Not saying goodbye.
Last week, we said goodbye to our oldest four-legged friend. Artemis has sprinted ahead of us for the last time. At just a few weeks shy of 16 years, it has been a while that we’ve seen it coming. For years she’s been losing steps; feigning hearing loss; fighting cancer; dropping the muscle mass and athleticism that is a hallmark of these dogs. I’ve been planning and preparing for it for years. Yet still I stalled at the end. I delayed the inevitable multiple times. I’ve pushed out the emotion. Held out on writing this memo. Deferred the pain. Not saying goodbye.
How do you know it’s time? McDonalds’ cheese burgers.
Speaking of deferring the pain… Let’s digress. How do you know it’s time? I’ve answered this question far more than I’ve asked it. But when it comes to my own dogs, I can’t come up with the answer; and reach for help. I’ve asked our most trusted friends and vet support team to be our barometers of health. Watch for and advise when our friend has reached “that point”. Of course, this is a horrible thing to burden another person with. There is no right answer on this ever-sliding scale. The best answer that I was given, was by our veterinarian and good friend as to how he decides with his own companions. He tells us that near the end, he watches to make sure his dog does three things:
- She still eats her meals.
- She gets out of her bed/couch/etc to use the bathroom and move around a bit.
- She is still happy, if not eagerly excited to see him.
His last dog had 2 and 3 nailed. She stopped eating food one week; so he started mixing in 50% scrambled eggs with every meal. Back to eating!!! A few weeks later, she stopped eating again; so they went to 100% scrambled egg meals. Back to eating!!! Days later, she wasn’t interested in the eggs; so taking her to work with him, they’d stop at the McDonald’s drive in and get her a couple of cheeseburgers. She loved it, of course. When she was no longer interested in eating cheeseburgers, he knew it was time.
The look I was giving him must have been loaded with judgement. The look he gave me back shut my look up. How much do we really care about nutrition when we’re eking the last days of love out of each other? There was some good whiskey consumed that night.
Saying words to other people. Saying them to myself.
I’ve lost and let go of my share of dogs. More than my share. More to come. And given that we help people find their first, next, best, or sometimes last, life and hunting companion; I frequently hear the stories of pain and loss of a best friend. So, I’ve shared some of these words with many people over the years. And consoling someone else is a lot like writing in the 2nd person, which I’ll do a lot of here: It is a way for me to process my own loss. It takes some of the sting out of the pain. Hiding. Deflecting. Whatever. This shit hurts.
I’ve said it so many times, that it’s become my own cliché. But it’s true: It is never easy to say goodbye to these furry friends. No matter how young, or how old; they wiggle into our lives, burrow into our hearts, and leave a mark on our souls that remains for eternity.
The mess that is a dog-human relationship.
The scariest part of entering a relationship, may be knowing that there will be a time to say goodbye. Maybe it’s the most painful. That is obvious to most of us. It is so intimidating, that it keeps many of us from ever truly engaging in relationships. That can mean human or creature relationships. The interesting thing about a human-dog relationship, is that we intrinsically know that the dog will not be abandoning us. Their leaving and our goodbyes will come at death. There is a great deal of comfort that we may find in this guarantee. These relationships exist in the highest levels of codependency. A concept that is the antithesis of a quality relationship between humans, is the bedrock principle in our human-dog relationship. Even, or especially, in a hunting partnership; each member is truly less without the other. For some, this comforting codependency may be the primary reason for entering into their dog relationship. For all, I think, it is at least part of the motivation.
A hunting companion. Milestones achieved together.
You almost certainly entered this relationship with less depth in mind than you ended up achieving. Some much simpler concept of companionship and achievement. A partner to find more birds. A dog to train, compete and achieve with. An adventure buddy.
Immediately, and always along your journey together, depth was added. Those early, simple successes weren’t the dogs, or yours; they belonged to you together. Their earliest points, tracks and retrieves were not just exciting as their firsts; they injected newness into your life and allowed you to re-experience your own firsts. When puppy was loved and doted on by others, and you pretended not to care, you were accepting that love on your own behalf. This silly creature gave you fulfillment. They became an extension of you; and you were clearly a part of them. Sometimes that mirror is a little rough to face.
Perhaps you didn’t have access to training birds with this dog, so you harassed ducks at the local park all summer. Stalking and pointing.
Maybe you killed a young chukar with your bow, weeks before bird season, to help her hone that instinct early. Maybe it was two. Don’t tell me, I’m not judging you.
In her first season, did she impress all of your hunting partners with her relentless drive; earning you the coveted boy scout badge of arrogance?
Your bird bag got heavier and fuller over the years, and the obvious connection was her (read your) hunting prowess.
She may have even filled other roles for years. She could have been your waterfowl dog for several years, between other dogs. She found shed horns and mushrooms. She is the Versatile Hunting Dog…
What was the best day together?
- Her 1st bird hunt, at 6 months old, she slept in your sleeping bag. It was for the dog, of course. You wanted her to be comfortable.
It also helps that your dad sleeps in the buff, and after seeing how you treat your dog, out of guilt brought his 4mo old pointer into his bag, had a cold nose and curious tongue end that session rudely and launch said companion back into their crate….
- That day of 30 chukar points, and as many retrieves.
- Or the snow drifted field full of hen pheasant, with zero shots but countless points in every sage bush and tumbleweed.
