A Dog-Sized Hole in My Heart

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One of the last photos taken of our dog Riley, shortly before he died July 21.
One of the last photos taken of our dog Riley, shortly before he died July 21.

“My friend believes that when we die, our dogs come running up to us to welcome us to heaven. And they can talk,” a friend told me the day my beloved dog Riley died.

I chuckled at the prospect and remembered what Will Rogers said. “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

Then I thought about what Riley would say to me and told my friend, “I might be in trouble.” I was specifically thinking of a remark my son had made years ago, when Riley was young.

“Dogs don’t get very good medical care,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “We take him to the vet and get him all the shots he needs to have.”

“Well, when I’m sick you let my lie on the couch and bring me soup and crackers. When Riley is sick you just throw him in the backyard.”

Fair point, I thought. But we did give him good medical care — for a dog that is. And I believe I deserve extra credit for that time right before Christmas when he chewed on the Christmas tree and half of his face swelled up like he’d been on the losing side of a lengthy boxing match. I called the vet’s office and told them of Riley’s Rocky-like appearance.

“Sounds like an allergic reaction. Just stay home and listen to his breathing,” I was advised. So I cancelled all 87 errands for that day and did just that. But after he was diagnosed with an aggressive, fast-growing cancer in May at the age of 12, we were advised that there was nothing we could do for him. Now it was just a matter of waiting for that last breath.

Medically, that is. But we could lavish attention on him, take him for walks, and cook him whatever he would eat in those remaining weeks as his appetite diminished and his digestive system began shutting down. For weeks I made him four scrambled eggs sprinkled with bacon bits every morning.

And we began our daily Poop Patrol, which is just about as much fun as it sounds. The vet had said when he quit pooping he was near the end. We practically cheered each effort and result, harkening back to potty training days many years ago.

Riley frolicking in one of our rare snows in Atlanta
Riley frolicking in one of our rare snows in Atlanta

Another time we were gone for the weekend and my friend next door texted me a photo of his latest production, knowing how much it meant to us.

Riley had been our companion for 12 years. We called him our Society Dog because he came from the Atlanta Humane Society. I had gone with my kids to pick out an adult dog. I had no desire for a puppy. With two young kids and a job, my hands were full enough.

I steered them right past the puppy room where I knew we’d be in severe danger of falling for one of the adorable squiggly little guys. They don’t call them puppy eyes for nothing. “Adult Dog Room only,” I said firmly.

Yet there he was. Somehow, at the tender age of four months, he had talked his way into the Adult Dog Room, perhaps using some canine version of a fake ID. We took him for a test drive, where they let you walk around outside with one of the dogs up for adoption to see if it’s a good match.

After taking a few other dogs outside, we picked the small black lab mix named Max, who frolicked with joy on the grass as my kids giggled and romped with him.

We came back inside and I knelt down to look at him as he walked inside. He ambled adorably right over to me, looked at me with his big dark eyes, and rested his sweet doggy head on my knee. It was Game Over. “He knows who the decision maker is,” I said.

We changed his name to Riley and he instantly became an integral member of our family, riding in the car with us each morning as I took the kids to school. They are both out of college now, living and working in distant cities. During each phone call, they would each ask, “How’s Riley?” Often they’d ask me to text a photo of him after we hung up.

We knew he would only live a matter of weeks, not months, as the tumor became more and more visible. But both kids were coming in mid-July. “Hang on just a little while longer,” I’d plead with him as his movements became slower and he ate less.

And he did. Although his back legs were betraying him and he struggled to stand up and walk, he greeted them from his favorite place in the world, our front porch. The day my daughter left, this past Monday, was his last.

We gave his favorite squeaky toys and leftover treats to Ruby, the dog next door, whom he had married in a backyard ceremony a few years ago. “The widow gets everything,” my husband said sadly. He took Riley’s death really hard, and wrote about the Life of Riley in a weekly enewsletter he produces, The Atlanta 100.

Yesterday I was in my office working when I heard a tremendous crash downstairs that made my heart leap. It can’t be somebody in the house, I thought — Riley would be barking. Then I remembered. Never again. My friend and protector was gone.

I read this week that grief has its own schedule and that’s true. It hits you in unexpected ways. The day after he died I drove in my driveway and heard the familiar sound of one of his squeaky toys, usually an indication that he was playing in the backyard. But it was Ruby next door and I felt that familiar ache in my heart.

It seems I have a dog-sized hole there now.


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