May 19, 2001.
I had to send off my best friend today, suddenly, and my heart is breaking. She was only nine. She was my best friend for all of those years.
Nigelle was a gift, the most wonderful gift I've ever received. And she was my teacher. She taught me to love unconditionally, to make time for the important things in life, and to take pleasure in the sheer joy of watching her do what she was born to do: to hunt.
I realized several years ago that our time afield was not measured by the game we bagged, but simply by finding birds. Sometimes I would hunt her for those without dogs: two men who were crippled and could only hunt from the access path; a young boy with his father. The father didn't hunt, but took the boy because the boy begged him to. She flushed the boy's first pheasant for him. The joy at that moment - Nigelle's and the boy's - heard the bird cackling, the roar of the wings, Nigelle went airborne, rocketing straight up behind the rooster... and the boy could not shoot. He was frozen with astonishment and wonder, and from that moment, he too would forever love springers.
She put up over 40 birds this past season, all on public land - and not in North Dakota or another pheasant paradise, but in Pennsylvania. Woodcock and grouse too. She found woodcock where none were thought to exist. But pheasant were her reason for being. I stopped counting at 40 this year, but I can see every flush even now. We never left a bird. She brought to hand every one I shot at, and so she always let me leave the field with a clear conscience. We would end the day, eight hours of togetherness and sharing, in the back of the truck. She would snuggle on my lap, and I would brush her lightly, and call her sweet names, as we both savored the finish of a wonderful day afield. It was the time for a few special treats, and belly rubs and ear scratches. A time to enjoy each other, and to bond.
Two weeks ago we were fishing together, and she was happily chasing the resident geese from our fishing spots. I noticed she seemed to look a bit thinner. I increased her food, added some people food, but she continued to lose weight.
On Monday past, I took her to the vet. The young man sadly diagnosed cancer, involving the liver, and having spread to her lungs. I was devastated. She remained alert and active, however, and we were scheduled for some additional testing on Thursday.
Thursday became the saddest day of my life.
She was suddenly very, very ill; vomiting, listless, without interest in anything. She was beginning, for the first time in her life, to suffer pain. I wept long and bitterly.
The doctor saw us immediately. I parked well away from his office, not wanting to add anxiety to her suffering. She lay, still and listless, in the back of the pathfinder, in her usual spot, but quietly, and I think, knowingly. The doctor came out immediately, and took off his lab coat before getting to the truck. He, too, understood her intelligence.
I sat with her at the back, the door open to the cool morning air so she could have the taste of spring on her face. The doctor climbed in the side door, his assistant on the other side, behind Nigelle, so he could work without her seeing him, and so he wouldn't disturb our moments together.
Nigelle lay quietly, her breathing shallow and rapid, her eyes locked on me. I wanted not to cry, to let her believe that all was normal. I could not. I wept, quietly, as I slowly and gently ran my hand over her head, speaking softly to her, telling her how much I loved her. The doctor came around to my side, slowly, and spoke quietly to me, hesitantly. He did not want to tell me what we both knew; he did not want to end this brief moment of hope and love.
Her time was over. He could barely detect her blood pressure; her heartbeat was rapid, but faint. I nodded, and said "yes". I wept bitterly, the tears shameless, my heart broken. I put on my canvas hunting coat and chaps, and my whistle that would send her into a frenzy of excitement whenever I lifted it off it's hook. Her eyes sparked for a moment, but she could not move. She beat a feeble and brief tattoo with her tail.
The young doctor had difficulty finding a vein because of her low blood pressure. He worked lying in the back, behind us... occasionally, I heard his soft whispers to his assistant, his voice concerned, but quiet, as if in a church. Our last moments together were quiet. She moved slightly, and rested her head against the old Ithaca, the smells of pheasant and woodcock wings filling her nose with my quiet, desperate good-byes in her ears... my caresses smoothing her head and neck. Her breathing slowed, her eyes closed as in sleep. And she was gone.
I wept again, long and hard. The young doctor slowly gathered his things and caressed Nigelle's coat several times. He stood off to one side for some moments. I realized he wanted to speak with me, when I could. I wrapped Nigelle in her blanket, arranged the feathers for her, and whispered good-bye. The young doctor spoke quietly, reverently. He had sadness in his eyes and said that he knew from the first time he examined her that she was special. He told me he had Kipling's poem, Power of the Dog, on his wall at home. Then, without warning, he put his arms around me and hugged me. I wept again.
Nigelle is resting now, forever in a beautiful woodland garden I had created years ago on our property. She loved this spot, especially in summer when it was shady and cool. I made her a pine box and lined it with her blanket. I placed some pheasant and woodcock wings so she would forever have the scent she loved in her nose and some empty hulls from our successful trips afield. Just before sealing it, I placed the whistle and lanyard next to her.
Kipling wrote: "The price of a good dog is a broken heart at the end."
He was right.