I thought I was done, I really did. And, candidly, I have plenty of other, happier things in the hopper to write. Half a draft here, a proposal there, a long list from an editor over there. An embarrassment of riches for someone’s imposter syndrome that dreamed of this amount of work a year or so ago.

But here I am, pounding the keys and getting angrier by the word at the stuck ‘space’ bar on this damned laptop with the-dog-who-survived at my feet and neat whiskey treasure-hunted from bird country settling on my tongue. Whiskey that was meant for a respite after a good day at the new job and the kids sound asleep and the woman off to a friend’s for the night. Instead, it’s a salve, a too-weak one at that, for what came after the ding on the phone right as I started to pour.

My response after the shared sympathies: ‘I’m so fucking tired of this.’

I can’t help it. The empathetic chord for death and grief we all possess rings loudest for me in these moments; having a knife buried in your closest relative in your formative years will tune that string to infinity. I know it did mine. The two ash filled boxes with embedded paw prints from last April gave that sucker a good waxing too, as if it needed it.

It’s been a year, and I’ve lost count. It started with Timber, and then I lost two in one fell swoop. I don’t know when the chord will stop ringing from that one. They kept coming from there – Chloe, Vex, Doc, I’m sure I’m missing others. Too many ‘I’m so sorry’ texts and calls in the last few months to keep track of everyone. The text about Muppet sits at the top of the queue now like a rotten cherry over a sundae of spoiled milk.

Then there’s the traumas and injuries and almost lost you’s that dig a hole nonetheless. Ellie losing her sense of sight and sound and getting shut down at the beginning of September, Cash and cancer, Quill and the tumble and a miracle. Jack coming out of early retirement and fighting bad hips to pin a limit of ruffs for Roy on a snowy day in October the lone bright spot in this season of loss.

I thought I was done with this, I swear. I’ve been trying to write about perseverance and friendship and new love, you know, the good and the positive. The words don’t come easy, but ‘that’s just writing’ I tell myself. I thought I had catharsis’d all the grief out. Apparently not.

One of the drafts I have going was meant to be published here. In it I wrote about the season ending and missing out on my traditional last day of the season walk with the dog and gun, my yearly chance to celebrate what was and grieve the loss of what’s no longer. The chance to shift my eyes toward the calendar and will September 1st to be here and think god damnit can’t we just get to the beginning again. It swallows easier with a local beer on the tailgate. It’s a hell of a recipe for closure, but not this year.

Good bird hunting writing has a way of tapping the vein, the vein of connection and nostalgia and longing. One of the best things I ever read came from this story, Coyote, in Gray’s. At the time I’d just moved away from the trio of gents I bird hunt with almost exclusively, I worried it was a harbinger of what’s to come – the jury is still out as of now.

The last paragraph hit me so hard I set it as the screensaver on my phone for years. But, the line before that last paragraph is the one I think of most when I am wistful for the season, when the melancholy runs deep and I just want to escape from the grief into the better-than-bourbon-antidote that is following a dog with your people – “I miss days of walking without complaint, the dogs racing to the next covey, the news over the phone all good, the winters gray, the future bright. I miss my friends.”

The news over the phone has sucked this year, and I miss my friends.

I’ve listened to the hum of that chord pretty damn closely since April. It’s become a bit of a meditation, and within it I’ve found a bit of comfort. It may not be the version of them I want here, but they’re here nonetheless, and I’ll take it.

While it may not feel it in the moment, while it may hurt beyond belief right now, and while I thought I was done with burying dogs, mine or others, I learned a lesson I know to be true: next season will come. Like it always does.

It did for me as it will for the dozen or so others who suffered bad breaks with dogs too young over the last year.

One of my best friends, he’s a part of that trio I mentioned earlier, jokes around that you shouldn’t brag on a dog until they’re gone. They have no way to prove you wrong with their shenanigans from the afterlife.

Next season will come with its share of collars on vest straps and pilgrimages to coordinates committed to memory where the beauty of the work in our minds outshines the scenery. It’ll come with a hell of a lot of bragging and perhaps more than a few healthy pours over toasts and laughs about all the shenanigans of the past. A chance for the news over the phone to be all good again. 

There’s a lot of good stories left to tell.

Nope, not done at all.

Author: Mike Neiduski

New Englander currently living in Minnesota. You can expect musings on bird dogs, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor adventures.

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