It is November, 1997, and a smiling man kneels by a farm pond, his arms curled around two dogs, a feisty young golden retriever mouthing a practice dummy, and an English setter well-struck in a regal pose.
The scene is captured in a photograph that rests in a special place in Lou Best s office. The caption reads, “Remembering Happy Times. Ginger, Lou, and Suzy.”
Another shows Suzy, the English setter, and Lou on a hunt in a Minnesota ruffed grouse covert. Both photos are treasures to Best, for Suzy, formally known as Bests Black-Eyed Susan, died of cancer last week.
The relationship between man and dog, eons old, is multi-layered and complex and often goes way beyond mere affection or appreciation or mere utility. It may have all the elements of love.
So forgive Lou if he gets a little teary-eyed or choked up when he talks about Suzy. Grieving takes time. Anyone who has ever risked getting too close to a dog can relate. I can, for I said good-bye to my Blondie, a 13-year-old yellow Lab, last summer, and the remembering still puts a lump in my throat.
Lou, one of the founding fathers of the well-known Wood/Lucas Chapter of Pheasants Forever, wrote a cathartic letter to his friends last Tuesday, the day Suzy died. Its depth and eloquence bears liberal quoting, and a thank-you to him is hereby tendered for his willingness to share such personal thoughts. In many ways he speaks for all of us who have been blessed with a special canine companion.
Suzy was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and it became clear a month ago that the battle was lost. Lou decided to take her on one more hunt, and Suzy rallied to the cause, as if the cancer was nothing but a forgotten, bad dream. One of Lou s photos from the last hunt shows Suzy on point. “Here she nailed three chukar partridges.
“My family and I believed it was important for Suzy to live more and live bigger, as opposed to living longer. So we took her to the places she loved most - the wildlife areas on our farm. And we let her do what she loved - hunt for birds.
“The last two weekends of her life she spent hunting, even if it was somewhat limited. As sick and weak as she was, and as much as the cancer had sapped most of her energy, it was amazing to watch her transform into a young, vibrant dog again.
“Letting her hunt in that condition may have shortened her life somewhat. I ll never know for sure. I do know that, because of the spring in her step, the spark in her eye, and the joy in her face as she took the field those final times, letting her hunt was a decision I will never regret.
“The last two weekends were a special blessing for me. A blood transfusion gave Suzy and me that time together. I suspect that most of us, when we have lost someone close, have probably wished that we could have just a few more days with them. I am so lucky to have had those extra days while Suzy was alive, and we did not waste them.
“While I am saddened, I feel very grateful to have had Suzy in my life. I am grateful that she came out of the burning house eight years ago.[She was saved, even as Lou s rural Wood County home burned to the foundation.]
“I am grateful for the eight full hunting seasons we had together. I am grateful for the trips to Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and most recently, Montana.
“I am grateful for every loving gaze and every wag of the tail when I petted her. And I am especially grateful for the last three weeks, when Suzy taught me so much about spirit, heart, and the importance of living life to the fullest.”
Like the time in South Dakota when she flushed dozens of pheasants well out of range. “The next moment she could be spectacular, pinning birds down after slamming into a rock-solid point. I would alternately curse her and bless her.” Lou thinks that the frustrating moments actually outnumbered the spectacular ones.
“As a young dog Suzy would stare into the distance, often right past me. I imagined she was searching far-away horizons, looking for places her quarry might be hiding. As she grew older, the distant stares were mixed with loving gazes, which now met my eyes.
I will remember the loving gazes.
“I will remember her elegant coursing the fields, her gracefulness negotiating the woods, and her nobility strolling around home and farm. I will remember her insatiable drive, her intense persistence, always striving to find one more bird. And I will remember her powerful and amazing heart, which the cancer never impaired, even as her once equally powerful and amazing body could carry her no further.
“There is a saying in the bird-dog world, a great dog is born the minute a good dog dies. In my world, a great dog died today.”