Alex

I’ve been trying to write a post about Alex for months. But when you’re living in the midst of inevitable decline, it’s hard to put the experience into words.

After a short fight with lymphoma, Alex passed away in early September. I was with him when he passed, which was both a blessing and… incredibly difficult. The memory of his last moments will haunt me forever. And I’m still not over it. Not sure I ever will be.

Alex was my beloved golden retriever we adopted in 2010. He was 2 years old at the time; a family a couple hours south of us couldn’t keep him anymore. It was very serendipitous the way Alex came to us, and he was an integral part of our family. For seven years, Alex was my best friend and my near-constant companion. He was primarily Max’s dog, but also very devoted all of us.

This was the first photo we took of Alex when he came home to us. He was 2.

Alex, first day home.

He made fast friends with Riley, our neighbor’s golden retriever, and for four spectacular years, Alex and Riley were the core of my pack. When Riley passed away three years ago, Alex lost his very best friend. He was never really the same after that. I debated getting another dog for him, but he was so growly at younger dogs. I opted not to. In retrospect, I wish I had. I think he would have been happier with another friend, even if it wasn’t Riley.

Earlier this year, I noticed Alex losing weight. He’s always been a skinny pup, but it became more noticeable. He also started drinking a lot more water. I wondered if maybe he had diabetes and started feeding him more protein. He was starting to have intestinal issues. The first vet diagnosed him with renal failure/kidney disease and recommended a lot of rice and veggies, less protein. He got worse. A lot worse.

More tests led to the more accurate diagnosis: lymphoma. These are two very different rabbit holes for a dog mama to dive down, but they are both deep dark holes that are confusing and heart wrenching.

Cancer. It’s so loaded and weighed down with generations of fear and pain. A strong intuition guided me to stay away from thinking about Alex’s condition with those heavy weights. Instead, why not let Alex show me what he needed?

He had good days and not so good days. We went for a lot of car rides, he ate the best foods, slept on Claire’s old twin bed. Until the end, he would not give up his morning walk around the neighborhood. He loved his friends here, human and canine.

We spent a lot of time at the lake. I canceled an important business trip to stay home with him as the stress of not having me here with him might have been too much.

We treated him with as much good stuff as we could. We tried CBD oil, a raw food diet, immune system support. But during our car rides around the neighborhood, I’d play Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album and I could see it in his eyes. He was staying because of me, but he knew it was time to move on.

There was one point in late July where I was certain it was time for him to go. I contacted a friend who is a vet and asked if he’d help me. Later that day, Alex perked up and came alive. He almost seemed happy for a bit.

During this timeframe, I stopped fighting for him. Really, I stopped fighting him. Getting his medication into him was stressful, and he wouldn’t take food from me because he knew it had something in it. After a while, I just let him be. I would put out a smorgasbord of delectable treats for him: sardines, raw meat, cooked meat. Chicken, lamb, beef… whatever. Sometimes he would turn his nose up at all of it. Sometimes he would eat.

Alex had a good August, and I started to get very hopeful he would get better. His lymph nodes decreased in size, but he still wasn’t eating like he should have been. I let up on some of the CBD oil and for a while, I felt like I had our dog back, though much more frail than he had ever been.

Then, the wildfires started and we were socked in with smoke. We had three HEPA filters going all day long, but we still had a rough time. Alex started coughing up blood and stopped eating and was really having issues. A couple of days later, he ate! Finally! But eating that food seemed to make things much worse.

I slept next to him that night, but he didn’t sleep much. Around 5:30 am, I woke up and he had moved away from me and was suffering quite a bit and was unable to walk. I had spent so much time and energy helping him heal and try to feel better, but this time it was obvious he wasn’t going to get better. It was just getting worse. I told him it was okay to go. Then, a few hours later, I insisted that he go. A few minutes after I changed my tone to insistence, he passed away.

I haven’t wanted to write or talk about Alex’s illness and yet it has been the primary defining event of my 2017. I was silenced by a fear of being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic. I tried very hard to distract myself from the soul crushing sadness of an event over which I had no control.

So much of my life here in Mount Shasta was surrounded by running around forests and meadows with Alex and our friends. The weeks following Alex’s departure left me in a daze. I’m not entirely sure I’m out of it.

But life goes on. Just much emptier than before.

 

Riley was not my dog

Riley on the front porch asking us to come out and play.

Riley: “Come on! We’ve got balls to chase!”

Riley passed away last week. Riley was not my dog.

Riley was, however, one of the best friends I ever had. He was an incredibly special dog, unlike any dog I have ever met. I am amazingly blessed to have known him, and I am incredibly grateful to the people who called him family that they were so open to letting Riley come visit us and spend time with our family. They, too, are pretty special people to know that they “owned” a dog with a heart bigger than anyone could contain. He showed love to everyone.

