Reilly, our Brittany, died this past Saturday, May 4. She had just finished her tenth year of life, all of it spent with Marjorie, Lynne, and I, much of it with her best friend Dixie who we lost at the beginning of the year.
Reilly spent the last months of her life blind, ill, and missing Dixie. At the end she was no longer able to walk for any distance and spent most of her time sleeping, yet her stubby tail would wag whenever one of us came in the door and she never lost her appetite for a belly rub or scratch behind the ears. And so we waited until she let us know that the time had come to end her pain and suffering. It was a long hard drive to the veterinary clinic and an even harder trip back to the emptiness of the home we shared with two dogs for the past decade.
I’ve been down this road too many times in my life. As one reader pointed out after reading of Dixie’s death, the problem in sharing your life with dogs is that you outlive them.
But I also know that the present grief will diminish and be replaced by the memory of living with Reilly, all the good times, all of her antics, and her love of the garden.
Dixie and Reilly were members of the family. Our days were structured around their needs and they saw to ours. They took us for walks and stayed near as we worked in the garden. They spent evenings at our side, sprawled on the sofa or floor. They often made us laugh.
I have written several essays about life with Reilly. My favorite, “Gardening with Reilly” was written in September, 2006, when she was four years old:
Marjorie has decided to redesign the perennial bed, the largest one in the center of the garden. This decision was actually made by Reilly, our four-year-old Brittany, who spent the summer excavating sections of this bed in hot pursuit of chipmunks.
I doubt that the chipmunks would have established residence in the garden if we had not invited them to an endless dinner of squirrel corn and sunflower seeds. Once they realized that they would never have to venture more than a few yards from the back porch, they looked around for suitable living quarters.
Early in the summer it was hard to say where the little rodents might be when not stuffing their cheeks with seeds. But Reilly knew. She and Dixie, an older black lab-German shepherd and Reilly’s willing partner in crime, rooted them out of the woodpile so often that they were forced to move to the garden bed. We soon noticed the small holes at the soil surface but gave little thought to the massive network of tunnels that lied below. Then Reilly started her own Big Dig.
Now the perennial bed is a network of deep trenches. The chipmunks are gone, along with most of the perennials. Reilly comes to the back door panting, her normally pink snoot and white legs dirt-black. At night, as she sleeps on her half of the sofa, she relives the day, her front legs moving in rapid digging strokes, her muzzle twitching.
Cultivation of the soil is only one of Reilly’s contributions to the garden work. She also helps with the harvest, using the instant consumption approach that she learned by observing those around her. She works by our sides, picking snow peas from the trellised vine, only the plumpest and sweetest. She insinuates herself beneath the branches of the highbush blueberry bushes to pick the ripe berries. She supervises the carrot harvest.
In late summer she likes to stretch out in the grassy walks with a fresh-picked tomato, devouring the Sungold cherry tomatoes at the peak of ripeness but only nibbling the green plum tomatoes, preferences she shares with Dixie. We have yet to pick a ripe plum tomato but have our pick of leaky green ones scattered around the garden and, occasionally, in the house.
Reilly also works with hardscape. She is a rock hound, scattering an endless supply of stones for me to find while cutting the grass. There seems to be a lot of spontaneity in this effort. Trotting purposefully across the garden on some errand, she stops abruptly in front of a partially buried rock, or perhaps one rock among many carefully placed around a planted tree or shrub. In either case, after careful examination by sniffing and pawing, she hefts the stone by mouth and carries it off to a grassy spot for a little quality chewing time.
Reilly is truly a constant presence in Marjorie’s Garden. She is the only member of the family that bothers to turn the compost pile and she leaves a lasting impression on newly raked planting beds. I don’t see how an earnest gardener could manage without a gardening companion like Reilly.
We have lost a loved one, a member of the family. There will no doubt be other dogs in our lives, but there could never be another Reilly.