He was the best of dogs; he was the worst of dogs… That pretty much summed up my daughter Jamie’s comments when she learned of the passing of Riley, who had been a four-legged fixture at our house for most of the last 15 years. You might say that Riley came into our lives providentially. In August of 2000, when Holly and I returned home from an anniversary night out, the kids had a surprise for us in the back of my truck—a cute little long-haired mixed-breed mutt with big brown eyes and Yoda-like ears that had wandered into the yard and captured the attention of my children. Their words, if I remember, were something like this: “Oh he was lost daddy; we put him in your truck so he wouldn’t get lost-er.” That’s logical, I suppose. Well, to make a long story shorter, even after our attempts to help Riley find his way back to his rightful home, a few weeks later he had made his way back into our house, and into our hearts, and that was that. He was well-behaved in the house, didn’t desecrate the floors or furniture. He was smart and loving and craved attention. He was a noble watchdog, appropriately ferocious when the mailman came walking across the porch or another dog down the front sidewalk. He was the best of dogs…
I wish that could be the end of the story. He was good in so many ways, but in other ways he was equally the worst of dogs. For one thing, he was a runner. (That’s probably how he came to be “lost” that fateful night when my kids “saved” him!) Any little crack of the door was adequate; he’d nose out and take off like a bullet straight down Everett Avenue for Bell Street. He took great delight in the chase, and was a master at avoiding capture. He was also very hairy, parts of this dog producing annually enough hair to make about four Rileys; hair “bunnies” became a part of our lives, no matter how much you vacuumed or swept. We bought rugs the color of Riley just to make it simpler. He tolerated—but hated—my grooming attempts and baths. He was a hopeless beggar at the dinner table, and guarded the kitchen counter, snapping at the feet of anyone who got too close to the roasted chicken cooling just above. He loved to roll around outdoors in things that smelled of death, then come inside, prideful and strutting in his toxicity. His breath could have killed a small child. His worst personality trait of all, though, was in his ability to be surly and just plain mean if you tried to make him move from where he was napping or take away a bone or object of his affection. He could be a dog-possessed-by-evil at these times; I once think I saw his head spin completely around when I tried to take his pig’s ear away. Bad story. Bad dog. His first and last pig’s ear. Sometimes he truly was the worst of dogs.
But most of the time—that’s why I suppose we tolerated the negatives—most of the time he was a pretty good dog. He loved me, and I loved him. By my back-of-the-envelope-calculations he and I walked over 2,500 miles, our nightly ritual after dark, come rain or shine, snow or sleet or hail or wind, ninety degrees or nine below—we walked. He’s probably a good part of the reason I am not as of yet a complete solid! He would jump up into your lap in the recliner, and snooze for hours there, or make you pet him. And he would always meet you at the door with excitement when you came home. Especially if you were carrying in a carry-out box. He just knew.
Riley got old on us, about 17 years old by our guesstimates. He’d gone totally deaf, was about half blind; he had arthritis and bad airway problems, honking like a goose much of the nights of late. So, one sad Friday the 13th in March we made a last trip with Riley to the vet, and did that thing that it is oh-so-loving-and-oh-so-terrible all at the same time. And there were lots of tears, and I miss him still. Especially when I come home, or when it’s time for him to walk me at night. I know, theologically, that animals aren’t given eternal spirits like humans. We are the only creatures created “in His image,” and animals are meant to serve men and not the opposite. But it would also be wrong, I think, to say that animals aren’t given some kind of temporal “soul”—so to speak—a personality, a spark, an intellect, a more than merely instinctual ability to love and be loved. Or to be evil. And often to be both.
Just like Riley typically approached our walks at night, I’m not sure what the point of all of this is quite yet, but I expect to get there in a bit. It does feel good to write about Riley, sort of an obarktuary, I suppose. A significant life and passing should be noted. Riley taught me a lot through the years about faithfulness, about adventure, about patience and begging and persistence. He taught me—showed me—unconditional love and forced me to learn it when dealing with his schizoid ways. How can one animal be so good, so capable of love and joy, so smart—and at the very same time be so bad, so capable of snarling and snapping and illogical paranoid destructive behaviors of all forms? How indeed? God probably wonders the same thing about me. The one with the eternal soul. The one created “in His image.” The one who knows better and has been called to higher—but who still returns time and again to his lower basic instinct. Paul said it once, “I want to do right– I have that desire. But I see another law at work inside, a law that wars within me—brings out the absolute worst in me…” I can see that law too, Paul.
Maybe, just maybe, God gave me Riley to teach me how to put up with a haywired creature, to remind me that His love for me isn’t tied to my pedigree or perfect attitude. That it isn’t because of how well-behaved, wonderful or smart I am. No. God’s favor toward me is in spite of all of my shortcomings—against all logic, all fairness—it… just… is, it’s just grace. Even though I was a stray and still know how to run. Even though I have a split personality, a sometimes selfish snarling side, even in spite of my deafness and blindness and spiritual arthritis—and that I wheeze instead of praise and often wreak sinfully of death, at times getting so much backward and upside down—still, I have a God who loves me and doesn’t think I’m a lost dog or a lost cause. And I was blessed enough, by the same God, to have a dog for a long season that thought of me as God. Well, most of the time anyway.
Thank you, Father, for furry companions and all creatures great and small. Thank you for Riley, and all the dogs I’ve loved before who’ve loved me back unconditionally. Thank you for thinking of everything we need, before we even know we need it. Your faithfulness and loyalty is unmatched, but thankfully it is often imitated. And that should give us paws to think… Amen!