One week ago, on Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 11:58 PM, I said my final goodbye to my sweet, fabulous Border Collie dog Riley. Right now, just typing this, brings tears to my eyes and I can feel my heart break open a little bit more. It’s been a rough week. Coming home each day, and realizing, as if from scratch, that he’s not here to wag his tail and snuggle up to me to make sure I know how much he loves me, well, it’s difficult.
It was difficult to watch and work with the vet to figure out his gradual decline in health. It started almost five months ago, with occasional throwing up after he ate. I attributed it to how fast he eats. He likes food! And so, I started to feed him in smaller increments, forcing him to rest 15 or 20 minutes between sets of food. That seemed to help. Then slowly it stopped working, and he started to throw up more often.
I emailed his previous owner to find out what kind of food Riley ate before I got him. Riley came into my life at Christmas time 2011. My previous dog, Mack had been killed in May of 2011 when a van hit him in front of my house. The hit had broken his spine in half and the amazing thing was that he didn’t die immediately. I picked him up and put him in the car and drove immediately to the vet.
For the entire car ride, Mack sat in the back seat and panting heavily, made steady eye contact with me. It was if he was telling me how much he loved me and believed in me. He was with me through both my bouts of breast cancer. I had gotten him when he was about 10 months old, it was in the middle of radiation treatment and I had a concentration disorder and the only thing I could do was exercise. Walking Mack, and having him to care for, made the concentration disorder bearable. When the van hit him, Mack was 6 years old.
When the vet took the x-ray of him and she came and got me to show me the picture of his severed in half spine, I was astonished, and so was she. We agreed, since Mack was a tree climber and a very fast runner that attempting to do anything to help him heal from a spine injury would be cruel to do.
I’d never participated in the death of a pet. I couldn’t believe that this is what faced me. They brought me in to sit with him. I kept singing to him. Reassuring him and me that we would both be okay. They administered the drugs that made him first fall asleep, then the drug that caused his heart to stop beating. The tears didn’t stop falling. They brought Mack and me into a private room and I stayed there holding his lifeless, still body for almost an hour, while I waited for a friend to come and bring me home.
I read a lot about the death of dog. I learned of the Rainbow Bridge, where our pets are healed up and there are wide fields of grass where they can play ball and there’s lots of food and they wait for us. I went to a pet loss support group and I went to a few therapy sessions, to understand and process the deep grief of losing Mack. One thing I learned about was the importance of not getting a new dog too quickly. To not attempt to replace the dog that was lost, before enough time had passed to integrate the loss.
So, I waited. A few months after Mack died, I told a few friends that I’d like to have another dog in my life. One friend, Mara, she has type 1 diabetes also, mentioned that her neighbor had a 6 year old Border Collie that might need another home soon. Her neighbor was Bill, and he’s blind. He had been married to a woman who had type 1 diabetes. She got herself a dog a few months before she died. She had had diabetes for a very long time, and she died early in the morning, after Bill had left for work. Her dog had stood vigil for her for about 8 hours, when Bill returned home, with his guide dog, to find that his wife had died that morning.
Bill had a guide dog, and he adopted his wife’s dog as the companion to his guide dog. Thus the dog learned a lot about how to follow directions, since they all three walked together. But it was time for Bill to retire his guide dog and get a new guide dog. And a blind man with three dogs is a lot of dogs. So Bill was looking for the perfect new home for the Border Collie. That was Riley.
Over the course of a few months, Riley came and stayed with me. We went on lots of walks, even a few runs. He enjoyed being at my house and he like the runs and walks. And I loved having him around. He was very different than Mack. He was much better behaved than Mack! He never wanted to be far from me. Soon, Bill and I agreed that Riley could come live with me.
Then in the summer of 2012, I decided to move from Colorado to Minnesota, where I had grown up. (I still think I was a little crazy to leave Colorado for the insane weather here in Minnesota!) I sold my house and made the journey back to Minnesota. Riley came with me. He was a grounding source of strength for me. Reminding me that no matter where I was, he was with me, and he believed in me.
