Even though Ripley’s name is stitched right on her vest, I am constantly asked, “What’s your dog’s name?” One adorable little girl, upon hearing the answer, said, “Oh. I thought that was her brand.”
After I say her name, the response varies, usually generationally. Older people, those around my parents’ age, invariably say, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Although I have a faint recollection of the column which used to appear in our newspaper (and is still syndicated today), it is not the origin of my service dog’s name. Many also mistakenly hear it first as “Riley,” as there are apparently a lot of Riley dogs out there. And, usually, Ripley or Riley, folks think the name indicates she is a he.
Those in my generation sometimes guess the true root of her name. I am always most impressed when a person thirty or younger nails it – as this indicates she or he is a die-hard sci-fi fan. Because, you see, Ripley is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, the cult classic from 1979.
Why, you ask, this namesake? Well, the story actually starts even further back than my service dog. It starts with a teddy bear.
In the late 1990s, my life was a mess. I am a trauma survivor, and everything had caught up to me – I was suffering from severe depression, had an out-of-control eating disorder, and was extremely suicidal. I had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for a couple of years and was barely functioning. Finally, after a particularly bad spell, I turned to my parents for assistance, and they helped me to locate a treatment program near Los Angeles for eating disorders and therapy. They drove me that long trip from Napa Valley to LA, right before Easter weekend.
I checked in, and started going through initial paperwork, while my mom and dad went out to grab a cup of coffee prior to coming back to say goodbye to me for the four-week stay I was about to embark on. My mom had recently been visiting me in the hospital, and knew that good coffee was always a welcome gift, so they went to Starbucks, where she picked up a latte to go for me. When they came back with the coffee, she had one more item – a teddy bear in a yellow duck suit. Because it was Easter, it had been on sale at Starbucks, and on a whim, she had picked it up for me. The bear’s face was peeking out through a yellow “hat” with an orange duck bill, and the torso was entirely yellow. It was completely ridiculous, but cute. I thanked them, took my coffee, we hugged, and they left me alone.
As I went back to my room, I almost stuffed the bear in the closet. But then I saw that the duck part of the bear was actually removable. Underneath was a completely normal, cuddly soft perfect teddy bear. I placed her on my bed. I was in a terrible space, every night plagued by nightmares, feeling unsafe and attacked. I decided to name her Ripley, after the Alien character, a woman warrior who could fight off my bad dreams.
I slept with Ripley throughout that month, and then every night for years after. She became worn and a little smushed, but I couldn’t ever give her up. Then in 2005, my wife gave me a puppy. As soon as I met her, I knew that she, too, was Ripley. Just like my bear, she was going to give me a reason to keep waking up every morning, a way to stay safe. To avoid confusion, the teddy bear became Ripley Bear. Now I slept with both of them – double protection.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but four or five years after Ripley entered my life, I found I no longer needed Ripley Bear. She moved out of the bedroom, and up to a shelf in my studio. She had completed her service.
And Ripley, the dog, even though she may seem gentle as a flower, remains my warrior, the one who wakes me from nightmares, the one who can sense if I am in danger, the one who reminds me life is worth living, and she is always right here by my side.