We never had pets growing up. That is not to say we didn’t have a certain affinity for animals. But beyond a hamster and sporadic fish, there were no traditional pets in our home. In theory, this is because my parents were sheltering us from the pain that ultimately comes with the passing of these pets. It’s a reality of life: if you’re a pet owner you’re going to outlive them, in some cases many times.
My friends had dogs. My cousins had dogs. My girlfriend after college had a dog. And I built bonds with all of them. I considered myself to be a dog person. In fact, I remember breaking up with a girl in college because figuratively, I considered her a cat person and the personality difference between she and I was inherent.
But it wasn’t until I moved in with my then girlfriend and current wife in November of 2011, when I began to be a dog owner. No doubt Riley was my wife’s baby – her first born. He had been with her since May of 2002. He had been with her through some incredibly important highs and lows of her life already. He’d lived in a few different households with her and he was her world. He was treated like a child, not a dog. He slept in the bed. He was hardly ever alone as he was brought to her parents when she worked. He always had her attention. He was playful, full of personality, and incredibly affectionate for a small breed. Then I moved in and I feared that he wouldn’t take to me. But quite the opposite, he took to me right away and we had a real attachment. And since I worked from home, I was able to spend quality time with him during the day. He went for multiple walks with me every day. We had our lunch and snack together. And when we actually had to get down to work, Riley was never more than 2 feet away from my two feet, under my desk or behind my chair. If ever I had to look for Riley, the first place I had to look was down.
My wife would groom him for 2-3 hrs every 4-5 weeks. And he would sit through it, begrudgingly but lovingly. She’d pick eye goopies out. She clip his nails. She’d brush his teeth. She gave him meds to make his belly feel better. She’d cook him eggs or meat when his dog food had no appeal. She took such good care of him. And I was there for amusement all the while. We’d wrestle on the floor together. I’d rub his jowls against the carpet and he’d let out these moans of joy. He’d lay on his back and get his belly rubbed. And sometimes, in an ultimate show of comfort, he’d sleep on his back in the bed with his legs spread eagle – sometimes I’d find a back paw in my mouth as I’d wake in the middle of the night.
Riley was a puppy for almost his entire life. In the last couple years, with our move to a new home and with the entrance of our son into our family’s portrait, Riley showed occasional signs of being his actual age. And that was hard to take. But in general, Riley was the picture of a fun loving, healthy young pup. His little trot with his curled up tail wagging was every bit the same at age 12 as it was as a puppy. And anyone who met us on the street was shocked to hear he was a senior citizen. He made other dogs envious, he made babies smile, and he aroused even the most downtrodden spirits. He was that kind of special dog.
And we never took him for granted. Never. When I sat up my third floor office in the morning I would only have to wait until my wife finished her coffee before I heard his little footsteps at the bottom of the stairs. All I’d say was “up here puppy doggy!” and seconds later a puff of white curls would appear at the top of the stairs, come running towards me and quickly curl up in a ball under my desk. He just wanted to be near us at all times. Near us was heaven for him. One can imagine how heartbreaking it was to ever have to go anywhere without him. Business trips? Vacations? And that’s when my uncle came into the picture. My uncle gave him every bit the attention he deserved when we were gone – more than us even! So our vacations soon became his vacations. There was little downside.
And if it was just a grocery store run, we’d say, “be right back little man! You take care of the house!” The moment we came home there’d be a little puffy white face looking through the window waiting for us. Was he sitting waiting the whole time? We’d get a big greeting that would usually wake the sleeping baby, and then Riley would get a treat or a walk.
We knew that a million years from now we’d be presented with a mortal decision about Riley and acknowledged that when that day came, it would shake our world to the core. What we didn’t know, what we couldn’t know, was that a million years from now was last week. As I type this, I’m inconsolable but I have to get it all out even if this blog is never posted. Riley lived the happiest life of any doggy I could imagine. And I’d rather him live 12 years and two months with one sick week and be gone, than live months or years in pain. We have no regrets about how he lived. And other than the reality of it, we hardly have regrets about how he died either. He left us at about 9pm on Sun 8/10, in my arms and my wife’s arms, with my uncle and my in-laws around us. These were undoubtedly the five most important people in this world to this puppy and everyone had the opportunity to give a proper farewell.
But the void is bigger than I could have imagined. Forget that Riley’s things are still everywhere in the house. I don’t need objects to remind me that he’s not here. I need only blink to see him. I need only to look at my feet to miss him. I’ve lost my shadow. He would have followed me anywhere. I still hear him bark when we come in. I still see him in the window when I pull my car up. I still hear him licking his paws or smacking his tongue as he cleared his mouth. I can still hear his footsteps on the wood floor. I hear him chomping on a rouge carrot as I cut salad. I still smell his popcorn feet. I’ll never forget any of these things. But it’s hard to snuggle with memories. I just thought we have more time to make them, that’s all. Had no idea how limited a time it was. Maybe that too is a blessing.
And so as I face another restless night, another painful silent moment, or another spontaneous deluge, I respect and understand my parents decision to shelter me from this pain as a child. That said, I also know the sheer joy that I got in the last 3 years from his companionship, that totally irreplaceable bond, and objectively, that feeling of elation so easily eclipses the pain I feel now. I can say that even while I’m in it and it’s why I’m certain there will someday be another doggy in our home. But there won’t be another Riley. Riley was my wife’s first baby and he was never treated like the family pet. Once babies are here and our household gets more established, bringing a puppy in will assuredly be wonderful, but it won’t be the same. I feel confident that whatever our future holds with respect to our canine loves, that dog will be a happy dog be in our home because Riley trained us. We are all better and more giving people for having shared in his life.
And though our fifteen month old son may never remember Riley because he’s way too young, Riley will always be the reason he loves doggies. Eighty years from now when my son is spending time with his own great-grandchildren’s dogs, though he may not know why he loves them so, it will certainly be because of Riley. I take the utmost comfort and I feel the most peace knowing that this is precisely how Riley will live on forever and ever and ever.
I so miss you puppy doggy. You’ll be with me forever and always.