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.


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.

%d bloggers like this: