As a heathen, I don’t put my faith in Master Plans or the ‘will’ of invisible, sky-dwelling deities. But I must admit that sometimes, through whatever circumstance you choose to call it, we find exactly who we need in this life.
She was a lost little dog, running the streets collarless and dirty, taken in temporarily by one of my wife’s co-workers. You should understand – my wife, Julie, having been raised a ‘cat’ person, was never really at ease around canines. She says she always felt as if they were eyeing her jugular vein. But when that co-worker brought this piss-and-vinegar-laden Jack Russell into the office, it promptly plopped down under my wife’s desk, looked up at her with those mischievous brown eyes, and just like that we had us a dog.
Fast-forward ten years and we are sitting in a veterinarian’s exam room, being told that kidney failure is the reason for this somewhat sudden onset of lethargy and lack of appetite. No whining, no complaints, even as her body was poisoning itself. But at 16, there was probably no hope of effective treatment, either. And just like that, we are discussing euthanasia.
In the interim, however, we all lived the life of Riley.
That we become so attached to these beasts is an odd thing. In our case, she was the one who held sway over our decision regarding the biggest purchase of our lives. When we moved to Colorado seven years ago, we were under a tight deadline and so were rushing all over town with the realtor looking at properties. Nothing had appealed to us until we stepped through the door of the house we eventually bought. Julie turned to the side, admired the expansive window seat in the front room and simply said, “Riley would love that.” Where do we sign?
Dogs can be demanding, loud, messy and even destructive. As for Riley, she routinely engaged the vacuum cleaner in mortal combat (at least when she was younger) despite our howled protestations. And Julie’s prediction about the window seat couldn’t have been more accurate. It offered the perfect view of her domain – like Mufasa, she ruled over everything the light touched, or at least she thought she did. Interlopers were not tolerated, to be sent on their way with a fusillade of frenzied canine invectives, so living next door to a dog groomer meant plenty of interrupted phone conversations and TV shows.
And she shed like nothing I have ever beheld in all my days. If you came to my house, it was a given that you would leave coated in white hair. No matter how many times I vacuum-jousted or how many lint rollers I burned through, she always won that battle. How she had any fur left on her body was a complete mystery.
My son was another convert. Like Julie, he was also wary around dogs as he was growing up. But in Riley he found what was for him most likely the perfect pet – a young man’s best friend if ever there was one.
And yet, the circle of life plays no favorites. And the inevitable end we know is coming still sucks the wind from us when it arrives. There is a scene in the movie As Good as it Gets, where Jack Nicholson chides himself for getting emotional “over a dog.” It does seem foolish, with all that’s going on in the world at the moment, to let such an insignificant thing as the passing of an animal affect us so deeply. But with me working from the house for the last several years, she had been my constant companion. So it only seemed right to repay her unflagging loyalty in kind, to stay with her as she breathed her last and the light drained from those cloudy but still mischievous eyes, to see that she not die among strangers.
It has only been a few days, so I still look for her on her perch in the window seat or curled in her bed in the TV room, snoring softly. And in that moment when I realize she’s gone, the sadness is quickly pushed aside by the memories of that lost little dog that found her way to us.
It is the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: goodbye. – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.