July 7, 2022


Five and a half years ago - on December 26, 2016 - my sister, parents, grandmother, late great aunt and I walked into Humane Society of Broward County looking for what my sister and I were told was a labrador retriever puppy. We imagined a typical, "yellow" lab - the type of dog that feels like an American right of passage - but soon after arriving, we were told by the shelter staff that the description online was a bit misleading; the puppy was actually a black and white lab mix. That's when we saw Riley.

Her name at the shelter was Casper, which always made us laugh. She was pale white with black spots, tiny and playful, with a slight Staffordshire Terrier look to her face, though she made us think of a Dalmatian. She was just 10 weeks old and absolutely, irresistibly adorable, with delicate, pink skin peeking through her fur and the most delicious puppy breath. Seconds after we walked into her room, she ran up to my dad and licked his face. You could say the rest is history: the decision to take her home was as easy as decisions get. She was perfect: playful, loving, and as sweet as any dog could be, winning everyone over instantly. We spent a few minutes trying to come up with a name that felt right. 
Riley was the crowd favorite - in more ways than one.

What followed that special day of bringing home our sweet, four legged, post-Christmas gift were four and a half amazing years - years spent waking up to the sweetest wet kisses, pulling up to the driveway after work with the sweetest running welcome, napping against the warmest belly and softest ears, taking happy walks around the neighborhood (she loved jumping up on our neighborhood bridge to see the lake below) and soaking up the sunshine in our front yard, where she loved to roll around and have her belly scratched. We took Riley to hotels, where she'd jump up on the check-in counter to greet everyone, to dog parks where she'd make friends, and stores where she'd sniff every surface. 

She added magic and humor to our trips: we got to watch her experience the southwest Florida beaches (which she loved), the Carolina mountains (which she didn't love, but where she still made an effort to sniff every ounce of fresh air with her head out the window), the cities where Gabbi and I lived (Orlando and Fort Myers), Charleston, St. Augustine, and so much more. She opened gifts with us on Christmas, ate pup cups on her birthday and gave us kisses on New Year's Eve. She played "nose volleyball" and ping pong with us, let her kitty siblings nibble on her gums and ears as they snuggled, and chased us as we swam in the pool. She became our main source of joy, laughter and entertainment during a grim pandemic, a friend of our littlest neighbors, which whom she'd play "balloon ball," a sweet couch buddy for my elderly grandmothers, and a huge source of pride for us all. We loved showing her off. She was our baby and, as we often joked, my dad's #1 girl. I could be here all day going over every wonderful memory, moment and detail Riley brought into our lives. 

I try to think back on all these beautiful moments - and the many others - to get me through the reality of what happened a year ago today, when we were brought to our knees in one unthinkable moment. At around 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 7th - as I was doing yoga in our backyard, my dad was working in the front yard, and my sister and mom were cooking in the kitchen - Riley collapsed on our driveway, at just four and a half years old, from what the vet would later tell us was likely an aneurysm or heart attack. She waited for all four of us to run to her side before her eyes became still, her body went limp, and it became clear she had taken her last breath, though we spent the next hour doing everything we could to try and revive her, from chest compressions and mouth-to-nose CPR to calling a police officer and every emergency vet office nearby. The minutes and hours that followed are both a blur and painfully sharp memory of us trying to save - and later, say goodbye - to the unconditionally-loving heart and baby of our home. 

That evening - from the moment it happened to the second we arrived home after kissing Riley goodbye at the vet's office - were horrific. The morning after, as well as the nights that immediately followed, were even harder. The four of us were filled with so many emotions - shock, horror, heartbreak, and anger that this happened not just to us, but to her, because Riley loved being with us more than anything. I still find myself praying that she wasn't afraid in her final moments and couldn't hear the anguish in our voices. If anything, I hope she felt comforted that we were all there with her, in one of her favorite spots outside her loving home.

The day after Riley passed away, we went to a small, quiet waterfront hotel in Naples to grieve by the peace of the sea. We were both in shock and gutted with pain - so much so that a sweet young server took notice of our tears and brought us handmade bracelets, which I've kept to this day. We wrote Riley's name in the sand on the beach, cried as we shared our favorite memories of her frolicking in the water, and imagined her happily playing with our other beloved pets every time a rainbow appeared. 

That Saturday night after, as I stood in the hotel shower, any piece of denial I had left was broken. Reality sunk in. When my head hit the pillow, I wailed. I'd seen moments like this in the movies, but never lived one. The cry that escaped me was filled with a unique type of pain - a nearly unbearable one where you've truly come to terms with a tragedy and find yourself desperate to wake up from what you pray was a nightmare. Sadly, this wasn't the last of these moments for me, Gabbi or my parents. We cried more together in the past year than in the two+ decades prior. I can tell you this: we couldn't have gotten through it the way we did without the incredible outpouring of love, support, and heartfelt gifts we received from family and friends. Perhaps the biggest thank you I can say is this: with every ounce of love you showed us, we felt Riley's impact and legacy. That continues to mean everything.

I often wonder what people think of all the endless things I've posted about Riley on social media, how much we've grieved our dog, and how much this loss profoundly changed my dad, who had so many plans for his retirement that included Riley. I know, for many, this can't compare to the loss of a human loved one - I understand. Others simply don't understand a dog meaning this much to people. Truthfully, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Talking about Riley and sharing photos of her was something I did for myself. It helps me honor her memory as I cope with what was undoubtedly the most traumatic experience of my life. I know I'm fortunate to have not experienced worse. Despite the immense pain we experienced over the past 365 days, I would do it all over again if it meant we got to keep those 4 and a half years with her.

I know I speak for my family when I say we feel incredibly lucky to understand this love and, with it, heartache. The loss of a beloved pet is always incredibly painful, but to have had it happen suddenly and tragically, to a young dog who was so well cared for and deeply loved, feels downright cruel. 
The sweetest soul's life was cut short in the blink of an eye. It's something we'll never understand, and always struggle to wrap our brains around.

It hit me the other night that I'll never know Riley as a senior, with tired eyes, a white face, and dry, crusty nose. Some view a dog in its old age as sad, but now more than ever, I see how beautiful and precious that opportunity is. It's an opportunity I wish we had. 

Though it was a much shorter life than she deserved, we continue to find comfort in knowing Riley couldn't have been more spoiled and adored. Her life was beautiful, as was she. I feel so, so lucky that she was ours and we were hers. 

I like to imagine a world where Riley is still here, and we happen to stumble upon Rebel, with Riley choosing her as a sister. Rebel would have loved her. It's a sweet dream I'll always hold onto.

To hurt deeply is to love deeply - and a dog's love is unconditional. 

Riley girl ... if you only knew the impact you continue to have today. We miss you beyond words, and think of you every single day - especially when Rebel does something to remind us of you. Today, we're planting flowers and hanging wind chimes in your honor, by your favorite spot in front of your forever home. Thank you for loving us as beautifully as you did, and for being the sweetest, goofiest girl. You were magic. 

We will always be yours. You will always be ours. And we will always, always love you.