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  • Richard Byrne

A Farewell to Riley

I didn’t want a dog.

There were lots of reasons for that from childhood I won’t get into here. But in 2005, after I got married, I was persuaded by my wife, Kelli, to change my mind about it.

It took until January 2006. I was at work one day and Kelli started sending me reports about a dog in Ohio on death row that needed immediate saving. It was Monday and they were going to put him down on Thursday.

A posse of dog lovers were determined to save this animal. He was part chow. (They knew from his tongue.) But what else they – and eventually, we – could only guess. German shepherd? Golden retriever?

His name was Riley.

The rescue team sent Kelli a “temperament report” about Riley. He was listed as a “stray,” but it was more likely that he was abused. Not many one-year-old strays are perfectly house trained. He was gentle, but skittish. Scared by loud noises. People weren’t able to assess him for adoption, apparently, because he cowered in the back of his cage and would not or could not greet them.

The story utterly melted my heart. As well as Kelli’s. So we found ourselves, midweek in January 2006, driving to meet a woman from Ohio at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to take possession of Riley. Officially, it was a foster relationship, but we knew that wasn’t in the cards. It was for keeps.

Riley was calm on the ride back. When we got him home, we discovered the perfect house training. There was a lot of time spent next to him on the ground and petting him. Letting him get used to us and a new place.

Right away, Riley was a mommy’s boy. It took him a few months to warm up to me entirely. This is when we started to be able to trace what the contours of his abuse must have been. He was extraordinarily wary of any male. Baseball caps made him very upset. We hated whomever had done this to him.

We also discovered so many other things about Riley once his guard came down. First, he was stubborn. Second, he would bolt if you let him get away – not to run away but to head back to the front door of our apartment building.

But most of all, Riley was smart. Not clever, but a strange mixture of wisdom and emotional sensitivity. He could feel one’s mood with an uncanny accuracy, and respond to it with a presence that seemed always modulated to precisely what you were seeking.

So much of this progress was down to Kelli’s persistent affection for Riley and natural feel for animals of all sorts. She drew him out of his shell with a love that she never stopped lavishing on him. After six or so months, it was as if we’d never ­not had Riley around.

I have been flashing back a lot over the past two days to the moments of humor and joy I had with Riley. How much that dog loved a good snowfall. The moment he discovered that he craved pizza crusts with a ferocity that made ordering pizza more about him than us. (Oh! he was a beggar of treats.) Or a few days in North Carolina on the beach when he decided he had to have the scent of rotting fish on every part of his body.

The changes Riley invited in my life were real. The deal when we got Riley was that Kelli and myself would split the duties of getting up at 6 a.m. – his preferred hour – and walking him.

That didn’t happen. Riley quickly discovered I was the easier mark at dawn. There would be a poke or a snout to let me know it was time. And out we’d go. In any and all weather. Eventually, he stopped trying to wake Kelli if I was there.

One of Riley’s gifts to me was in choosing me to walk him in the morning. It was in this same moment of my life that I had decided that I wanted to write plays again. To tell my own stories, after decades of telling other peoples’ stories. My morning walks with Riley led to a new routine in my life. Walk. Shower. Stroll to Tryst by 7 or 7:30 a.m., and start writing until it was time to walk to my job around 9 a.m.

Those morning hours, and the discipline to find them and use them, were a direct result of that routine I shared with Riley. I wrote Burn Your Bookes and most of Nero/Pseudo in those hours.

But I miss the walks with Riley as much as anything.

A few years ago, after Kelli and myself separated, and then amicably divorced, I didn’t see Riley as much. He was here in Washington for a few months this year again before he left for Florida with Kelli a few weeks ago.

The last few times I saw him he was weak. His rear leg muscles were failing. I cried a lot after seeing him those times. I was sad I could not do more for him.

He left us this morning.

You often hear that it is rescue dogs who rescue you, and not the other way around. I know this to be true – and deeply. Riley’s companionship in some moments of tragedy and darkness I have experienced was profound, and moving, and healing.

But I also discovered that with the responsibility of bringing a rescue animal – an animal who needs to heal to be happy – into one’s life, there also comes the opportunity and the freedom to love.

A few days ago, when Kelli told me that Riley’s health was starting to fail, I found myself walking close by my old apartment in Kalorama. I stopped by the open green space on the edge of Rock Creek Park where I used to walk Riley. It was a special place in so many ways. Dogs can go off leash there at times. I made friends with other dog lovers. It was a good place.

I remembered the game that Kelli, Riley, and myself would play there. Many days, after a long commute home from my job, I’d get off the Metro at Woodley Park and walk over to that space. As I walked, I texted Kelli and she would bring Riley over to the other end of the park.

When I got in sight of Kelli and Riley, I’d whistle as loud as I could. Two notes: a high and low one.

Riley’s reaction when he heard the notes was always the same: He would turn, scan for me, and then come running all the way to the other end of the park to greet me.

He ran so swiftly and so beautifully. Nothing clumsy ever. Just pure energy and affection. It was a game that never got old.

That is the memory of Riley I have most deeply etched into mind and heart. It is the one that I carry with me. The memory I try to find myself in as well.

A beautiful dog, as happy as he can be, running free and beautiful in love.

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