When his throwing up got worse and worse, I took him to the vet and we started a long process of finding solutions. We tried antacid medications. We tried antibiotics. I tried a wide variety of feeding strategies. Nothing worked. And it started to be that if he drank too much water at one time, he would throw that up. Through it all, he didn’t act sick. He wagged his tale and wanted to go on walks and he still was excited to eat. Finally, the last weekend, the vet tried giving him a shot that was an antinausea drug. Along with prednisone. The drug didn’t help him stop throwing up. It just made him sleepy and confused. That last week he lost over 10 lbs. During the last 24 hours, he couldn’t walk anymore. He stopped wanting to eat and he stopped peeing. He was very weak. He would sit in one place and just looked soulfully at me.
All day on Sunday, May 25, we sat outside in the backyard on a blanket. It was on a blanket my colleague Cindy had made for me when I had cancer the first time. The weather was perfect, not too hot, not too cold and no mosquitos. We lounged all day. We talked about all the adventures we had shared. The neighbors cooked steak on their grill and they offered some cut up bits to me to give to Riley. I wasn’t sure he would want to eat it, but he did! In fact, he was excited to have this wonderful treat.
I had called the vet and we talked at about 8 PM and she said it was time. I wondered if he would die on his own during the night. The vet said he might, but he was suffering, and it was okay to take him. So I called my friend who said he would take us. I knew I couldn’t do this alone.
I went into the front yard to tell my housemate that I was going to bring Riley to the animal hospital later that night. Riley was in the back yard, and to my surprise, he got himself up and he very carefully made his way to the front yard, where my housemate was planting a new garden. He wanted to be close to me. He walked over to me and leaned his whole body into my legs, like he always did. It’s deeply reassuring the way he leans with his whole self. Then he collapsed to the ground. Looking up at me. I sank down and held him. Tears streaming down my face. I picked him up very carefully, all 60 lbs. of him and brought him back to the backyard.
We waited for my friend to come get us. And I carried him out to the car. My friend grabbed the blanket and we slowly made our way to the animal hospital. We got there and they brought Riley to the back to put an IV into his front leg. They brought all of us to a small private room, and they let me lay out the blanket and I snuggled next to Riley. The vet tech showed us a bell that we should ring if we needed anything.
Then they left us there for over an hour. This last hour was an amazing hour. It was the first time in almost 48 hours that Riley was breathing calmly. The vet thought he likely had pneumonia, from aspirating some of the vomit into his lungs. He fell asleep, with his head on my arm. He woke up every once in a while and he would lick my arm, and look deeply into my eyes. His energy was very calm. I felt like he was telling me it was okay.
Finally the vet who would give Riley the drugs came in. And we talked. This vet assured me that I was making the kind, humane choice. Then he gave Riley the drugs. I held onto Riley as he gave me one final deep, soul look, and he fell asleep. Then his heart stopped. I held him a long time. I took off his collar, and my friend guided me out to the car, tears tumbling out of me.
It is possible that I have loved my two dogs better than I have loved any human being. My friend Liz, who I’ve known since I was 15, reminded me that I’ve been hurt by a lot of human beings, and it’s not such a big surprise that I would love and have such a strong connection to my dogs. Love between people is conditional, as hard as we try to love unconditionally. Dogs and animals are able to love unconditionally. And Mack and Riley showed me what that deep love felt like.
For that, Mack & Riley, I will hold you always in my heart. Thank you so much for sharing with me, the time that you did. I am a better person for having opened my heart to both of you. See you both at the Rainbow Bridge. I have more I am to do in this human realm, in this particular iteration of my life. But eventually I will come and find you both. I have no doubt that you Mack will be climbing trees and chasing balls and running marathons. And Riley you will likely be herding sheep, chasing dogs who are chasing balls and eating lots of wonderful food. I look forward to that day.