guest essays

guest kaddish: velvet marquesa flicka storm, 11 august 2005–9 april 2015

Dad (Paul F. Vang) wrote this remembrance of a darned sweet black lab, whom I named (see below) and will always remember as the best lap-lab ever. There was nothing quite like relaxing in a recliner with Flicka stretched full-length on your lap. We miss you, Flicka.

Dad (Paul F. Vang) wrote this remembrance of a darned sweet black lab, whom I named (see below) and will always remember as the best lap-lab ever. There was nothing quite like relaxing in a recliner with Flicka stretched full-length on your lap. We miss you, Flicka. 

If I had to summarize Flicka’s life in one sentence it would be, “She was a terrible pup, but a wonderful dog.”

Flicka came into our life in October 2005, after our then-current dog, Candy, blew out an ACL, less than a year after surgical repair on the ACL on her other knee. This theme will return.

Flicka as a pup with big sister Candy in 2005
(c) Lieberman Photography(VSD 0026)
(c) Lieberman Photography(VSD 0026)

When we registered Flicka with the American Kennel Club, we gave her the handle, Velvet Marquesa Flicka Storm. She was our fourth Velvet Marquesa (all our Labs have been female, obviously). Our daughter, Erin, suggested Flicka, after opera singer Frederica von Stade, who is known around the music world as Flicka. We added the Storm to her name after her paternal grandfather, Sauk River’s Featherstorm, the star performer and stud dog of a Minnesota Labrador retriever breeder. Her father was Featherstorm’s Spare Change, so we wanted to keep Storm in the name. Her mother was Dakotah Rose, also the name of the Bed & Breakfast their owners operated along a bend of the Souris River in Minot ND.

For several weeks after we got her, she stayed home while Candy got in a few last hunts before Thanksgiving, when Erin asked to adopt Candy and give her a new urban life in retirement.

A couple weeks later Flicka started going with me on some late season pheasant and duck hunts. On December 16, 2005 she got her first good look at a pheasant. I wrote in my journal, “Flicka doesn’t quite know what to make of this big gaudy bird, but she’s certainly pleased about it.”

Flicka’s first (or at least most photogenic) duck

A week later, she learned about ducks, when I dropped a drake mallard in an irrigation ditch. The duck was still quite alive, however, and swimming in the water. Flicka saw it and ran up to it. The duck swam off, with Flicka in pursuit. Flicka forgot all about the fact that she was getting wet and went plunging off after it. She got quite exasperated with the duck and at one point sat at the edge of the water, barking at it. Finally, she tried to pull the duck out of the water by pulling at the duck’s tail feathers. It wasn’t exactly a classic retrieve but it was her first.

While Flicka was off to a good start as a hunting dog, the following months were difficult. She did not want to be trained. She didn’t want to listen to directions from us. When spring came I took her with me for a few fishing outings, and every time I made a cast she’d make a mad plunge into the river to retrieve my fly. Honestly, I feared I’d never again catch a fish. The last straw was when, she found a rather ripe deer leg bone and started chewing on it, and when I tried to take it away from her she’d run away. She had figured out at that early age that she, on four legs, could run a lot faster than I could, on two legs. She followed that with a roaring case of diarrhea for the next few days.

We started calling her by a new name, Monster Mutt. I got to the point of considering we’d have to give her away and start with a new dog.

Finally, I decided to try an electronic collar, so that we could give her some negative reinforcement when she thought she was faster and smarter than us. It worked! Within a couple weeks the Monster Mutt became a good citizen. She even learned to leave deer bones alone when I zapped her on another fishing outing.

Once she became a good citizen, the training went well.

Incidentally, in the spring of 2006 we were in Minot and we went over to show her to her breeders. I related we had to use the e-collar to get her attention. The breeder chuckled and said, “Yeah, her mother was like that, too. We had to put a collar on her to get her to settle down.”

Dad and FlickaHer serious hunting career began that September, first with big blue grouse, on the high mountaintops and ridges. It was a down year for grouse, but I managed to get one and Flicka ran off and came bounding back with the bird, holding it firmly but gently in her mouth. She just made her first real retrieve.

