Last night, I held our dog Riley while she died. I want to write about this experience a little bit, for myself, before I forget most of the specifics. If you’ve lost a pet recently or if this is too graphic for you, please skip this. I am just writing this down for myself so that later I have not forgotten what this day feels like.
When I first met Jordan, her parents were living in London and she was keeping their Shetland Sheepdog named Maggie in her studio apartment in the West Village, against all bylaws of the building. Eventually she got caught and she had to ship Maggie off to her uncle in Kansas. After we were married and decided to move to Austin, Jordan made it clear that one thing she was looking forward to was getting a dog – specifically a Sheltie. “Of course, honey! Whatever you want! Shelties sound great,” said newlywed Matt.
We picked up Riley from a breeder in Oklahoma in 2005 and she became our surrogate child, our furry offspring. All the love and energy we had for the world was transferred onto this animal. We fretted over her nap schedule, bought her the best organic food, took her to obedience school for weeks on end, bought her a designer collar and leash, etc. There was one night where we bought tickets to a theater performance in East Austin and hired a dog-sitter to take care of the puppy (who does this??), but I forgot to put the front-door key to the apartment under the doormat. So I left Jordan at the theater, gave up my ticket, and went back to the apartment to let Riley out and dismiss the dogsitter. One night a few weeks later I thought she had a bowel obstruction so I drove her to an emergency specialist an hour away in San Antonio, where, after thousands of dollars of tests, it was determined that she just had a virus.
When Henry was born, we worked with Riley to step around a blanket on the floor–trying to show her that it was the baby’s space and she would have to be careful. But we needn’t worry because she was so sweet and loving with the new baby that she thought it was her own child. I spent several years thereafter walking her on the trails behind our house every day, listening to podcasts, meeting the other dogs in our neighborhood, that she became my constant companion. After Arlo was born, her needs definitely fell behind and she took on the role of an elder statesman who didn’t need as much attention as she’d once demanded. But she was a constant presence in our daily lives, never demanding too much, always willing to receive our love.
Last fall, we took her in for a bladder infection that wouldn’t seem to clear up, no matter the course of antibiotics we tried. The vet advised us that she had a tumor that at first looked benign. Two months ago, she had several tumors in her urinary tract that could not be removed without irreparably damaging her urinary system. We began preparing the boys for her demise, but I don’t think we fully comprehended how much we were ignoring our own emotions in service to the children’s potential feelings.
A week ago Riley took a turn for the worse and her cancer began to spread. She was no longer able to walk up and down the stairs in our back yard. She stopped eating dog food, though she would nibble on table scraps. She had accidents in the house regularly and by Friday, she had trouble standing up. Thursday was a “snow” day here in Austin and no mobile vets would come out to visit us. I tried getting a home appointment asap but the earliest anyone would promise was Monday. She spent most of Saturday in the middle of the floor of the living room, awake and just listening to us talk. On Sunday morning I had to move her into her bed; she couldn’t stand up at all. I tried again to find a mobile vet who worked on Sundays, but held out hope that she would make it through the night until her appointment on Monday morning.
I laid down in the floor with her and held her head as her breathing began to slow. She never once cried or made a painful noise. She remained very dignified and peaceful through everything. At about 12:30 this morning, her whole body pulsed several times, like she was having an aneurysm or a stroke. After that, she slept very soundly for a half hour or so, lightly snoring. Then her breathing became very shallow and she looked up at me one last time before she took her last breath.
Even though I knew she was sick for months, even though I had worked to prepare the boys for this day, I was not prepared for the full force of grief that would hit me after she died. I called a mobile pet cremation service to come and pick her up, which they did very gracefully and professionally, but of course I could not sleep after that. I was still in shock that she was really gone.
It’s been a rough day since that moment. Jordan and I have alternated between numbness and sheer pain at her absence. She had integrated herself so thoroughly into our daily lives that it had become a reflex to check on her and take care of her and just have her around us all the time. I have never mourned an animal so thoroughly and completely as I have for Riley, and my deepest sympathies are with anyone who has lost a pet, a companion, a friend. She was truly a member of our family and we will miss her forever. The house is too quiet without her.