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True Grit

True Grit Huck
Huck, Photo by Brian Michaelis

We were huddled together on the floor of Bradfordville Animal Hospital Room three. Our grief was blinding, choking out any other emotion as well as the air we were trying to breathe. The moment was surreal as we watched Huck gently patrol the room, sniffing and scouting all the cracks and corners then coming back to us for chin scratches and rubs. We could not believe that in a matter of minutes we were going to have to say goodbye to this very much alive and very much-loved little guy whom we had so many plans and dreams for. Twenty-two weeks, one hundred and fifty-four days- that is how long we had with him before we learned of a birth defect that could not be remedied without major emergency surgery that may or may not give us the results we were hoping for. The only thing guaranteed were some long, dark days ahead.

Huck was 6 months old and was looking at us with piercing green eyes that had a depth of understanding far beyond his 6 months. The expression on his face communicated complete love and trust. I am not one that likes to humanize a dog, but I know that he knew something was up, and I know that despite him clearly not feeling well, he was content because his family was with him and therefore, everything must be all right. So, he continued to go about his business checking things out in the room, frequently returning to us for “loves.”

Grit is a concept I had been toying with and exploring for months. It has been a common theme that, like it or not, my husband, Brian, and I had been forced to come back to repeatedly in our work and in our marriage. Grit was something that we were choosing at that moment on the floor as we knew that our hearts were about to break into more pieces than we could gather up afterwards, and grit helped us keep our commitment to be there for Huck and for each other. Grit gave us the strength and courage to give him the send-off he deserved and to stay present in a moment when two people who are the biggest avoiders of emotional pain would have normally opted to avoid. Our grit is God- given and has been honed through a life of service to others, and that day it served us well.

And with Huck, True Grit

Grit is defined as courage and resolve, strength of character; the characteristics of grit are courage, conscientiousness, endurance and resilience. The morning after our goodbye to Huck, Brian and I were sitting at our dining room table trying to unpack our emotions in the healthiest way possible and the topic of grit came up, as it always is a common thread in our lives. We explored and honored the grit we managed to display at the animal hospital and then realized all the grit that Huck had displayed over his short life. We now knew that due to the medical issues he had he could not have felt well much of the time, yet he was always ready to go wherever the family was going, always trying to be the first one at the door or out of the tailgate to get into the field. Huck would leap and bound, running through the woods in a way that I never once suspected he might be in pain. He loved his birds, intensely pointing at them, hardly able to stand in one place. He retrieved with deliberate intensity and joy, as if he could not say no and was often found carrying around a random sock or shoe. Huck had exceeded all our training goals for his age, and we had big plans for him. We realized that this must have taken grit for him.

Isn’t this what we want from all our bird dogs? Haven’t we all had the experience on a hunt where we call our dog back to us only to discover they have been hurt, are bleeding or are limping, and all they want is to get back out there? We talk about the dog with no quit in them; that no matter how tired or how hurt they are, they are laser- focused on the task ahead and want nothing more than to complete it. We as hunters/handlers want to be the ones to call our dogs off, letting them know when the job is complete, not have them quit on us. We want a courageous, conscientious, resilient dog who endures.

Huck was all these things, and coincidentally, he brought out another deeper level of grit in us. We have always known that we could do the hard things, our jobs require a tremendous amount of courage and ability to stand strong and firm in the face of danger and pain, and our marriage has required us to dig deep and to choose who and what we value the most as the world tends to throw so much unnecessary pain and strife at us. Love and pain go hand-in- hand, anyone who has spent any time on this earth knows this, and it is impossible to have one without the other. As we sat at our table talking and sometimes crying, we shared with each other the joy he brought and how much we loved our lives with both of our bird dogs. We shared the lessons we have learned and surprisingly, a desire to try it again. As I have already explained, we are massive avoiders of emotional pain, always preferring physical to emotional, and even though we have had a deposit on another dog for months, I was not sure what we would do when that time came. Yet we agreed that we wanted to try again, fully knowing that with more dogs there are more goodbyes.

Manda training Huck, True Grit

Prior to the passing of our Huck, I came to my husband and asked him what he thought about the name “Grit” for our next pup. I saw his eyes light up. He grinned, gave a nod of approval, and said, “You have a way of coming up with names that are relevant to me unbeknownst to you.” As a boy, my husband grew up idolizing John Wayne. He has always fancied himself a man’s man and loved the movie True Grit, even though I have never seen it. The idea of naming a dog Grit was of great interest to him, though the meaning of the name came from a variety of places for the both of us. It is the grit that he and I display everyday as we serve the people in our community and each other; it is the grit that Huck displayed until his last breath, and it is the well-loved movie that defined, for my husband as a youth, what it means to be a man.

Huck’s name came from my husband’s love of Huckleberry Bear Claws found at the Polebridge Mercantile in Polebridge, Montana. It also came from a mutual love of the movie Tombstone and Doc Holiday’s character. We named him “Doc Holiday’s Huckleberry” with the call name “Huck” and felt sad at the loss of the name with the passing of Huck. To honor our sweet boy, the lives we have lived as individuals and as a couple, and to honor our past and our future, we have chosen to name our next pup “Huck’s True Grit,” call name “Grit.” There is no replacing Huck. We would not even try and nor do we want to. There is only a creation of space in our hearts and in our lives for who and what Grit will be. Every dog has something to teach us, even if all you get is one hundred fifty-four days.


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