In the next month she also learned about ruffed grouse in the foothill aspens and, in October, really learned about pheasants, and we collaborated on a limit of three pheasants on opening day. At one point during that day she let me know in a touching way that she loved her work. I’d stopped on a hillside to sit down and take a little break and give my legs a rest. Flicka sat down next to me and leaned against me as hard as she could, as if to say, “Thanks, I love doing this.”

Flicka demonstrating lap skills with Erin.

As a puppy, she loved to sit on our laps and she learned to crave her daily “lap time.” After breakfast I’d sit in the recliner to read the morning paper, and Flicka would stay on my lap until Kay got up. Then she’d move over to her lap.

That lap time became almost a lifesaver for me. In December 2007 I started treatment for Hepatitis C. It’s a long story, going back to 1986 when I had a bleeding ulcer episode and had blood transfusions. 20 years later, after donating blood, the local blood service sent me a notice saying, “You’re infected with Hepatitis C. Go see your doctor, and never give blood again.”

Treatment for Hepatitis C involved lots of pills and injections that cause a raft of side effects (the standard treatment has changed since then), and I had most of them, usually feeling chilled and rundown, i.e., crappy. I don’t know how she sensed this, but she spent hours and hours on my lap, keeping me warm. The upside to all this was that the treatment was totally successful. After completing the six-month course of treatment the Hepatitis C virus was gone and I felt good, and haven’t had a bad day since.

The seasons progressed. From spring through the summer, she was my fishing companion, and then every September we’d start hunting, following the seasons of grouse, pheasants and waterfowl. If we were between seasons she loved long walks, and also insisted on a daily retrieving session. She was more than a hunting dog. She went with us everywhere, ready for any adventure.

Granddaughter Bronwyn has traditionally posed for a picture with the Vang family dogs whenever a chance presents itself; this time, she’s sitting with her family’s Chloe, Flicka, and Erin’s Kjersten.

Flicka wasn’t a perfect dog. She certainly had traits that we tried to tame though we never succeeded. Unusual for a Lab, she thought she was a guard dog and always had to go charging after people that suddenly popped into her sight, such as the Culligan man (who had her figured out and usually came with a puppy treat) or UPS or FedEx drivers. Most people figured her out for a total fraud, such as the young woman, last summer, who was setting up a lawn chair to watch her husband fish. Flicka bounded up, barking and growling and the woman turned and said, “Well, hi, sweetie!” That was followed by an immediate love-in.

The day before Thanksgiving 2009, we were off on a hunt. We stopped at a tract of public land next to a highway. A person drove up to check mailboxes across the highway and Flicka went woofing off to check him out. Satisfied, she came trotting back, oblivious to an SUV coming down the highway. The driver wasn’t able to stop in time and hit Flicka. Flicka came, screaming with pain, back to me. I was afraid I was going to have to get out my shotgun and put her out of her misery. Surprisingly, she was able to get in the truck on her own power and the only obvious injury was a gash on her chin.

I talked to the driver of the car and he had a broken grill. I wished him well and assured him it wasn’t his fault that he hit Flicka. Then, before hitting the road I called home and asked Kay to alert our veterinarians that I’d be bringing Flicka in for emergency treatment. I got her in and they checked her over and concluded that aside from the gash in her chin, she was just bruised and banged up. They sutured her gash and after a few hours of observation sent her home with instructions to keep her relatively quiet for a few weeks while she recovered.

That was a horrible day but also a miraculous day, considering a 75-pound Labrador retriever colliding with a two ton SUV and the SUV comes out with more damage.

Considering that day, the fact she got another five hunting seasons was a true miracle.

Earlier that year, Bronwyn’s most-populated family-pups shot to date, with Chloe, Kjersti, Flicka, and Candy

These last few years we could see that she was aging. You’d never guess it when we were on an outing, because she, like most Labs, willingly put every last bit of energy into a hunt. I knew she was aging when, after completing a long walk for pheasants, she’d lie down and go to sleep at the truck, completely zapped. Before, she’d get a drink of water, beg for a treat and then start barking at me to go for another walk.

The last couple years a daily pain pill was also part of the routine. In the mornings, she’d often whimper before starting up the stairs from the basement where she slept.

