Nancy Lane's touching story of a couple who agree to look after a dog when its owner is sent on a military tour.
"Dave, do you know what we need?" I said.
"No, Linda, but you're about to tell me."
"We need a temporary dog," I said, holding out Martin's social media post on my phone for Dave to read.
Two years before, Dave buried our Jack Russell terrier, Petula, by the gardenia bush behind the house. Her little heart had weakened and euthanasia was kindest. Grief poured like a mudslide through our lives, knocking us down as we tried to get up and get on. A pet bereavement group introduced us to "The Rainbow Bridge" poem, with its comforting description of a paradise where pets and their owners reconnect on their way to Heaven. With the group's help we recovered but agreed not to adopt another dog. Our hearts couldn't handle another loss.
"Fostering would be different," I said. "We would enjoy a dog for six months and then, following a joyous reunion between dog and soldier, we would walk away happy."
"What if the soldier gets killed?" Dave said.
"We'll have to ask that and other questions before deciding," I said. "Quickly though, the guy is in a tight spot."
As Dave drove the sixty miles to the dog park Martin had designated for our meeting place, I looked up information about boxers - clean, short hair, faithful, energetic, playful and good with children. Martin hopped out of his red pickup truck. Riley, medium sized, brindle with white chest, trotted beside him, tail wagging. When Martin introduced Riley to us, Riley broke out in a full body wiggle. We laughed because it seemed so over-the-top.
"He's just that way with everyone," Martin said. "He's a cuddly baby, totally non-aggressive."
Martin unhooked the leash and gave Riley the "run" command. Riley galloped away, looking back now and then, circling the bench where we chatted with Martin. Riley soon came and sat beside Martin, nudging his knee until Martin patted his head.
"I've no place to turn," Martin said. "My parents are on assignment in Paris for the State Department. My only other relative, my grandmother, can't keep him because of her health. My friends are on deployment themselves."
"What if we had Riley and something happened to you?" Dave said.
"My best friend, Bobby, will be returning to base four months from now," Martin said. "He's agreed to find Riley a new home if I get killed or gravely injured. But that's not going to happen."
Martin asked how we spent our time as a retired couple, why we wanted to foster a dog and questions about our pet history, home, yard and neighbors. He seemed accepting of us but wanting to delay. "I think I mentioned Riley is six now and I had him from a puppy," Martin said, looking intently at Riley, who sat at his feet. "My wife and I picked him out. Ex-wife," Martin continued. "When I got back from my first deployment, Kristen had my things packed and told me to take Riley with me. I bumped into her a year ago in a coffee shop. She's remarried and has a child. She didn't ask once about Riley."
Martin pulled a tennis ball from his coat pocket, threw it out for Riley and walked away, giving Dave and me time to talk. It was time for him and Riley to talk as well. Martin sat on the grass, hugging Riley.
"They're gonna miss each other so much," I told Dave.
"Should we help?" Dave said.
After the long good-bye, Martin brought Riley on the leash to us, handing him to Dave. "I want Riley to go with you if you agree. I wish we had more time to decide but we don't. I know you are good people, good dog people." Dave told him we'd feel honored to keep Riley safe while he was away keeping us safe.
Martin retrieved paperwork and Riley's bed, bowls and box of toys. "Please wait with Riley until I've driven away," he said. Riley pulled on the leash as Martin walked away and pulled hard when Martin got in his truck. Riley looked from us to the truck as it turned from the parking lot. He whined and wagged his tail and then sat, watching the road.
As we walked him to our car, Riley kept staring in the direction where the truck had disappeared. He hesitated and then jumped in the back seat, perhaps expecting us to take him to Martin. We drove in the opposite direction.
Riley seemed still hopeful as we brought him in through our garage, taking his bed into our bedroom, bowls and bag of food into the kitchen, toys into the family room. Once Riley determined where the front door was, he stationed himself in front of it.
For the next few days Riley remained mostly at the front door, responding to commands - come, sit, stay - as trained, but not using his bed or eating. Finally, steak bones from the dinner Dave grilled outside tempted him. After that, Riley slept in his bed, ate his dog food, fetched balls in the backyard and watched TV with us. When not otherwise engaged, he stayed by the front door.
In the weeks that followed, Riley adjusted to our routine, his favorite ritual being Friday night T-bones. He abandoned the front door station in favor of a corner in the kitchen. We exchanged email with Martin, usually on Sundays. Two months into fostering, emails from Martin ceased.
Deployment drags with it distance and sometimes disability or death. Three more weeks passed without hearing from Martin. Then Audrey Dash, Martin's grandmother, phoned. Martin had been injured in a bombing and transported to a hospital in Germany, where he died. Mrs. Dash asked Dave if we'd give her a few days and then bring Riley to her.
