“… žao mi je al vas dragi prijatelj je otisao”
“… I’m sorry but your dear friend has left”
We got the bad news a month ago and we are still beyond heartbroken. I haven’t been able to say his name out loud since the morning we got the bad news. Rio the Village Dog, our dear friend, has died.
I still remember the very first moment I laid eyes on him. It was 2018, and we just shipped our van to Europe and made a beeline to the little Croatian village where my dad grew up, Zastražišće on the island of Hvar. Our daily routine during previous visits was to walk down a small path surrounded by gardens and stone homes to pick up a freshly baked loaf of bread from the village baker and that’s exactly how this visit began as well. But this time around, on our walk through the lower part of the village, we were greeted by a wiggly reddish-brown dog that jumped on us as if were his oldest and truest of friends, ones he hasn’t seen in forever. Little did we know, is that from that day on, he would continue to greet us the same way, every day for the rest of his life.
Our time in the village was limited to winters during those first two years overseas. We’d spend a few cold months a year in Croatia to take care of residency paperwork and then explore the surrounding countries in spring, summer, and fall. Every day in the village was spent with Rio. Sometimes it was a quick hello and other times he hung out all hours of the day. I could count on my fingers the days that he didn’t stop by our stone home or the van or find us randomly on a hike. He was our constant. And the very first time we left the village in the van to continue adventuring across Europe, he chased us down the road. It was heartbreaking to watch him run after us in our side view mirrors. I would have stolen him right then and there if I could. His owner joked that she would give him to us. But he belonged to that village. He brought that village joy. He was the heart of that village. I’m so thankful his owner shared him with us.
And then when the world shut down during the pandemic, we spent most of our time in Croatia, more specifically, in the village. It was isolating and lonely at times. The animals we spent our days with helped our family get through those tough times. I’m thankful we got to slow down and spend more time getting to know the place where my father grew up. The village is part of my family’s story now. And Rio is too.
He was such a constant in our lives and I can’t imagine our little village in Croatia without his smiling face. He made our lives fuller. The kids fell in love with the village thanks to him and I will forever be thankful for that. He was the reason we cried when we left Europe. And when we landed in the US. We thought for sure we’d see him again. But he died on a Saturday in late February. I’m not sure why or how but I know he was buried next to his vegetable garden. The same place where we first laid eyes on him on that fateful morning. And the first thing I’ll do when I get back to the village is to put the prettiest flowers on his grave. And a few cat kibbles too because he could never resist stealing a few from our stone house porch.
Ever since I was a kid, the thought of returning to the village always brings a smile to my face. Rounding that final tight corner on the road to see our little stone home. The cicadas singing. The sound of our feet stomping up the concrete stairs with the painted railing in our grip. The warm humid air with a hint of lavender filling my lungs. But my next visit will be different. I’m going to dread the quiet no matter how loud those cicadas sing.
Part of me didn’t want to share the loss until he visited me in my dreams. It’s something that brings me comfort after loved ones pass. And after two weeks to the day, he came to say hello. In my dream, I was in my parent’s front yard in California. It was golden hour, just starting to sprinkle. The sprinkles were lit up by the sunshine. It felt magical the way only warm rain in sunshine can do. Someone was making a grand speech. I was panning the yard, back and forth, back and forth. And for a split second, Rio appeared next to the girls on the grass. He was on his back doing his back scratch wiggle. Snout to tail, snout to tail. He was happy. He was in the sunshine. The most perfect shiny reddish-brown fur. And then when I panned back, he was gone and I woke up. Confused for a split second and then happy once I realized Rio visited me in my dream. I felt thankful. He’s ok. I miss him. I love him. I’m in tears.
The dream reminded me of the rainy sunshine I experienced in real life on the village porch. And how Rio would always visit us during rain. Muddy feet and wiggly excitement were his things during the rain. And there he was doing the same thing in my dream that brought me happiness in real life.
I want to remember how…
he would immediately roll over and move his front paws until someone would scratch his belly. If you scratched just right, he would kick his hind leg and the kids would laugh and scream “foot of fury!”
He’d use concrete steps, stone walls and planters as pillows while he napped. He snapped at every fly and made a really funny cartoon-sounding “chomp” with his mouth.
He would bark at us every morning we slept in the van until we got up.
