Many years ago, we had a dog named Riley. Her name was actually Katie, when we adopted her from the humane society, but we had a good friend named Katie and the dog did not look like a Katie at all. We tried a bunch of names and she seemed to respond to Riley, and I’d always liked the expression, “living the life of Riley” to connote an easy and pleasant life. So, optimistically, we called her that.
We hadn’t really planned to adopt a dog at all. I was trying to have a baby and it was not going well. Then, I fell in love with the dog from Best in Show and decided to go on a wait list for a Norwich Terrier. Only the dog kept miscarrying too. I couldn’t have a baby. The Norwich couldn’t have a puppy. My writer’s mind spun this into Greek tragedy. So I decided to break the cycle.
I started the rounds of shelter visits looking for an adult dog in need. The dogs in our local, urban shelter were there for the most part because they did not play well with others, particularly the babies I was still hoping to have. The best hope was an adorable dog with a handmade sign stuck to his crate reading,“I Bite.” So I decided to go rural and we headed to several shelters about an hour out of town. When I saw the overweight, four-year oldish beagle mix, shivering in a concrete dog run at the shelter, wearing a too-small sweater for warmth, there was no way I wasn’t giving this dog a home. All of my maternal instincts poured into her in that moment. And that was that. The papers were signed.
When they were doing her spay at the shelter before releasing her to us, they called us with bad news. She had breast cancer. She also had von Willebrand factor, it turned out, which is like hemophilia. So the spay was more complicated than it might have been. But she pulled through well and was quite cheerful after the surgery. Riley was cheerful in all circumstances, it seemed. Even now, when I’m in a pinch, I think about how Riley would have handled things. She was the very definition of stoicism, which I am not.
With the news of the cancer, they wondered if we still wanted her. We would be, by the shelter’s account, Riley’s third owners. The first owners were either hunters or a laboratory, based on where she was found. Her rib cage had been broken badly at one point, and there were indications she’d been experimented upon or mistreated. Whatever her background, it was heartbreaking. Her second owner had been a kind but sick man who’d ended up being taken into care due to mental health issues. I worried that he might want her back when he was released, but the humane society assured me this was not the case. He would likely be institutionalized permanently. More sadness.
I did not know how to react to the news of Riley’s cancer. This dog had been through a lot and I did not want to subject her to more pain or suffering. When I expressed this to the adoption coordinator, she pointed out how happy she was and how much she loved people and food. She seemed to have developed a high tolerance for pain over the years and was resilient in the face of treatments. So I said yes and called the local vet to arrange to have two mammary glands removed. Cancer is different with dogs and no chemo or radiation is required: just the surgery. And it went beautifully well.
And then, she lived the life of Riley. She went on long walks and car rides. My mother knit her sweaters, pouring her grandmotherly energy into her since no grandkids were on the horizon. My dad had a fun old sports car and he’d take her for rides. Riley had a behaviourist on speed dial to help her through some fear issues. She became a calm and happy dog and we were able to manage her ongoing health issues with relative ease.
She was not a small dog, but she thought she was a Chihuahua and there was no lap she’d not attempt to claim. She slept on any feet available and her very favourite spot was napping under the skylight in the breakfast area where her favourite combination of sunshine, food, and people was readily available.
Thanks to modern medicine, I eventually got pregnant and stayed pregnant and Riley was the first soul I told. As I got bigger, the walks got shorter and Riley and I put on weight together. She had an insatiable appetite due to the prednisone she took, once eating two entire loaves of pumpkin bread I’d made when in the nesting phase of my pregnancy. She lay on the kitchen floor, belly distended, a guilty look on her face. She also made short work of a pair of maternity pants she’d stolen out of the hamper. The dog ate a bag of cotton puffs, a jar of vitamins from a zipped purse, and an ant trap that had been high on a shelf. We have no idea how that happened. We had planned to hire those baby-proofing guys who go through your house to identify hazards, but with Riley there was no need.
When the doctors called to tell me Riley had breast cancer again. I thought they were having me on, but, of course, a dog has more than two breasts. Again, they did the surgery since it had gone so well the first time and the vet put an addition on his Muskoka cottage. I’m not sure the two things aren’t connected.
And then I had the baby and Riley was smitten. She sat for hours gazing at this newborn creature and was thrilled once my daughter was old enough to engage. She had new people. And the big walks resumed, I’d push my daughter’s stroller up to museum mile and Riley would trot along and shopkeepers would sometimes give her treats. She was living the life of Riley.
Riley was my toddler daughter’s first best friend. We did not have Teddy Bears, we had stuffed beagles in all shapes and sizes. There is a photo in one of those weekly magazines they give out at coffee shops of my daughter in a pink toile dress clutching a beagle in a matching pink toile dress at a Mother’s Day brunch. My daughter insisted on dressing up as Riley for Halloween in a beagle costume. And after Halloween, the costume stayed on. She was a beagle for the better part of a year.
When my son came along, Riley was his protector. I think she knew before we did that it might take him a little more time to find his way. When he had trouble walking, Riley would walk beside him, allowing him to lean on her like a crutch as he picked his way slowly across the living room. She rarely left his side. She protected us. We protected her. We all belonged to each other.
Then, life changed. The marriage failed. My son learned to walk. I moved to a sleepy suburb where Riley missed the hubbub, as did I. And Riley got sick again.
After that, she was never the same. She went from sickness to sickness and this time she wasn’t getting better. Her tail had lost its wag. So at age 11ish — after 7 years with our family — she was put to sleep, her paw in mine, everyone at the vet’s office in tears.
Whenever I think about the life of Riley, I think about a fall day when I was pushing the kids through our beautiful city neighbourhood in the double Maclaren stroller with Riley on the leash. An older man stopped to chat. “One boy, one girl, and a dog: you’ve won the lottery,” he said, and asked the dog’s name. “You’re living the life of Riley,” he smiled, not knowing I was crippled with post-partum depression, my marriage was falling apart, the baby would spend time at a children’s rehab hospital, and the dog’s health was hanging on by a thread. We were indeed living the life of Riley. It’s just that the life of Riley is a bit more complicated than it seems.
I have had other dogs, who I’m crazy about, but the life lessons from Riley are enduring. I have so many snapshots of that dog, living a coddled life. There are no photos of her trauma in early days or of her many medical visits because who wants to document that? She had a great life and a hard life, as interesting lives often are. Only on the outside did things look perfect.
When I see someone whose life makes me feel jealous or when I encounter people who seem to be jealous of me, I think about that dog and her life and my life and how the surface never tells the whole story. When I run into an acquaintance and they ask me how I’m doing, I have an answer that, while opaque, is not untrue.
I’m living the life of Riley.