It was early on the first day of the EAA Northwest Regional Fly-In at Arlington, Wash., and Marlene called me at the exhibit. She sounded strange, so I walked away from the booth for some privacy and stood in the middle of a wide and grassy fire lane with lines of exhibit booths on both sides. Then a voice I knew said words that I understood, but that my brain refused to comprehend: “Budd, Nizhoni died about an hour ago.”
I can’t even describe the feeling. Nizhoni was our dog and, next to Marlene and my kids, my closest friend. I received a similar call 22 years ago, when a voice at two in the morning said, “Your brother, Gary, has died.” He was 42. Nizhoni was only eight. It’s hard to decide which one hit me the hardest. The passing of my parents didn’t even come close.
When my brother died, it wasn’t until the next day that it set in and I cried. After a minute or two on the phone with Marlene about Nizhoni, I became completely unscrewed. Right there in the middle of an air show crowd, grief rolled over me and nearly took me to my knees. I sobbed as I’ve only sobbed once before, for Gary. I couldn’t, and I still can’t, believe our little girl is gone. And I can’t believe I’m sitting here writing about it. But anyone who has read Grassroots for even a short time knows Nizhoni, and I couldn’t let her pass without letting our friends know. I’ve put off writing this for months because I knew it would be hard. And it is. I’m only glad you can’t see me.
She was a loving part of everything we did. For instance, I clearly remember flying home one afternoon with her and Marlene in our C-140A when the tach decided to eat its innards. It began making this incredible high-pitched scream as gears were being digested, and it was driving Nizhoni nuts. She couldn’t get away from it. Marlene was flying, so I put my hands over Nizhoni’s ears and held her tight. She burrowed into my chest and calmed down. There’s no feeling like that of a dog giving itself over to you in total trust.
And then there was the time we spent at a friend’s house in a fly-in community. They had this really unusual stiff grass, like a tall crew cut, in front of their hangars. Nizhoni was still a puppy and would go bouncing through the grass like a wind-up toy, leaping higher and higher before diving nose-first into the grass and burrowing into it like a gopher. Then she’d pop up and do it again and again. Our hosts, who weren’t even dog people said, “You’re going to be sorry if you don’t videotape her.” And they were so right. We’re definitely sorry.
Another time, our friend was taking us for a ride in his Seabee and was shooting landings in various lakes and channels. Nizhoni was standing up in the back seat on Marlene’s lap absolutely mesmerized. She was loving it!
At one point, we were floating on the water, and I opened the door to let her see what was going on. She jumped down on the floor and poked her nose into the water just to convince herself it was real. Watching her reactions to the seaplane experience made the entire afternoon just that much better.
I fully realize that a lot of people reading these words haven’t the foggiest idea why I’m making such a big deal out of this. I also know, however, that every single dog lover out there is reliving the grief they felt at losing one of theirs. They know exactly what I’m feeling right now.
A really heartwarming thing happened the instant I e-mailed the Bearhawk airplane-builders chat group about losing our friend. One after another, tough guys who you knew were marines and Vietnam vets, bush-pilot types to border patrol agents, climbed all over one another, online, to share their own stories of dogs they’ve loved and lost. Some were so poignant that you knew the writer had tears on his keyboard. I know for a fact, the rest of us did while reading their words. Some of these guys are clam-like in their refusal to share their emotions, yet there they were, spilling their guts out because of their love for dogs.
Every single pilot who’s part of my personal group can fully identify with the loss of Nizhoni. They’re just that kind of people. At the same time, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find that pilots, in general, are more likely than many other groups to count dogs as their favorite people. That’s partly because dogs ask nothing but give everything. They somehow form themselves to fit any empty niche we have in our lives or our hearts, thereby making us complete.
Two very salient comments popped right to the top of the discussions over the last couple of weeks. The first, “Don’t trust a man who doesn’t love dogs,” and the second, “The reason God gave dogs such short life spans is because, if they lived to be 30, the grief at their passing would be fatal.” I absolutely believe that.
Part of me has begun to say goodbye to our little friend. Plus, another little furry person, whom you’ll get to know in coming years, has come to live with us (Sháhn-Deen, Navajo for “ray of sunshine”), and we already love her. So, things are getting better. Still, every time I push back from the computer, I expect to hear Nizhoni scramble to her feet behind me. Every single time I come home from the airport, sweaty and tired, I expect to see her clawing at the door and anxious to greet me. I’ll get past most (not all) of the grief, but the memories will be forever. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The memories make the pain worth it.
Adios, little girl. We miss you.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.