I needed this. 

That’s what he said to me as we sat on our tailgates and watched the orange on the clouds fade to gray and the hedgerow along the cut beans start to disappear into black. Cigar smoke swirled between swigs of PBR and dogs snored in kennels behind us.

I needed to feel small for a bit, he followed. 

He’s a firefighter and a medic, and as the kids say, he’s seen some shit. I know that feeling too, having worked in a similar field where the ax wounds of others’ trauma are passed on to those who show up to help them.

We sat in silence for a while after that.

I buried two dogs this year, and with them I buried a job and a life. I wasn’t prepared for that.

As much as I don’t want this season, I need it.

My father always talks about firsts and reminds me to cherish them. Firsts only happen once, you know. And, you only get so many. But, what if my first season without the dog that started it all is a first I don’t want, whether I need it or not? What then?

Here’s the deal, though. The old dog broke all four canines chewing her way through kennels when she couldn’t hunt. One time, I forgot to latch her crate under my topper on a walk-about with the pup and came back to find the side window screen blown out and the top chewed off the 5 gallon jug of water. She greeted me at the window with a wide panting smile and a tongue across my cheek. She was always ready for another go.

How is it that the clarity of the past so easily muddies the waters of the future?

Yet, here we are at another beginning.

September hovers days away and with it comes Opening Day and the young dog on the truck just coming into her own. I’ll add a couple more who deserve a shot at learning the game, too. A couple who need a chance, an opportunity to show off what they can do, and I’ll add in the love and the care and the space to see what happens as they put the pieces together.

That’s what I need this season – I can’t wait to watch them figure it out. 

After all, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?

I’m here to tell you

In the beginning, no one tells you about the end.

Everyone focuses on the withdrawal from the bank account and the puppy breath and the belly rubs. Maybe they tell you about crate training or share their contrived tips to get the new addition through the night without incident, but they don’t talk about the end. 

I’ve long looked at myself as a rookie in this space. Always looking, always learning, trying to glean what I can from each new experience and get better – hunting, training, handling, and loving.

As the years went on I knew the end was coming, I even played it out in my brain a few times like one of those difficult conversations you have with yourself before ever uttering a word out loud to the other person. Those never go as planned, do they? 

This didn’t either.

Don’t get me wrong, I know about death. Trust me. Lose a family member to the violence of another as a teen and you get real close with it. But, unlike most things, the loss of those you care about doesn’t get easier with practice. (If you don’t care about your dogs you probably shouldn’t be here.)

I knew it was looming out there, a storm cloud on the edge of the horizon. That kind you brush off and will elsewhere by calling the dog around and striking out to new country pretending you won’t get wet. But, gamble long enough and those clouds end up on top of you – rain was coming. There was the inevitable slow down and the gray muzzle and the stiff legs on hoar frost covered mornings.

In the time since the beginning, those I met from the onset of this four-legged following had their own ends. Ends I felt, in a different way, sure, but ends nonetheless. No more scratches behind the ears, no more ‘whoa’ and the excitement that comes after, no more times on the tailgate getting collared and no more ‘god damnit, I said here!’ when they forgot to turn it on. 

Hobbes and Bonnie went first. I hate to say that I don’t remember which had the honor of first place in the race to the end, but I do remember the sting of the texts coming through for each of them. I remember the downturned eyes and staring at the phone screen with no words to type. They don’t tell you what to say in these moments.

We had a good run after that. Half of us with dogs in their prime, and the others with up-and-comers. We got a break.

And then the break was over. One week we had to drag Tine out of a cut over full of so many woodcock he forgot his name, the next had his weathered red reflective collar buckled for the last time and placed on the dashboard. That dash still had trips on the books, waypoints across bird country to hit, as we all do when it’s only October and you have a workhorse in the kennel, a kennel now empty. Best laid plans.

Before I dropped that tailgate in April and came face to face with the end I had plans of my own. Plans of a rookie turned intermediate who is beyond the puppy years and knows the clock will wind down soon. Plans to keep the list of first places and first birds going before her brightness dimmed too much. They don’t tell you that you can’t pick when the lights go out. One more thing not going as planned.

I wish they would have pulled me aside and told me about the end, if nothing else to dull the knife of loss just a touch over a lifetime before it plunged its way home. But they don’t.

Now it’s my turn to be ‘they’.

You know what I say? 

In the end, it’s so fucking worth it.

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