When we turned off the highway, Riley jumped to the window, tail whipping side-to-side. Maybe Riley thought Martin was nearby. Riley went crazy as we pulled up to Audrey's house. Riley ran up the walk, barking and jumping until Audrey opened the front door of the stately old home. Riley performed his full body wiggle and then ran inside.
"Mrs. Dash, I'm Dave. This is my wife Linda."
"Call me Audrey," she said. "Please come in and sit down." Throughout the living room and adjacent dining room, packed boxes were stacked and tags affixed to all the furniture. Riley had disappeared.
Audrey, connected via tube to an oxygen bottle, used a walker. "I'm moving to assisted living next week. My neighbors are helping me pack. I don't even go upstairs anymore. Martin couldn't get base housing with a dog, so Martin and Riley moved in here - just four miles from the base. After awhile I couldn't take care of Riley. Martin left him at doggy daycare and brought him home in the evenings." Audrey's eyes spilled tears.
"We're sorry for your loss, Audrey," Dave said.
"Thank you," Audrey said. "The funeral was Thursday. My daughter Isabel and son-in-law left for the airport this morning. Isabel picked out some of Martin's things she wants shipped to Paris."
"Riley must be upstairs," I said.
"I feel so sad," Audrey said. "He's looking for Martin in their old room. Would you please get him? Go left at the top of the stairs."
I found Riley on the floor beside the bed, curled up atop a dog-wadded, camouflage Army uniform. I coaxed but Riley wouldn't budge, so I went downstairs and asked Dave to get him.
"Riley must have pulled the uniform off the bed," Audrey said. "Isabel laid it out."
Dave carried Riley down. "Is he allowed on the sofa?" he asked Audrey.
"Yes, of course," she said.
Dave placed Riley across my lap. He remained motionless, even when I scratched his ears. As I realized the depth of his disappointment, my teardrops fell and rolled down his fur.
Audrey dabbed a tissue beneath her wet eyes before speaking. "You know, Riley is such a good dog because Martin poured him full of love. Will you continue to care for Riley until Martin's friend Bobby returns and finds him a permanent home? I can't keep Riley and don't know anyone who can."
Dave and I exchanged glances. I ached to think of Riley needing a new home. Foster, yes - adoption, no. We had thought to protect our hearts, but life works otherwise. Dave knew my thoughts and I his. I patted his knee.
"We'd like to adopt Riley," Dave told Audrey.
Audrey smiled, we smiled and everyone fought back tears. I offered to bring Riley to the assisted living facility for visits. Audrey declined, saying that wouldn't be best for Riley. She gave me the facility phone number and asked me to call once in awhile. Audrey hugged Riley and said good-bye.
Suddenly we became the owners of Riley, the dog we had fallen in love with in the last three months, the broken-hearted dog separated from Martin and Audrey. We walked Riley to the car, his head and tail pointed downward, a much different dog than just an hour earlier. Our challenge became making Riley's life happy again.
Riley stayed by the front door, ate his dog food, went for walks, but seldom wagged his tail and never did the endearing full body wiggle. Andy, Dave's dog trainer friend, agreed when we said Audrey thought it best not to bring him for visits. He said it would be like breaking his heart over and over again. He told us to look for anything that perked him up and then do more of that. We clung to the tiny bit of animation Riley showed when riding in the car. Over the next few weeks we took him everywhere - car wash, post office, grocery store, dry cleaner. Every errand we ran, Riley rode.
The grocery store was busier than usual. I had to park several storefronts away. Coming back to the car with groceries, I saw a young man at the passenger side window. Riley stood on the seat, paws on the window, performing an outrageous full body wiggle.
"Oh, your dog is so friendly," the man said. "My dogs aren't that good with strangers."
"I'm glad to see him this happy," I said.
"Yeah," he said, "dogs usually are a bit more reserved around uniforms."
The young man wore a camouflage Army uniform. Riley continued acting crazy in the car. "Would you let me pet him?" the man asked.
When Riley and I arrived home, Dave said, "What's up with Riley? He looks different."
I told Dave about the young man in uniform and how Riley had reacted. I told him about the Army recruit office tucked away in the corner of the storefront complex and the young man's suggestion I bring Riley for visits. Dave phoned Andy, unsure if the visits would be good for Riley.
"Sure," Andy said. "He's not going to think those men are Martin. His nose will tell him the difference, but he'll react positively to their uniforms and their youth."
Once a week Riley visited Greg, the man we had met, and Erik, another young man in uniform. The visits were tonic for Riley. He regained the happy dog aura we had noticed the day we met him.
