The rough-looking man who first plucked me from a basket would later say those who believe dogs have no soul only say that because they lack one of their own. I think maybe I taught him that.
When we first met, he had just returned from a faraway land where bad things were happening. He looked angry and tense, so when he picked me up, I licked his face and made little gurgling puppy noises. Something inside of him seemed to melt, and that’s where I first discovered my super power. With a smile and tail-wag, I could instantly turn people into a much better version of themselves.
My name is Riley and I was a very good dog.
The rough-looking man took me home to his family in the back of his Jeep. That was my first car ride. There was the woman, whose idea I was, and a little girl and little boy. I would become their childhood dog and, oh, the adventures we had and the life I lived!
I ran through green fields and dark forests, chased butterflies and lightning bugs, and fell asleep on cool wooden floors. I played in beach sand, danced in the surf with my friends, and napped in the sun on breezy porches. I was always well fed and deeply loved and never felt alone or abused or abandoned. Not all dogs can say that, and I am forever grateful for my good fortune.
I was trained in agilities by a professional trainer. She taught me how to run obstacle courses. I could jump and climb and weave with grace and precision. I could run like the wind. People clapped and cheered for me and said my name. I don’t like to brag but, yes, I was pretty much a Ninja.
When the little girl turned into a big girl and went off to college in Georgia, I went with her. It was my job to keep her safe and happy, and that’s where my super powers were most needed. I was with her through good times and bad, always there to comfort her and make her happy, to reel her in and ground her when things got crazy. I was the mooring that held her ship in place when life’s storms tossed and turned the seas around her.
We moved to Colorado where I learned to love the snow, wallowing in it until it was churned up like whipped cream on a pumpkin pie. The little boy, who was now a big boy, came to visit and together we climbed huge mountains. I got to look down on the world from above, like a hawk, to see it like most dogs never get to, from rocky crags that touch the sky. I felt the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and the love of my human brother and sister. I was very much alive.
When the doctor said I had cancer, I didn’t know what that meant, but the big girl cried and hugged me a lot. He said I only had three months to live, but he didn’t know me. It wasn’t my time and I had much left to teach and more love to give.
We returned to Virginia and the big yard of my childhood. I was now old and wise with a distinguished tint of gray in my golden hair, but I was still a puppy at heart. I ran circles around that big yard. I played with my friends, Jake and Bridger. I taught them all I knew about being a good dog.
One day the rough-looking man who had plucked me from a basket took me for a walk on the beach. I think we both knew it would be the last time. There was a full moon, a cool breeze, and the sky was full of stars. We sat in the sand, and I put my head in his lap. He was quiet for a long time, and then he told me that if there were no dogs in heaven, he really had no reason to go there. I think maybe he cried just a little. He hugged me a lot.
I looked at the moon and the stars. I always liked doing that. We sat there for a long time just enjoying each other’s company. Finally he looked up at the sky and told me that we were all made from stardust and would be stardust again someday. In between being stardust, we had each other and every second matters.
When my time finally came, I was surrounded by those who loved me. They had given me so much, but there was just one thing left that was within their power to give.
They could relieve my suffering.
I could tell that it was the hardest gift they would ever bestow, but it was my turn to become stardust again.
The sky was waiting for me.
I had lived a wonderful life. I had loved boldly and unconditionally. I had relished in simple pleasures. I had embraced playfulness and adventure. I had given all of myself to others and been there for them when they needed me the most. I had made people happy. That was my life, and it was well lived indeed. Now at the end, I too had but one thing left to give.
My final gift to those I loved was to teach them how to grieve.
Sadness, after all, is just the mirror image of all the happiness we share on this journey. It means we’re doing things right, that we have a soul, that living creatures matter to each other and draw strength from one another. It binds us together in sorrow and engraves happy memories on our heart.
My final hope is this: that when those I have loved during this life reach the end of their journey, they will be able to look back without regret just like me. I hope they will be able to say they truly lived and the world was a better place for having them in it.
I hope they’ll be able to say, with a big smile, I lived the life of Riley.
Copyright © 2023 by Anthony J. Rinderer. All rights reserved. Anthony J Rinderer grew up in Oak Ridge Tennessee. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2011 and now serves as a private military contractor, instructor pilot, and writer for the Department of Defense.