- Or the mad sprint you did together, covering 3 miles of thickest crick cover in 60 minutes of fading twilight, bagging your 2 roosters and half a dozen quail enroute.
- Perhaps the duck hunts, where she stood with all 4 paws on 6 square inches of bow plate while the boat was running flat out at 30mph, and she was sure you were about to go Berserker mode with her and slaughter every bird on planet.
- Hopefully not the duck hunt where the weather was so cold that the salt waves were freezing in sheets, she wouldn’t give up on retrieves until her body did, and went so hypothermic (your fault, of course) that she’d never again swim in anything less than 70deg water. Looking back, that might have been a good day, too.
- It could be every day, the complete selfishness that she displayed to other dogs you brought to hunt over the years. These birds were hers and yours, collective; but never theirs. Duh.
Partner in life. Measuring the time.
Initially you wanted, you NEEDED, this dog for hunting. But how many days a year do you hunt? 10? 20? 50?? 100?! Let’s party. It’s still a fraction of the year. This friend was there. Every. Day. Of the Year. If you are lucky, they’ve seen you through multiple decades of your life.
Perhaps she ushered you through your volatile 20’s; moving with you frequently and patiently. Relationships, jobs and homes may have changed as often as the seasons. Maybe more often. But you always came home to look after her. I’m sure she was the one finding deep comfort in that.
Maybe she lived through your 30’s. Being a seminal component in finding the human partner you chose in life. Is there a better wingman than this four-legged friend? If they could talk, you know she was saying, “Look, I can love him; can’t you?” Maybe that’s what us humans put onto them. She probably said, “He’s mine, get away bitch. Unless, you have snacks. Then I’m yours, eff him. Do you like birds? I love you.” She may be the reason you and your human partner moved together. Maybe she even financed some jewelry to bond you.
Did she last into your 40’s? Did she meet and know your first human child? I bet she wasn’t impressed, at first. She’s never been thrilled to add new dogs that ‘share’ your attention. But I bet she came around. Allowing the infant terrorist to crawl on her, laughing, hugging, tugging and smooching. Can there be more goodness witnessed in the world then a toddler and an old dog tolerating and loving each other? Not much.
Defying age, defying logic.
You may have thought 8 was getting old, for a dog. Until you lost one at or before 8. Or until this one made it there and was still the biggest puppy you’ve ever seen. Over the years you added new blood in your string, to ‘give her a break’; but she didn’t ask for or need it. Each year, you would start to say it to yourself, and then out loud, “this might be her last hunt.”
10 years old, “let’s see what she’s got; wow, still out runs the young dogs!”
11 years old, “let’s see if she can go; hell, those were some nice point and retrieves.”
12 years old, “she must be through; oops still getting it done.”
13 years old, “just let her out of the truck for a bit; damn, she’s still hunting….”
Laughing and crying.
14 years old, 14th hunting season. It’s not going to happen. You know it, everyone knows it; but she’s not going to accept it.
You are busy training the current and future hunters, spending hours, birds, and shells on them. The old dog isn’t neglected, she’s inside and comfortable; but an afterthought, to be sure.
You’re down to your last bird of training season, before your wife talks some sense into you, “I think we should let the Goddess of the Hunt have one last bird.” Of course, you tell her, your plan all along….
So you let her run the field (yard), hunting for the bird. She limps and wanders more than runs these days, but she’s hunting, no doubt. When she finally finds it, she sticks that point with so much gusto and intensity, you briefly think, “shit, we might get another season out of her!” You ask your wife to hold her on point; of course, you have to get a young dog here to work on honoring… It’s only a 60 second walk to the other dogs, you’re 10 seconds away and she says, “you better hurry up!” What, is she creeping on the bird? Don’ let her do that! “No, just hurry,” she says.
Not 2 minutes in, as you bring young pup around to the visual spot and hit ‘whoa’, you see what’s up. The old dog is staunch on point, not willing to let go; but the body doesn’t have it. Her shoulder’s giving out, and her elbow, and her wrist, and…. She’s rolling down onto that leg, unwilling to move. Then she commits the style points sin of switching legs. And that one crumbles almost instantly. It is so moving to see a creature doing what they are bred and live for; one that is so committed to it, that you know calling it ‘love’ is no projection. This being was created for this. She is this moment. The two of you humans are filled with such joy, admiration, and humor all at once. It’s a flood of laughter and tears, as you have to drag the dog away from the point. ‘For her benefit.’ Was it?
Saying goodbye, comfortably.
If you haven’t noticed by now, there’s not much guidance to be found here. This is a journey, and the two of you are on it together. Until you’re not. The only advice I’ll give on this is: find a way to end it, as you’ve lived it. If you loved and respected each other in your adventures, make sure you see her off that way. I have some very close to me that insist on saying goodbye to everyone of their dogs, on their own, with a .22cal. I know a good many folks that go to their clinic when it’s time. Some have a mobile service come to them.
Thank God, or fate, or Dr. so-and-so, that I’m friends with Dr. so-and-so. What works for me, today, is that Doc, who Artemis knew and loved, came here when I was finally ready, to help us all through it together. Where each of us was most comfortable and at peace. Thanks Doc, you are deeply appreciated by us more than you’ll ever know.
Artemis, as with each of my hunting companions that have passed on, will travel to fields, marshes and hills this year. And I’ll leave a little bit of her at each of our favorite places. A little bit of myself, as well.
I don’t really know anything about any of this right now. What I do know:
I miss my friend.