Riley was 14. He changed my life forever. And now I get to figure out what life without Riley looks like. I don’t like that thought. I’ll figure it out, but right now, I just want to share what an amazing being this dog was.

Max and Riley play ball in the front yard.

Meeting Riley

One day a few months after we moved to Shasta, Riley wandered over to smell things in our yard.  Max was horribly afraid of dogs after being attacked by a dog at his dad’s house in Texas, but I sent him outside with a ball. Riley LOVED balls, though trying to get the ball back from him was a challenge. Max and Riley bonded and became incredibly close over the next few days.

It was a perfect set up really. Riley came over to play for a few hours a day. Max got doggie time. I didn’t have extra fur to clean up! Riley was just awesome. One day, Max’s dad started loading Riley into his car as a surprise for Max when he picked him up from school. I had to remind him, “That’s not our dog; you can’t do that.” Riley looked at me as if to say, “What! I was gonna go for a ride!”

Riley started spending more and more time over at our house. He would sleep on our front porch. We put out a carpet remnant and a water bowl just for him. He walked with me and Claire every day. He had some days in which he was obsessive about being with us. Sometimes I felt guilty that he wasn’t with his own family. But then his mom would call him, and he’d go to her immediately. He knew who mom was. He just knew he had work to do with other people.

Like me. When I first arrived in Shasta, I was rather emotionally beat up from our time in Texas. Shasta was intended to be a place of healing and spiritual respite. I didn’t realize Riley was going to work on me… but I am grateful he did.

Alex and Riley swimming in the meadow. Riley going for the stick.

Alex and Riley swimming in the meadow.

There was one walk where I went with Riley to a meadow near our house. Riley got the goofy puppy energy going and pretty much tackled me. Then he just looked up at me with those eyes as if to say, “Sorry. I forgot you’re not a dog. But I wish you were.” He just gave so much love to me, to my kids. I loved Riley, I love Riley, more than I can describe.

Yet, he was not our dog.

A few months later, Max cried one day that we didn’t have a dog of our own. I said, “Go out and play with Riley.” He cried, “But he’s not OUR dog!”

I did a quick Craigslist search for golden retrievers and found Alex almost immediately.

Even with Alex in our life, Riley did not feel left out.

claire-alex-riley

Claire sits with Riley and Alex in the back door.

Alex and Riley became great friends almost immediately. I walked with them every day for the last four years around our neighborhood. Sometimes other dogs would come pack up with us. We went to the meadow. We played in the backyard. Sometimes we would just sit on the back patio together.

Alex loved Riley. They competed for balls. We walked together every morning. They swam in the creek whether it was 85° or 19°. They would disappear in the meadow chasing smells together. They would take turns rolling in things they shouldn’t have. They would take turns avoiding being turned into a horse by Claire. (Riley was much more patient with Claire than Alex.)

When I would put Alex out to do his business, he would look for Riley. If he hadn’t seen Riley in a while, he would go to Riley’s house and try to find him and encourage him to come over and “pack up” with us.

Alex, Riley, and that mountain.

Alex, Riley, snow, and that mountain.

Riley wasn’t a part of our family, but he was one of our best friends.

I wish had words of eloquence to describe how amazingly wonderful Riley was, how healing he was to us, how full of love and playfulness. Right now I just have words of sadness. I miss him terribly.

I never had enough time or energy to play with Riley as much as I wanted to. He didn’t mind. He waited patiently for me, for Max, for Claire, until we were ready. And when he felt we had enough of him, he moved on to another neighbor who he felt needed him.

A good friend mentioned that there are lots of new dogs in the neighborhood. There is the cycle of life and death, rebirth and we’re just in the middle of it. We always are. Sometimes we can distract ourselves from the cycle of life, but it’s always there underneath the surface.

I’m still grieving, and I guess I will be for a while.

Little pig, little pig, let us in!

Little pig, little pig, let us in!

Saying Goodbye

I knew about two months ago that Riley wasn’t doing very well. He came home from a trip with his family after Christmas, and he felt different. By early January, I could feel him slowing us dramatically on our walk around the neighborhood. One day, I just knew.

I cried a lot that day. I put Alex inside and stayed on the back porch with Riley. I told him I knew. I told him it was okay for him to leave, that when he was ready, I was going to be okay. I thanked him for the love and lessons of heart-centered living that he gave me. I told him he would be with me in spirit forever, and he was the greatest dog in the world. (I’m sorry Alex!)

I cried a lot that day. I felt that I had said my goodbyes. We had a few more walks, and I took some more videos of him to keep my memory of Riley alive.

Last week, when Claire was sick, I had a dream that Riley’s parents came to my house to let me know he had died. The next day, he disappeared, dying on his own terms in the neighborhood that was, and is, entirely Riley’s. I knew by Thursday when I hadn’t seen him, that the dream was his way of saying goodbye.

Riley was not my dog. But the Riley-shaped hole in my life is going to be there for a while.