The way we loved her—my husband and I —ended in a fierce custody battle when we divorced, both of us threatening the other with lawyers and lawsuits. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since animals, as we found out, are not family but property. Which made Riva Jones technically mine, since I’d adopted her before the marriage. But as we all know, in matters of the heart, “technically” and “legally” are muddled, and a dog qualifies as a matter of the heart.
When we fought, Riva would come over and rest her head on my knee while she looked up at me, her eyes saying, Please be happy. She, like most dogs, was family, not property. And that’s why I agreed to share custody of her. My ex loved her the way I loved her, and no matter what kind of meanness I could muster for him at the loss of our relationship, I could not take Riva away from him, nor could I take him away from Riva. So after we broke up, we traded weeks. He lived across the highway and it was easy enough. We saw her through two major surgeries, costing us $7,000; she saw us through new partners, engagements, broken engagements and a marriage. She loved us just the same. She accepted her two-household life. She loved the girlfriends of my ex (even though I told her not to), and she loved my new husband.
After three years of the weekly dog swap, my ex announced that he was moving three hours away. I figured I’d just keep Riva full-time, but he figured otherwise, and fought for her. Motivated by the leftover guilt of leaving him or the fact that she loved him too, I agreed—we would do the dog swap once a month. For three more years, we met on the side of highways, at rest stops, in the dark corners of gas stations.
It seemed like we were trading contraband— who would have guessed that we had pulled over to trade off a German Shepherd? My new husband resented waiting in the gas station parking lot or on the side of the road. I do not know what the girlfriend thought. But Riva always seemed happy to get into one car or the other, never complaining, never even looking back. I wish I had just a little bit of that kind of acceptance, that sort of living in the moment, the attitude that says: “Okay, this is what we’re doing now. Fun!”
At 12, Riva started cutting trail on backcountry ski trips so she could keep up. The last time I took her skiing, she ran down the skin trail instead of following behind us, diving in and out of the fresh snow like a porpoise. When she disappeared, I shouted for her for an hour, afraid she’d fallen in a tree well. She had taken the easy way down and was waiting for us at the car; she sat, smiling, as if to say, That took you a long time.
I took Riva on her last summer hike when she was 14, which, in retrospect, was ambitious, though even our vet had called her the “Wonderdog.” My plan was to hike the two miles to Meiss Meadow from Carson Pass and then back again. It was hot, she was tired and her back end kept giving out. I sat in the shade with her, stroked her head and told her it was okay. I am sure that my ex and Riva took a similar hike—one that was a little too much.
By 15, Riva was blind and deaf. She became incontinent and was horrified when she realized what she had done. I tried my best to tell her it was all right. Nobody was mad at her. No one had ever been mad at her. We tried everything, including installing a doggy door and layering plastic over the floor of one room, with pieces of old carpet on top so she wouldn’t slip. That lasted until she pooped, stepped in it and smeared it all over the carpet pieces and the plastic. Then, the dog whose bed had been right next to mine for 15 years had to sleep in the garage.
My ex got a new job, one that required travel, so the last six months of her life, Riva stayed exclusively with me. I resented my ex on the days I had to clean the house, my shoes and her fur. I resented it when she had to sleep in the garage. I resented it every time I had to help her up and down the stairs, every time I had to go outside and stop her from barking at imaginary things, which prompted the neighbors to call animal control, even the police. Once during that time, I needed a break and called my ex; he said he could not take her. My husband said, “Riva is here to teach you something. It’s her last gift.”