I measure periods of my life by the lifetimes of a succession of dogs.
Four years ago, I got a German shorthaired pointer I named Buck Run Josey
Wales, the first dog that didn't just happen to me, the first purebred, and the
first puppy I picked with a purpose -- you and I are going to hunt birds.
I'd been hunting for 20 years with a bow and arrow. I'd gotten used to my
"buck fever" in the form of the quivering legs and pounding heartbeat
at full draw. I remember the first time I felt the connection, the robin in the
yard and Josey's puppy legs shaking in his first point, and him turning his
head slightly and carefully to meet my eyes.
"This thing," he was saying, "I don't know what it is, but my teeth are
chattering, just a little."
Trained Many Dogs
I'd trained dogs to jog with me, pull me on cross country skies, wear backpacks,
and hike behind me -- and as I tried to train a dog bred to hunt birds, I felt as if
I were a coach in charge of say, a top NBA prospect, a gifted athlete with all
the tools to be great, if someone could teach him the game.
I lived in a row house and Josey and I made do with sometimes unorthodox
training -- for example, the hunt "dead" game consisted of me putting
him on "whoa" downstairs as I hid the pheasant-scented dummy in one
of three bedrooms upstairs, then sent him to find and retrieve it.
"Whoa" and "Fetch it" were taught indoors with plush toys
and outdoors with a tennis ball.
Josey's progress -- watching him apply the word concepts from the house and
yard training sessions to the actual bird hunting, was nothing short of
amazing. His understanding of other concepts also amazed me, such as gun means
we're going hunting and no bird, she missed it (again).
We trained and trained and I couldn't wait until fall. This was my plan -- I
would archery hunt mornings and afternoons and bird hunt during the day. I
would tow a camper to Ohio, South Dakota, and Illinois, hunting birds and deer,
traveling with Josey.
Mother Gets Ill
And then, just after Labor Day, my mom was diagnosed with a fatal illness. I
stayed home, going with her and my step-dad John to the cancer doctor, to the
blood transfusions, to the chemo treatments, and finally to the emergency room,
where she was admitted to the hospital. A week later she said she wanted to go
home, and "sleep away" in her own bed.
During those weeks, I only came home to sleep. As I got ready to leave each
morning, Josey would go to the kitchen and stand in his best point, paw up and
head focused on the place the door would open, in a mute plea.
No, I'd tell him, you stay. I'd have to put his biscuit on the floor,
because he'd be too disappointed to take it. I broke his heart again and again,
and each time I came home he greeted me with happy kangaroo jumps and fetches
from his toy selections.
My mom died November 1, in her own room, with John and I on either side of
her, each holding a hand. Later that day, with plenty of family there with
John, I slipped home to let Josey out.
I did, and then sat on the couch. Josey put a tennis ball in my lap, pushed
it into my leg with his chin and looked from it to my eyes and back to the ball
again, so there could be no mistake -- throw it. No, I told him, crying, I
can't, and he insisted with another chin push, throw it.
Josey Makes Things Better
There aren't too many things that can't be made better by the sight of a German
shorthaired pointer rocketing across fallen red and yellow leaves on green
grass in enthusiastic pursuit of a tennis ball on a sunny fall afternoon.
An I.V. needle surrounded by bruised skin on your mother's arm -- that is
one thing; and immeasurable others, all the pain and sorrow and confusion and
anger that come when a truly kind and good person is taken by a horrible
disease. But somehow just for this afternoon it is no more complicated than
this -- throw it. Throw it and I will run across the dead leaves. I will leap,
as a thing of athletic beauty, for the high hops. Throw it as the light shifts,
from afternoon to twilight, from fall to winter. Throw it even when we are both
tired, so tired, throw it even though it is just one small thing you can stand
to do. Throw it, he insists, again and again, like he knows, it's a place to
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