It will be four weeks Thursday, four weeks since my world was turned upside down by the loss of my beloved River. Some people say that "it's just a dog" and that I need to get over it. While it is true that River was a dog, it is far from true that she was "just" a dog. River, like my Sammy and Shadow, are very much my family. River lived with me for eight years, most certainly the best eight years of her nearly 11 years of life. I honestly don't know what her life was like before me but I do know bits and pieces and when I put it all together, well, it wasn't the best life.
Dogs don't get to pick their lives, they don't have much free will and for the most part, they are totally dependent on the people who own them. It isn't really fair but seeing as how we are at the top of the food chain, it's the way things have turned out. Dogs were first domesticated tens of thousands of years ago and ever since they left their wild ways, they've walked side by side with us, always loyal and always devoted.
They give everything they have to make our lives better. They do not care how rich or poor we are, how beautiful we are or are not and they certainly don't care if we are old or young. They care only that that they might please, that they might serve and that they might be the best possible friend a person could have. We owe it to them to live up to that kind of devotion and loyalty, to repay them the only way we can, with love and protection. So, a little over 8 years ago, I made the trip east to Oldham County and adopted my second Border Collie.
Her first week with me was rather traumatic as she would not eat, kept getting sick and generally tried to bite everything that moved. It was clear from the beginning that she had never been socialized, never allowed to trust and enjoy the presence of other dogs and especially people. It would take several months to earn her trust and after a few visits to the dog trainer, things began to turn around.
She soon began to come out of her shell and slowly this amazing creature began to emerge. Once she became assured that I would not only love her dearly but never give her up, she became without a doubt the most alive dog I have ever met. Each day was an adventure, another opportunity to live life to the fullest and embrace everything that came her way. Along the way, she taught me what it was like to live, something that I had kind of forgotten how to do.
River quickly became the Alpha Dog, letting Sammy know that she was boss. Now this wasn't really that difficult, Sammy couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag, but it became a role that she would never relinquish, not even in her last days. Several years later, Shadow came to live with us and another transition began. Shadow was totally different from Sammy and River. Very laid back and an emotional wreck, Shadow had spent a full year living at the shelter. Again, a transition would have to take place to make this dog feel a part of the family.
That was five years ago and in retrospect, it didn't take Shadow long to become one with us. He is a gentle soul, perhaps the friendliest dog I've ever had the pleasure to know. He is clumsy, not very intelligent (especially compared to the brilliant Border Collies) and a bit of a goof ball. In short, he is perfect. River welcomed him into her brood and over the years, the two of them developed a very special relationship.
For five years, the three dogs became one of the most important parts of my life. They slept in my bed, welcomed me home each time like I had been gone for months and did nothing but bring joy to my life. The four of us were pretty much attached at the hip and it seemed like it would last forever. This past Christmas, my Mother and I decided to take the dogs to have their pictures taken with Santa. Dharma, my Mom's dog, is older than mine and has had several very serious health problems. Both of us were afraid this might be Dharma's last Christmas and we wanted something to remember it with.
Two weeks after Christmas, I began to notice that River was having trouble going to the bathroom. It didn't seem like that big of a deal but gradually it got worse. River had never been sick a day in her life and I figured that the worst it could be was a simple urinary tract infection. I took her to the vet, certain that some anti-biotics wold do the trick and she would be back to normal in just a few days. An hour later, I had been kicked in the gut and sent reeling with the diagnosis of cancer.
I had not noticed that her lymph nodes had become very swollen but it wouldn't have mattered. The lymphoma was extremely aggressive and had most likely only been detectable for a few weeks. It had spread throughout her body and was attacking her bones and most organs. The prognosis wasn't good but the doctors thought that with major steroids and other medicines, we might get a few good months out of her. Five days later I awoke to what I feared most. After several good days, things had taken a turn for the worse. She was barely able to walk and her breathing was very labored. I called in sick to work and rushed her to the doctor, hoping against hope that something could be done.
She died in my arms that morning as I held her tight. As she took her last breath, I whispered into her ear that I loved her dearly and would always keep her memory alive. I have yet to forgive myself for letting this happen, this signing of the paperwork which gave the vet permission to put her to sleep. I keep seeing her face, the look of fear and uncertainty in her eyes. It was almost as if she were asking me "why are you doing this to me?" I know this wasn't what she was thinking but I can't help but feel that way.
I hope that she knew that what I was doing was out of love, out of a desire not to see her suffer. The cancer had eaten away at her body and now she could barely walk but I just couldn't help but feel that I was betraying my friend. I miss her so much and as the weeks slowly pass by, I do sometimes feel better. I have my good days but they are still few and far between. For the most part, I am still very much in pain, filled with this grief that will not go away.
So no, she wasn't just a dog, she was so much more. Like Sammy and Shadow and all of my pets that have come before, River is very much a part of my family. River was my friend, my companion and my baby. I miss her so much and even with all I have written her tonight, words cannot begin to express how much her loss has left a gaping hole inside my heart and soul. My life seems a bit less meaningful now that she is gone and when Sammy and Shadow leave this world, I will feel very much the same. It would appear that I am both the perfect dog owner and the worst dog owner.