helmet noggin of his. His shrill bark always remained, though, ready and willing to play as long as you helped him out a bit with finding the toy. (And there were always plenty of licks in store if you did help him out.)
The last time I saw him was Christmas of 2016. He looked old. His jaw did this weird thing where it almost looked and sounded like it was locking or that maybe he was grinding his teeth (if that’s even a thing dogs do). He took bigger, slower steps, probably because every step was a bit of a mystery. He spent more time curled up in his bed but never showed any strong signs that the end was near.
Even though I had absolutely no indication that it would be the last time I’d see him, I remember running upstairs to my parent’s bedroom to spend a little extra time with him after our bags were packed to head to my in-law’s for the rest of Christmas. Sure enough, he was asleep. I laid there for a few minutes, petting him as he slept soundly. I told him I loved him and that was a great little brother. He woke up for a moment, slowly lifting his heavy narrow head and started licking my hand.
(Not to ruin this presumably touching moment, but as I hinted at before, it wasn’t exactly difficult to get kisses out of Rudy.)
With that, I gave him a scratch behind the ear and left.
Last night I heard from my dad that Rudy was acting especially lethargic that morning, enough so to warrant a trip to the vet. He had multiple tumors on his spleen, so my father made the quick (and no doubt difficult) decision to euthanize him and spare him the pain.
I already had plans to visit Cleveland next month. I just didn’t know it would be the first time in almost two decades Rudy wouldn’t be there.
It’s been difficult conceptualizing that he’s gone in the short time since I heard the news. Life is fleeting enough for humans let alone for a creature that surely deserves more out of life than most humans do.
Rudy brought overwhelming joy to our lives. Sure there were those mornings when he’d scratch relentlessly at my bedroom door before I was ready to get up and a great many nights where he just wouldn’t stop with the ear-piercing barks until someone paid attention to him, but I’m ultimately grateful for it all.
He was a good dog. He was family. And as my dad said, I’ll miss that tough little bugger.