On one visit, Riley and I encountered Erik just inside the door. "Greg," he said, "I have to go to the hospital. Alex is in trouble again."
"Just go," Greg said. "I'll take care of things here."
Erik slipped out the door after saying hello to me and patting Riley's head.
"Erik's nephew is ill," Greg told me. "He's in Children's Hospital."
The next time I brought Riley, I asked Erik about his nephew. "Not good I'm afraid," he said. "The doctor said Alex may not live more than two months. My brother and his wife are devastated. Their only hope now is to make Alex as comfortable and happy as they can." Erik seemed distracted by Riley, who was wiggling and wagging. "Maybe, do you think I could borrow Riley? The hospital allows pets in to cheer up the kids. I could take him now and be back in two hours, maybe bring him to your house, if you want."
That's how it began. Erik took Riley to Children's Hospital once a week to cheer Alex. The third time he brought Riley home, Erik said, "My brother Peter and his wife Marie would like to meet you and introduce Alex. Would it be possible for you to take Riley to the hospital tomorrow morning?"
Everyone at Children's Hospital knew Riley by name. Riley stopped in at each patient room, where he traded wiggles for giggles. Parents squeezed our hands as if we were royalty. In Alex's room, Peter and Marie Spencer sat at either side of Alex's bed. They rose and hugged Dave and me and then gushed over Riley, who gushed back in his own way and then jumped on the bed. "Riley, get down," Dave said.
"It's okay," Peter said. "Alex can't hug Riley unless Riley is on the bed. The nurses understand."
Marie introduced Alex, age eight, and his brother Connor, age six. Riley snuggled up to Alex, not disturbing any of the many tubes connected to the pale boy with dark circled eyes. Alex reached to scratch Riley's ears and Connor reached across Alex and his tubes to scratch Riley's chest.
"Alex's test results have stabilized in the last two weeks," Marie said. "We're told there's no cure, but we're holding out for time and quality. Riley's been a godsend. You see Alex now, but two weeks ago he was worse. Linda, Alex needs Riley."
"I'm glad Riley is helping," I said. "We want Riley to continue visiting." Tears streamed down Marie's face as she looked to Peter. I felt something hanging in the air, a shared secret or undisclosed desire.
Peter turned to Dave. "Perhaps you and Linda would join me out in the hall and let Marie and the boys enjoy Riley a bit." We stepped out of Alex's room with Peter.
"If I may ask," I said, "what is Alex's illness?"
"DIPG," Peter said, "fast growing, inoperable tumors at the base of the brain. Chemo and radiation slow the tumors, but that's all we can do. Alex may be eligible for a clinical trial but that's not much hope."
Peter sighed and bit his lip. "Would you let us keep Riley, just until Alex passes?" he said. "If we could take Riley home and bring him to Alex every time one of us is here, which is almost always, Alex could be happier in the remaining weeks. We would take excellent care of Riley and you could visit any time." Peter paused. "Please talk it over." He turned and reentered Alex' room.
"How can we say no?" Dave said.
"It would be really disruptive for Riley. He's just now getting used to us."
"Linda, we've seen that Riley is adaptable. We should help that poor boy. Those parents are having such a hard time. It's in our hearts, Riley's heart too, to help."
That evening Dave took Riley and his bowls, bed, food and toys to the Spencers. While Dave was out, I phoned Audrey. "That'll be good for Riley," she said. "He loves people. That's just who he is."
Marie phoned every other week, reporting good results about Alex. As two months passed I began to think Alex might get better. We would get our dog back and Marie would get her son back too. Marie repeated Peter's offer for us to visit Riley, but I declined as Audrey had. Not that I thought it would break Riley's heart to see and then not see us, but I worried it would break our hearts to see and then not see Riley. I held out for the day he would come home permanently.
I hadn't heard from Marie in over a month when Peter phoned Dave. "Is Alex okay?" Dave said. "We haven't heard from Marie lately."
After his conversation with Peter, Dave filled me in. Alex's condition had changed. His doctor was letting him come home two days a week. The Spencers were optimistic. They even took Alex and Riley for a visit at school.
"Did Peter say when they would give Riley back?" I said.
"No. Peter just said he would keep us posted."
In time Peter announced Alex was being treated as an outpatient in the last phase of a clinical trial. Next he reported Alex was placed in the "no evidence of disease" category and said he and Marie were optimistic he might continue doing well.
That autumn, after keeping Riley for just over six months, Peter reported Alex would be attending school half-time and taking Riley to class with him.
"Peter asked if Alex could keep Riley forever," Dave said.
"No!" I said, "They agreed to give Riley back."
"Things changed, but Alex still needs Riley."