And when we’d open the stone house’s front door, he would be smiling.
And hang out for the day… like friends do.
He loved his owners and we will be forever grateful they shared him with us.
He always wore a red leather collar. He was always free to roam the village, except for the summers. So the one summer we spent in the village, would include us visiting Rio.
And taking him on adventures on leash.
He would sit with me during my coffee breaks.
He would be missing every Halloween up until the moment it was time for me to take photos of the kids. Just in time for the photo and allowed us to dress him up too. He didn’t miss any of our four Halloween photos in the village.
He’d find us on almost every single walk, whether it was to the village’s tallest peak or to the cold sea.
And he knew where each and every watering hole or bathtub was.
There was a sign at the beach saying no dogs allowed because he was known to pee on beach towels and how the sign never stopped him from swimming in the sea on those hot days.
All cooled off now.
He’d chase the bully cat away from our cats on my demand. Using the stone walls as a rickety path.
And then snuggle with the kids until they were done with school.
He loved their attention.
All of our attention.
He followed us to the little store once, walked right in and no one even flinched. He was Rio. He ruled this place.
And when anyone saw him walking on the road in the village, they would stop, open their door and ask him if he needed a ride. Sometimes he did. Sometimes he smiled and kept walking.
When he got in trouble, he would run to our side of the village, to our house. His owner messaged me that he had done that same exact thing just a few weeks before he passed. It was the last happy thing that was shared with me before the bad news.
And when we left once to test out van life with the kittens, he blocked the road. Ha.
He became jealous of Toby and chased him twice. I put him in timeout because of it and he quickly learned that Toby was nobody to be jealous of. We had enough love for them both.
He’d join me and Twin on our daily golden hour walks, walking on the rickety stone walls just like a cat. He would sneakily eat cat kibble I left out for the strays and sometimes not so sneakily too.
He would hang out on our balcony and bark at anyone that pissed him off.
And spent hours sleeping and snuggling on our porch.
Once during a long walk uphill from the beach, his little legs couldn’t handle it and he kept sitting down. So Dan and I took turns picking him up.
And during the holy week procession, he hung out on our balcony with Twin and Toby waiting for it to start, like three friends.
And stuck around for the main show.
He’d keep us company in the fields when we picked olives in the fall. We discovered he liked being brushed by the hand picker.
Sometimes he wouldn’t go home for bedtime. I would have to walk him down the path home, yelling “doma” only to find him back on our porch a few minutes later.
I made him a little bed on the porch with moving blankets under my grandparent’s original wooden table for when he stubbornly refused to leave.
And when I made a bed on the outdoor chairs for the feral cats, he slept on that too.
And don’t tell my parents he sometimes snuggled on the couch when it was cold out.
He was so scared of thunderstorms and during a really bad one, he refused to leave. He looked at me when I got into the van that night.
When I nodded and he jumped in and slept all night long in our van without making a peep. I never told anyone he slept in the van with us once. He was scared and it felt right.
Or another scary night where he slept in the old stone home in the room where my kids slept, the one that originally belonged to my grandparents.
And if we ever caught him at his house, he would have such a surprised look on his face before he tackled us.
He would follow us home. Barking through this corridor like he was announcing that he was going out for a bit.
The kids would race him back to our house. Oh how fast he would run. He would always win.
On our last day together, we snuggled, neither of us not knowing it was to be our last. I didn’t want to stop petting him because if I did, I knew he’d be off down the path. I screamed “I love you, Rio” when he did walk down that path one last time, out loud for all to hear. Because I did and I didn’t care who heard. He didn’t visit us daily for some magical food we were giving him. He visited every day because we gave him love. We gave him our hearts. We loved him and he loved us. He felt that. We felt that. He was our true friend.
The reason I’m sharing this with you all is that he not only wiggled his way into my heart but into so many other hearts as well. The love he gave was the love that he received. From his owners to all the other villagers and to all of you who’ve watched him virtually. He was loved by so many. So many of us have a Rio-Sized hole in our hearts now. Thank you for loving us, friend. Rest in peace, my sweet Rio.
It was hard to write this and to gather all my photos and videos of Rio but also healing as well. And when my kids look back at this when they are older, I know that it’ll make them smile the biggest smiles remembering their friend Rio.
All my photos of Rio are here.
All my Instagram stories with Rio in them are here: