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Hard Goodbye

Riley Lives On

A Hard Goodbye

Riley has cancer. Bone cancer, the vet says, in the left hind leg. Too high up to amputate, too far along for treatment. All week we’ve stayed by his side, stroking away whines, offering treats and pain pills embedded in cheese. When he sleeps, we sneak away to make dinner or take a shower until he wakes, barking little anemic yips that bring us running back. It’s like having a newborn in the house again, without the joy.

Harry and RileyWe know what we’re supposed to do. The decision should be clear. Our dog is lame, in pain with a terminal condition. He’s not going to get better, only worse. Putting him down is the humane thing to do. Right?

We aren’t ready for this. He’s not even old. Kate waits for me to say the words, but I can’t. My voice hovers over a quagmire of clashing convictions and uncertainties.

Riley’s head is broad and silky under my hand. I smooth his ear and push my face into the soft ruff of his neck. His tail thumps the carpet. What does he think of this sudden outpouring of attention? This endless supply of rawhide chews? Does he have any sense of his fate, or does he only know it hurts to walk?

It doesn't seem right to make this choice for another being, especially one whose means of communication is limited to wags and licks and subtle eyebrow twitches… how can you know what they want?

RileyMaybe, for him, what he’s got right now is fine. As long as he can hobble out to the front yard to pee, and watch squirrels on the deck through the glass door. Ask him and he might say, Hey, things around here are just getting good. Beef jerky on demand, and what’s this canned food you’ve been holding out on me? It’s one big petting orgy here, everybody treating me like I’m The Dog, when just a month ago, they’d yell at me to shut up if I tried to join in on the conversation. No, man. I’m good. Just keep those pain pills and biscuits coming, and I’ll duke it out with death till the end.

But he’s not the one to decide. It’s up to us, who have barely slept in the last seven nights. Waking when he whimpers, Kate and I take turns lying by his side until he’s quiet. Even then I can’t sleep. The room expands and contracts with his wheezing.
I want the decision to be for him, to spare him suffering, not because I’m too tired to make it through another night, or because winter break is almost over and we’ve got to get back to work, or because he’s starting to dribble pee on his bed. But all the reasons are entwined; you can’t separate them out like that.

Riley at the parkIt would be easier if his suffering was constant, but during the day he often seems content, even happy. Yesterday he limped up to the top of the driveway and stood there, nostrils twitching, eyes squinting in the sunlight. I couldn’t coax him back in. He let out his tongue when he smiled, and I didn’t have the heart to insist. I dragged out a lawn chair and we sat there together, faces lifted to the rare winter rays. Neighbors slowed their cars and gave quizzical waves. The mailman pulled up and handed me a bundle. “Best dog on my route,” he said with a firm pat. No one guessed that this huge, regal beast with the lopsided smile was devouring the last precious hours of his life.

“What if by putting him to sleep, we’re robbing him of some natural process that we don’t know about?” I ask Kate. “Something that’s essential to his transition to the other side? What if Riley doesn’t want us to make it easier for him – that that’s really just an excuse we make up for ourselves? That it’s really about making it easier for us because we can’t stand to see him suffer?” Kate has no answers, and if Riley does, I’ll never know. We can only do what logic deems best and drag our reluctant hearts along.

Toby and Jennifer feeding Riley ice creamTonight Riley has feasted on beef stew and buttered bread, followed by a vanilla ice cream cone. For a while his old exuberance kicked in, and when Toby arrived, Riley met him at the door with happy barks. But for the last hour, he’s been quiet. We gather on the floor around him.

He knows something’s up. When Ron, our vet friend, reaches for Riley’s leg to put in the IV, Riley twists his head around to look up at Jesse, who is crying. For a moment, I think he will struggle, but he lies back down and his breathing slows. Trusting as ever, Riley offers a limp tail wag as we sniffle our goodbyes. One last stroke of a velvet ear. Then we ease him peacefully to the other side.

—Jennifer Meyer

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