I remember that day vividly. Just as Sam and I turned the corner onto our street, I noticed my neighbour’s dog. It had broken loose from its thick metal chain and I could feel the fear in my stomach bubbling up as it charged towards us. My legs were frozen in place. I was powerless to act, but Sam wasn’t.
Just as the dog pounced, Sam stepped in front of me. Sam tried to shake it off but it was too strong. When my mouth caught up with my brain, I yelled for help. By the time it’s owner wrestled it away, Sam was bleeding profusely. He needed more than 30 stitches, and I was profoundly aware that it could have been me in the hospital instead.
Two years earlier, Sam had left home after his mother died, and was settling into a new country with a new family. He looked lost, afraid, and vulnerable. He was big for his age and had gotten into a few fights. Unfortunately, the world judges by appearances and Sam didn't score well on that count. He was what some might call "rough around the edges,” but I sensed a gentleness in him. Once we got to know each other, Sam and I became inseparable.
Whenever it was a slightly cooler than boiling day, we would perch on the edge of the hill behind my house looking out over Kuala Lumpur, watch the cars zip by on the road below, and I’d share my grandest dreams.
“Look at all those people rushing around, Sam. I bet they do the same thing every day. I’d die of boredom if I were to live like that. ”
“Well, what will you do then?”
“I’m going to travel the world. I’m going to ride camels, I’m going to walk the Great Wall, and I’m going to visit the monasteries in Tibet. And, when I’m done, I’m going to change the world. You’ll see me on the cover of Time Magazine one day!”
“Hahaha, my toes are laughing,” he’d smirk.
“Why not?” I’d retort. “You’ve got to aim high, otherwise you’re never going to leave the ground.”
“Well, I’m just happy to be right here. Send me a postcard when you reach the sky.”
“Ok silly, but I’m aiming for something way higher than the sky!”
He’d grunt, but I knew he’d be first to cheer me on.
When Sam was diagnosed with a rare parasitic disorder, he was given medication to control the spread through his body, but we were warned that the risk of mortality was high. He had good days where he was perfectly fine, and then he would have bad weeks where his skin would bleed and he'd be unable to eat. Just as Sam was my rock, I became his too. After school I brought my books and sat by his side, just to keep him company. He never complained when he was in pain.
We’d met at the pet store. He was a Tibetan mastiff, a huge breed from northern China. There were two Tibetan mastiffs at the store, one gregarious and playful, and the other trying to disappear into a corner. That was my Sam; he felt like a kindred spirit. Until the end, he tried to make the best of things but, eventually, the disease would take his life.
The time I had with Sam taught me to face challenges with positivity. He taught me to let go of grudges, and how to be strong. He showed me that it’s ok to stand out, and that loyalty is one of the best gifts you can give. Through it all, there was a thread of humour. Little moments, like that one on the hill, that put life into perspective with laughs that radiated all of the way down to my toes.