Still, she never let her aches and pains get in the way of looking for birds or retrieving.

It’s amazing what a good dog can do with their sense of scent and a desire to retrieve. A couple years ago I shot at a pheasant. The bird kept flying, but I had this feeling I’d hit it lightly. It flew into a corner of the farm that had tall grass, weeds, willow patches and cottonwood trees. When we walked up to the cover I gestured to Flicka and said, “Go get it.” Flicka trotted off into the jungle and disappeared. For the next five minutes or so, I’d occasionally hear some rustling in the brush and once she circled within about ten feet of me. Finally, she emerged with a live and somewhat angry rooster pheasant.

I figured she’d earned a year’s worth of kibble with that retrieve. For her part, she didn’t quite understand or appreciate that this completed our limit of three pheasants for the day and that we’d have to quit.

Our son, Kevin, who first found Flicka in Minot, commented, “She was phenomenal. Every time she hunted, it was like she was putting on a clinic on how to hunt pheasants.”

Towards the end of the 2014 hunting season Flicka’s left knee started causing problems. On December 19 we went on a hunt. We were looking for pheasants, though this time we didn’t put up any roosters. We did put up a covey of Hungarian partridge and I managed to scratch one down. Flicka followed the scent trail up and over a hill, and came back with her partridge. She was limping quite a bit after this hunt and when we took her in the following week for shots, the veterinarian figured she’d strained her left leg ACL, and to keep her quiet for a couple weeks to let things heal.
Flicka's last retrieveHer last hunt was in mid-January, when we went out at the end of the waterfowl season. We didn’t see any ducks that time. We mainly went out to give a “thank you” gift to the ranches were we did much of our hunting. That December partridge turned out to be her last retrieve.

IMG_0309We had an extremely mild and dry winter, and we had our first fly-fishing outing of the year in mid-January, and the next in mid-February, and then almost weekly in March. She always went along and enjoyed herself, though after a day along the river we could see that her left leg was increasingly giving her trouble.
We had been trying to figure out what we should do with her. There is a surgical procedure to fix canine ACL injuries, but we were reluctant because of our previous experience with Candy. We were thinking we’d just retire her from hunting and start looking for a new dog to take over the hunting duties. Yet, as much as Flicka lived to hunt, we knew that would be really hard on her.

On April 7, Flicka was playing with the neighbor’s dog when she suddenly pulled up, holding up her right leg. I had the sickening feeling she’d blown her right knee. While she didn’t cry or whimper, I could see that walking was difficult and painful, as she really couldn’t put any weight on either back leg.

The rest of the day and the following day, we wrestled with what we could do to help her, as we watched her hobble, painfully, to move around. Finally, and with a heavy heart, I called to schedule an appointment with the veterinarian, and on April 9, we shed tears, caressing Flicka, while the veterinarian gently helped Flicka along on her last adventure.

This past week, starting when Flicka blew out her right knee, to saying goodbye to her, and adjusting to this great vacuum in our lives and home, has been hard. If I’ve been out, I keep looking at her doghouse, waiting for her to come out and bark at me for being so long in coming home, or coming home from an evening meeting and Flicka’s not there to greet me at the back door. I see her water dish in the kitchen and think I need to fill it, and then remember that Flicka’s not here anymore. When we’re eating a meal, she’s not curled up at my feet, hoping for something to fall her way.

IMG_6633The day after she died, I went fishing, needing some peace and solitude on the river to sort out my thoughts and emotions. It was one of the few outings in the last 45 years when I didn’t have a Labrador retriever at my side.

Oh, Flicka, your absence hurts.

Those first couple days after her death we could barely function, though we both had commitments to keep. But, every day, it gets better. We miss her, but we know she isn’t in pain, and hopefully she’ll be waiting for us when our time comes.

“May He who makes peace in His high places grant peace upon us.”

And if one chapter has closed, another is about to open. On the day Flicka left us, Kevin located yet another litter of black Lab puppies, and in May one of those puppies will be coming home with us. Over the years, I’ve counseled many people dealing with the grief of losing a dog, “The best cure for a broken heart is a new puppy.”

We’re taking our own advice.

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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