It is beyond our reach to climb
To where, upon the highest step
The face, in fur, lean out,
Still, pausing, now in memory,
His slant ears turned upon us,
Like radar to attend our slightest move,
A momentary vision in the faded light,
Before the turning darkness cover him.
He was illumination from within,
A warmth no spheric orb could emulate,
No sun contain, his joy at life a radiance
To bask in, at his quiet touch, now still.
We move each moment by him,
A fate into the dusk
That blur where he had been,
And all too searing bright
The ache replace what had been joy,
The space as empty shadow
Move into us like a haunting bell
That rings in unheard sound
Upon the need to grasp his spectral form
Within our weary, gasping hold.
To what had been, to now,
Mix bitter and sweet as we reform our broken selves.
poem by Zephram de Colebi, February, 2019
It was Zephram who found O'Riley at an animal shelter while I was visiting my parents in Texas. My previous dog, Shadow, died of complications from diabetes and I was ready for another one. Zephram said he chose Riley from all the available dogs because Riley was so needy. Abused while still a puppy, he was discarded, afraid, whimpering in his cage, and facing euthanasia. Zephram brought him home to await my arrival but the puppy ran away in terror as soon as he could, but stayed across the road, sheltered under a rock ledge, completely lost, hungry, yet afraid to leave.
When I returned, I threw bits of weiners to him, hoping he would gradually come close enough so I could grab him, but I was too eager and grabbed too soon and Riley escaped, leery now of approaching again. We borrowed a deer cage and trapped him a couple of times as hunger drove him into the cage for food and he tripped the wire that closed the sliding door. I got a harness of him but he twisted his body so much that he broke it, and a second one as well.
We finally got him up to the Hermitage from the winter house and he broke free again. Now he was so desperate for food that he started killing the chickens, which I couldn't allow, so I borrowed a gun to shot him but when I aimed it at him, he ran away to the neighbor's house, only to be shoot by him with a shotgun. The lead pellets in his body later showed up as bright dots of light on X-rays.
Riley managed to stagger back to the Hermitage only to collapse in high weeds. Zephram heard him whimpering and this time Riley was too weak to run. He allowed himself to be picked up, dried off and his wounds tended. Now we were able to keep him with us since we finally understood him and had a very strong harness from which he could not escape. He never bit me, but he was terrified and it took months, years actually, for him to calm down and feel secure. Food, lots of food, helped him. He always loved to eat.
And so we gradually became inseparable. He was my companion; he slept on my bed. But he was also a member of the family as well, and Zephram took him everyday into the studio with Dido, his own dog, and each one had an upholstered arm chair in which to lay.
He always had a fatty tissue lump on his belly, but it never grew larger so I paid it no attention. Aside from that he was always healthy. He was cured of lyme disease.
He and Dido made a good hunting team. Dido, larger and more aggressive, would kill a groundhog by ferociously whipping its neck back and forth, but Riley was always there, biting the poor creature's legs and doing whatever he could to assist in the kill.
And so the years passed. They flew by quickly but I never thought they would end. In the mornings as I wrote in bed, Riley would wait patiently until I was done and then he'd wait patiently as I put on his harness and we'd get our sister, Dido, for our morning walk. They would run across the fields/ We'd take the road back and I was always looking out for passing vehicles to make sure the dogs were safe.
I wanted to have him for at least sixteen years, but he was only twelve when he caught pneumonia and an X-ray indicated there was also a tissue lump growing between his lungs and under the spinal chord. A biopsy would require inserting a needle through a lung and I refused to have that done. He was put on a chemo treatment which extended his life, but I could tell he was getting weaker. Each evening, on my bed, he looked at me and, instead of staying on the bed, he told me he had to get down and he started spending his nights on the floor. "I have to leave, Pops," he said, as he jumped off the bed, and I finally realized he was teaching me to accept the time when he would have to leave for good.
There came a time in December, 2018, when he no longer had bowel movements. Concerned, we tried a diuretic, to no avail, so I took him to the vet who X-rayed him and found cancer had filled his abdomen and ruptured his spleen. His abdomen was filling with blood and he had only a day or two to live. She did give a packet of Chinese herbs that would help slow the bleeding, but he was doomed.
I drove home in shock and screamed to Bro. Zephram that Riley was dying. Neither of us could believe it. We actually had him five more days, but each day he got weaker and weaker. Still, he stayed with our daily routine and did as much as he could. When I took them out for the morning walk, Riley went as far as he could, even if it was just around the corner. Then he laid down and waited for Dido and I to return. In the afternoon, Zephram took him with Dido in the truck up to the Hermitage and laid him in the studio on his chair, or perhaps on the floor near his feet, where Riley stayed until it was time for the evening walk, but when he could no longer go with Dido and Zephram, he waited until they returned. Zephram had to lift Riley into the truck as he could no longer even go up the ramp, which he'd been using for months when he could no longer jump in by himself.
For our last midnight walks, I had to set Riley on the ground and he only went a few feet and laid in the January snow while Dido and I went out a short distance and returned. I didn't want to live Riley by himself for long in case a vehicle came by and struck him.
While he was on two pain pills, I knew the time was coming when the pain might become unbearable and I thought I was ready to put him down myself so he wouldn't suffer. And the night did come when he moaned constantly and I knew it was time, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't bear the look in his eyes as I suffocated him because he wouldn't know why I, of all people, was doing this to him. And so I called a vet who said she was already in the neighborhood and would be over shortly. Those were our last minutes together. I laid beside him on the floor and put my arm around him and we waited. I think we both knew the final parting was coming.
The vet arrived, explained the procedure, and Riley, of all things, growled as she went around to his backside. He never did like people back there. She gave him a sedative to calm him down as she shaved a section of fur off a back leg for the injection. All this time I was looking into his eyes and speaking to him softly, "Look at me, Riley; look at me." I continued saying this until the injection stopped his heart and he was gone, eyes still open.
I thanked the vet for being as gentle with him as she was, and then she left, with Riley dead on the floor. Zephram finally came down and looked at Riley, and we brought Dido down who smelled her dead brother and backed off in panic.
I wrapped him in beautiful Indian silks, and wrapped a funeral necklace I'd already made around his neck. We laid him in state in the Saal of the Gemeinehaus for three days. I built a funeral pyre and on the fourth day I carried him up the hill and placed his body on the pyre. These were difficult days as we saw him everywhere, and I knew his spirit could not rest until the body that failed him so miserably was ashes. We started the fire and gradually it built to a roaring blaze that consumed my child. We left and returned the next day to collect what few bones were left. Zephram made a funeral bag from linen that he embroidered and added tufts of Riley's hair saved from his annual haircuts. He will not have a separate stone as he is the first of the family to be already on the obelisk we had installed last year.
It wasn't until after the cremation when his spirit first spoke to me, and I realized he was not gone but was with me, and would always stay with me. "I'm here, Pops. I'm here," he tells me daily, when I get up, when I walk Dido, when I look at the sofa in the TV room where he sat every evening waiting for a handout. That was how he taught me that death is not final, that the spirit lives on, and how, when I get a new dog companion, I know Riley will be glad to have a new brother. "I'm here, Pops; I'm here."
The last picture, two days before he died.