"Wait, what?" Jack said as he turned around with a look on his face I'd never seen from him before. His chocolate brown eyes looked glassy. Red, almost, as they searched mine for some kind of answer. But I had none. We all knew this day was coming, but having it arrive like this was more than I could reason with words.
My brother in law Bob was in his late twenties when they'd gotten her that winter afternoon. And that was nearly thirteen years ago. The picture of him wearing a heavy flannel shirt and a boyish smile with a fuzzy armful of love spilling from his hands is still on my mother in law's refrigerator. And that's where it will stay.
Riley was the best dog.
Joe's family always loved Goldens. Such smart animals with lovely dispositions and a gentility around children I've never seen before. And Riley saw lots of children. Our family's welcomed seven new grandchildren since that brisk, frosty day. Never once has she growled or gotten cross with any of us. Never once.
I didn't understand the love a person can feel for a dog until my fourth grade teacher read Where The Red Fern Grows to our class back in 1979. When Ms. Pond whispered those final, fateful words, I felt as though part of me had died. I pretended to be sick so I could go to the girl's restroom and bury my face in my hands, sobbing alone in the bathroom stall, sitting on the edge of the toilet.
The problem with love is that it hurts. It changes, or it moves away, or it dies, leaving footprints on our hearts forever. Time helps, but true love is irreplaceable. And unforgettable.
Riley has struggled this last year. With cancer. Arthritis. A tumor growing from her mouth. And now she has trouble breathing. I wonder this morning, when mom and dad let her outside for likely the last time, if she'll wander away somewhere safe and private. If she'll find a cool patch of grass beneath the soft green leaves of a neighbor's hosta and gently close her eyes, releasing her last breath. Whether she'll spare my mother in law the agony of easing her tired bodyinto the backseat one final time for the trip she won't return from.
Last night was our family's time to say goodbye.
For as rough and hard as boys can sometimes be, mine melted on the floor around that special dog. The twins touched her fur gently. Chris murmured something quietly in her ear and Bobby bent down for a soft, final kiss on her nose. Ryan lingered longer than usual in the kitchen, trying to process the finality of the moment, and the reality he wasn't ready to accept. But it was Jack who got me. Tall, muscular, teenager Jack, whose dark eyes said everything in a moment that his words could not. I watched him through the powder room window as he walked solemnly down the driveway with his head low, then stopped and looked back just one last time.
That, I whispered to my son, is love. There is no emotion so everlasting. So searing. So completely indescribable.
Peace, sweet puppy.
Thank you for teaching us about the wonders of love.
Thank you, Riley.