"They hijacked our dog," I said. "Now he's at their house. How can we get him back? They have all of his stuff and they're not going to hand him over. What's our recourse?"
Dave knew my thoughts and I his. He wasn't my ally. He stared at me, wanting me to relent. I felt like a solitary leaf on a tree after other leaves had floated away on the breeze. I was holding on, unable to do anything but twist in the wind. Riley was slipping from me.
"Linda," Dave said, "it's not about us. It's not even about Alex. This is about Riley, what makes him happiest. He started out as a young man's dog. Martin got him as a puppy. It's in him to be with a young man. We're not the right ones for him. To separate Riley from Alex would be selfish."
"The Spencers are being selfish."
"Everyone is being selfish," Dave said, "except Riley."
Dave made coffee the next morning. "Peter asked me to phone tonight. They hope we'll say yes."
"You mean we could say no?" I said.
Dave selected my favorite coffee mug from the cupboard and poured my coffee. "Peter again told me we can visit any time and mentioned if something changes, we might like to take Riley then."
"What's going to change?" I said. "They'll give Riley back when he's old, has cataracts and can't control his bladder?"
"Linda, why don't you phone Audrey about this? After all, she had Riley at one time too."
I hoped Audrey wouldn't mind me calling so early. The receptionist who answered hesitated when I asked to speak to Audrey Dash. "Are you a relative or close friend?" she said.
"I'm an acquaintance," I said.
The woman put me on hold. In a minute another female voice spoke. "I'm sorry. Mrs. Dash passed away the end of last month. The funeral was last week. Is there anything I can do for you?" After a few courtesies on the phone, I hung up and told Dave of Audrey's death. Riley's connection to his past was over. I then realized what Dave already knew. In Riley's life, Dave and I had served as a conduit. Riley was in his right place.
"Olivia didn't even get to meet him," I said. Our granddaughter had wanted to meet Riley at Christmas when she and our daughter and son-in-law would fly in from Denver. I had expected Riley back before Christmas.
"So what are you thinking?" Dave said.
"I'll have to send the Spencers a Christmas card every year."
"Why?" Dave said.
"They need to have our address and keep thinking of us over the years."
Dave looked confused.
"Maybe in later years they'll decide to return Riley," I said.
"You'd take Riley back, blind and peeing himself?"
"In a heartbeat."
Marie and I exchanged notes in our Christmas cards over the years. Marie always enclosed a recent picture of the boys and Riley. In one note she announced she and Peter were expecting a baby girl. "That's great for Riley," Dave said. "You know how he loves children." Christmas pictures then included all three children with Riley.
One springtime brought an unexpected note from Marie. "Dear Linda and Dave, with much sorrow I inform you Riley died. The veterinarian said it was aortic stenosis, a heart condition. We are all deeply saddened. Our consolation is that he lived longer than average for boxers. We know you share in our loss because you loved Riley too. We are so sorry. Love, Marie, Peter and the children."
In the next days we grieved for Riley and sent a condolence card to the Spencers. "Dave," I said, "do you know where we should go tomorrow?"
"No, Linda, but you're about to tell me."
"I'll drive us and surprise you."
Sunshine, shadows and showers graced our morning drive. Tucked away from thoroughfares, Oak Grove Memorial Park seemed the perfect place to repose for eternity. I parked in front of the cemetery office.
"Is the flower shop open?" I asked the lady at the counter.
"Yes, dear," she said. "I can help you pinpoint the plot you want and then we can go into the flower shop. The flowers are all fresh this morning."
I joined Dave outside and handed him two bouquets, one tulip and iris and the other lily and daisy. I studied the map on which the lady had marked a circle. "Just on the other side of the duck pond," I told Dave.
Our path took us along a narrow wooden bridge over a water lily pond where ducks quacked and flapped at our intrusion. On the other side, I found a headstone for Sergeant Martin Halloran and beside his, one for Audrey Dash. I arranged the flowers after getting water from a nearby spigot to fill the in-ground vases.
Dave said a prayer for Martin and Audrey. We sat on a bench beneath a giant oak and watched clouds, hurried by a steady breeze, skip over clearings in the gray-blue sky. As we walked back to the car, I shielded my eyes. The late morning sun held sway over the few remaining rain clouds.
"Linda, turn around," Dave said, as he ambled along behind me.
I turned and gasped at the beauty, the best rainbow I'd ever seen. The arc was full, spanning the cemetery plot beyond the duck pond, the colors vivid - red, yellow, green, violet. Dave waited in the car while I stood, rainbow-struck, gazing at the sky. I thought I heard a dog bark. Refocusing on the pond, I saw the ducks in disarray, beating their wings and quacking as they darted among the lily pads. I heard more barking, but I didn't see the dog.