Throwing the Ball.
I'd been hunting for 20 years with a bow. 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.
I'd trained dogs to jog with me, pull me on cross-country skis, wear backpacks, and hike behind me. As I tried to train a dog bred to hunt birds, I felt as if I were a coach in charge of a top NBA prospect; a gifted athlete with all the tools to be great, if someone could teach him the game. 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 was nothing short of amazing. We trained daily together. This was my plan for fall: 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, while traveling with Josey.
And then, just after Labor Day, my mom was diagnosed with a fatal illness. I stayed home, going with her and my stepdad, 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.
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.
During those weeks, I only came home to sleep. As I got ready to leave each morning, Josey would go to the kitchen door 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 jumps and fetches from his toy selections.
My mom died November 1, 2007, in her own room, with my stepdad 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.
As I 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. "Go lay down." And he insisted with another chin push--throw it.
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 fall afternoon. An IV needle surrounded by bruised skin on your mother's arm--that is one thing--and immeasurable others like 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 was 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 start.
BY LISA PRICE
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