Hoss won his independence on the Fourth of July. It was easier for him than for me. The drugs put him peacefully to sleep, and he closed his eyes for the last time.
By the time they opened again, he had quietly crossed over to the other side. No longer would he labor to breathe or bark those occasional, lone, sharp barks that came when he felt pain no one could see.
Though I'd spent weeks preparing for this day, it was bad. There are no easy ways to say goodbye to your best friend for the last time. Hoss was 16 years old, and we'd spent more than a dozen of those years trading thoughts.
Yes, I know, there is no evidence to support the idea humans can engage in telepathy with dogs. It's poppycock to think they can. But over the years, Hoss and I spent a lot of time in mental conversation on the trails and in the marshes of Alaska.
More than once, he found birds for us -- not with his nose, which was good, very, very good, but with his thoughts on what back corners of the Twentymile or Placer river valleys warranted investigation. Or so it seemed.
Maybe I'm just falling victim to confirmation bias here. Hell, let's be honest. I'm almost certainly falling victim to confirmation bias. But I don't care.
Our conversations seemed real enough when I thought about going one way or the other, and mentally asked him, and got back the answer that made the decision. We talked a lot that dog and I, something I missed when it ended.
It wasn't just that he went deaf and then largely blind; it was that we lost the connection. I'd watch him standing on the deck staring off into space and try to connect, and there was nothing. On his worst days, he was the walking dead.
But then a glimmer of the old spirit would come back, and for a few moments he would be the old Hoss. You can hang onto that for a long time. Modern day Americans have a hard time dealing with death, even those of us who still actively engage in killing.
Together, Hoss and I did a lot of killing. The number of waterfowl he sniffed out and put airborne over the years was in the thousands. The number I killed and he retrieved was in the hundreds. There were probably close to a hundred -- unfledged birds or ducks crippled by birth or some other hunter -- that he caught on his own, and I killed with my bare hands.
You'd think immersion in this world of life and death would prepare one for the inevitable, but it doesn't. I, like nearly everyone reading this, is bound to a technologically sophisticated society that has led us to expect everyone and everything will go on forever. Because of this, it has become excruciatingly hard to let go.
Americans taxpayers now allocate more than $125 billion per year to the Medicare costs of keeping people alive through the last year of their life. Alaska is little different from the rest of the country in this regard.
The old ways of the first northern peoples, who saw death simply as the passage of spirits from one body to the next, are gone, replaced by a Western model that clings to life to the very last moment. We are the products of a culture built on the worship of technology.
Perhaps I could have kept Hoss alive a few more months. His lungs and kidneys were both failing, but he had a will to live. He wanted to stay with the pack even when he could barely get himself up off the floor. Pain killers and anti-seizure medications could have kept him going a little longer.
It might have made my life easier, but it would not have made his life better. I owed him his independence. He has it now. He is free. His body is buried next to that of his mother, but I know his spirit is somewhere far from the grave, out there running free with hers and that of his father.
I'm not a religious guy. I appreciate all religions, but their spiritual texts have always struck me as guidebooks written by people who'd never made the journey. And I've got to believe that God, if there is a higher spirit of any sort, didn't bless us with such wonderful brains only so we would follow blindly any of the various mythologies of death.
But God, or no God, I believe life goes on in some way on the other side in a world we cannot see. I'd rather look at death as the last great adventure into the unknown than as an end.
Hoss is off on that adventure now. It will probably not be all that long before I join him. I take some comfort in believing we will someday, sometime, somewhere, be united on the other side.
Until then, I can only say, "Goodbye old friend. Goodbye. You are missed. Terribly missed.''
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com