The Life of Riley

Our beloved golden retriever Riley died yesterday.

He was the nicest living creature I have ever known. Not a mean bone in his body. I don’t even think he ever had a mean thought either. He was, quite simply, a love muffin. His heart was wide open and his spirit joyful- right to the very end.

While the kids took the dogs for runs, I was responsible for the lunchtime walk detail. Riley and his sister MayMay got this walk pretty much every day of their lives. Even on his last legs, Riley went with us yesterday. I have been letting him choose which direction our walks would take for awhile now, and yesterday he choose his favorite route.

He clearly relished the whole thing. While he had stopped eating, he still had to visit all the neighbor’s compost heaps for a deep breath of the wonderful aroma of rotten food . Several times he set up his usual game with MayMay involving him fruitlessly trying to get ahead of her on the road. He rolled in every pile of deer poop in every field we passed. This took some time but how happy I was to watch every roll. At one point, he got himself down in a pothole full of muddy water for a serious submersion. It was the most horrible looking water, and he enjoyed every drop of it.

It’s Jim’s February school “vacation” week, so he had just sanded and refinished all the floors in the downstairs of the house. The varnish was just dry yesterday when Riley returned from his last walk. We all had to laugh that Riley felt called upon to christen each floor with a shake of his muddy coat. We may well leave the spatters there for awhile.

Riley had a very odd little prancing step for such a big guy and he kept that swing going til the last moment, tail wagging as well. It was a particularly warm afternoon for February and after his long walk, he sat out front of the office, sniffing the breeze in the sunshine. Everyone got a chance to go sit with him and tell him thank you and goodbye.

We have all been intent on taking the cue from Riley about how and when he wanted to die. He had outlived our kind vet’s best guess by many months, but we didn’t want to drag him into a life that was about terrible pain. I spent a lot of time connecting with Riley about what he wanted and because I was so close to the situation and therefore not very objective, I leaned on a number of you to check in for me as well. I thank you all for your support and love.

Riley helped me be at peace with our game plan too. One day a few months back, I was out on my lunchtime walk with Riley and MayMay. I was thinking about his health and fretting about whether I would know if or when to put him down. In that moment, I received a clear message that he would be okay until he stopped eating and that would be his signal that it was time to be put down. As I had this thought, Riley stopped right in front of me and turned around and looked me in the eye.

Later in the walk, I began to worry about whether I had heard clearly. As I had this worry, Riley stopped AGAIN and turned to look me in the eye. Riley was not a dog to waste time with long eye contact on walks; walks were for things like mud and deer poop. He saved the romance for evenings on the couch, so his eye contact felt significant and helped me let go of my worries.

From then on, we waited for him to stop eating and when that happened several days ago (no matter what delicacies we offered him or Essences we put in his water), we gave nearby Riley fans the word, and they flocked in for love visits and goodbyes.

Sometimes it is still hard not to second guess ourselves when we have arrived at a decision. The Angels are always so compassionate with us humans in this regard, and they think of inventive ways to reassure. Yesterday as we prepared to put Riley in the car for his last trip to the vet, one of the women in the office came running out with an email that had just arrived from one of you who had no idea Riley was sick. It was a picture of a golden who looked exactly like Riley with a poem about a dog’s last will and testament.

Piled into the car, we all continued to douse ourselves in Transition through what proved to be an incredibly gentle, sweet death. If we sound sympathetic to your losses in the phone when one of your beloveds goes, its because we are having to walk our talk. Today we lift our glasses of pink Flower Essence water to Riley!

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Adventure!

A lot of things and people and places have fallen away from our family in the last decade. Sometimes it has felt like nothing but an emptying out, and sometimes the losses have led to wonderful and unexpected new beginnings.

These new beginnings remind me that if everything that was lost had remained in our life, we might not have set off to unexplored territories, territories that have been tremendously meaningful to us. The emptiness made us bold in unexpected ways and pushed us to new horizons.

Take for example the Camino. Though only Ben and Elizabeth walked the Camino, it has filled all our lives with stories and images, spiritual gifts and a feeling of having been on their bold adventure with them, if only from the peanut gallery.

Reading and rereading the drafts of Elizabeth’s book, learning the towns and places strung along the trail, studying the gifts of the Camino Essences linked as they are to these now familiar places, then connecting it all to Lizzy and Ben’s adventures and the pilgrims they met- It has made me feel a part of something bigger than myself- and in a life where travel has not figured greatly, this has been wonderfully expansive and fun.

From childhood, I always felt reading a great book or listening to a tale well told had the tang of adventure even for the listener. I am grateful I feel this way about Ben and Lizzy’s Camino tales.

There is a marvelous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers in Houston are given a pile of exactly the same odds and end that are onboard the apparently doomed space ship. They are told that they need to solve the ventilation problems on the spaceship with what is there before them then walk the astronauts through their own construction of a gizmo built from these random odds and ends. Everyone understands that this is the only way to save the astronauts. And as we know, the engineer’s ingenuity wins the day and the astronauts survive.

Today is Jim’s birthday and I am excited about a project we took on for his birthday. It speaks to armchair adventures as well as making do with what is, trying to accept a loss as well as move on from it.

The loss on my mind today as I assemble Jim’s birthday gift is the place in the Adirondacks. It was six miles up a lake by boat with no electricity and no roads. This made it a place of wilderness and adventure for all of us, no less so for Jim who spent two summer building a four bedroom sleeping cabin next to the original camp, carrying every last piece of lumber up the lake in a jury rigged barge.

One much loved detail in the original camp was that the bedroom walls were lined with covers from a pulp magazine called Adventure. Collected in the 1920′s and 1930′s by my grandfather and his sister, these covers were much studied by generations of children. We would lie in our camp beds under heavy blankets and point our flashlights at one cover after another. It was always a bit of an adventure to go up the creaking stairs to our beds, but peering at these covers in the dark sent us further into a delicious state of terror.

Many covers showed vicious characters chasing someone down. In one memorable cover a very scary looking man was coming out from a cargo hold with a knife in his teeth. Pirates abounded as did cowboys encircled by cigarette smoke and understandable hostile Indians about to do them in. The covers so often caught the moment of ultimate tension in a story.

The particularly haunting ones were the ones where you knew the guy on the cover was not going to make it. There were a number of covers showing a solitary arctic explorer in the middle of nowhere, heading to his own frozen death. These pictures were almost the scariest because they had such a palpable sense of loneliness.

I used to look at every last cover each night before falling asleep. Some were so frightening that my heart would start pounding before the flashlight’s beam met its image. When I was little, I always slept in my grandfather’s childhood bedroom so my grandfather’s covers were much more familiar to me. In later years when I ended up in my great aunt’s room, there was a whole new collection of terrifying images to memorize.

It occurred to me one day that perhaps I could find Adventure covers on the internet to put on the walls of the new bathroom in a surprise birthday moment for Jim. I had taken on a similar project last year when I decided to find each of the kids a copy of a much loved fairy tale book, read every summer on the Adirondack camp porch.

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Boy cousins, brothers, uncles and then my own sons seemed to find Jack the Giant Killer the most satisfying story in the collection whereas girls seemed divided between stories like Furball

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or Beauty and the Beast.
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or The Dancing Shoes

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While I had managed to find four copies of this 1928 fairy tale book, I couldn’t find any Adventure covers for sale. However, I did find a website that was collecting cover images from as many pulp magazines as possible. According to this website, these covers were often the way artists made a living during the first half of the twentieth century, and they are now being collected as art. They had a jackpot of Adventure covers.

We spent many winter nights studying the covers on this website before making our selection. Choosing just one that we all remembered, we decided to move on with new Adventure covers just as we have moved on with new Adventures- a little bit of a shout out to what was but mostly an appreciation of what is.

We settled on a group, none of them as scary as the ones we remembered (though perhaps that’s because we weren’t looking at them with flashlights in a dark dark room a long way from civilization). I hung them today. Here’s a view of six to give you the flavor. From here on out, it will be an Adventure! to visit the new bathroom!
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