A year ago this month, our family suffered a loss that was far more devastating than I’d ever imagined. On that uncommonly chilly day in April, our rescue pup Simba died.
I knew what grief felt like when a pet guinea pig, rabbit or box turtle passed away. But losing Simba, who was not even 5 years old, was like losing a best friend.
Part of Simba’s magical presence and bigger-than-life personality related to the circumstances of his arrival in 2012. Our daughter, Carolyn, had a friend who was looking for rescue homes for Shih Tzu puppies that had been abandoned in a trailer.
“Would you and mom consider taking one?” she asked.
A dog requires daily care and often ties a family down and makes vacations complicated. A 7-month-old puppy requires almost as much care as a new baby. My wife, Laura, and I replied “no” — firmly. Then Carolyn showed us a picture of her holding Simba. Cuddled up in the crook of her arm, he looked like a stuffed toy.
“You can bring him over for a visit,” I said, “but we aren’t taking him.”
The minute Simba arrived, it was over. He was a fluffy, quizzical fellow with huge round eyes and a head that tilted sideways as he checked us out. He bounded around the house, inspecting each room, before wetting the carpet for good measure. He flopped down on his belly, thoroughly relaxed, and stared up at us with supreme confidence as if to say: “I’ve found my family now. Just let me know where to sleep and I’m good.” His huge eyes made clear that he had no intention of going back to that trailer.
Simba became a member of the household instantly. Although he’d never been trained to take walks, he fluffed up his tail like a feather duster and pranced proudly around the neighborhood. After getting shots from the vet and a haircut from the groomer, he looked healthy and even regal. He perched on the back of the couch like a mountain goat, surveyed the neighborhood through a window. He barked at joggers and mail carriers, but when someone entered the door, he plopped onto his haunches to have his fluffy head scratched.
Our whole family fell incurably in love with Simba. This little white character who liked to play with a mini blue rubber ducky became the new center of our universe.
Six months later, my daughter asked if we’d consider rescuing Simba’s sister, Grace. She was the last of the litter and nearly starving to death in the trailer. I said: “Absolutely not!”
The next day, Grace moved into the house. She was much smaller than Simba and looked shell-shocked. Her tail had no fur. Her coat was a mess. She had worms. She was skittish and cowered in the corner. She had no idea how to go to the bathroom outside. But Laura faithfully walked Grace and got her settled. She held her on her lap, petting her skinny ribs until she stopped shaking.
Simba looked after his sister — teaching her to charge up the steps each morning to greet the kids, bark at squirrels outside the window and walk around the block. On tandem leashes, touching noses for reassurance, they created a fluffy parade of two, tails waving like flags. To adoring neighborhood fans, they soon became Simba and Gracie, the famous brother-and-sister rescue pups.
They were inseparable. They tore around the house, pinning each other to the ground and biting each other’s legs like ham hocks. They vied for belly rubs, flopping over and competing for the kids’ attention. They bounded through fresh snow like gazelles, Simba shoving in his face and eating it like snow was a confectioner’s treat.
When we learned that Simba might have cancer, we were blown away. He was still a puppy. How could this be possible? Red spots in his stool soon turned into vomit filled with blood. After a barrage of tests, the results came back: He had stage 3 of a rare form of T cell lymphoma. It was likely incurable. Our world spun to a stop.
Laura brought Simba to chemo treatments at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Ohio Township for five months. The doctors and vet techs were extraordinarily caring. Simba tried many times to rally, but by February he couldn’t make it up the steps behind Grace in the morning. He would wait to be lifted onto the couch, fall onto a fluffy pillow and gaze at us with his brown eyes and distinctive underbite — weak but still determined to remain at the center of his family.
The day we drove Simba to PVSEC for the final time was one of the worst days of our lives. A freak ice storm had tied up the parkway, so we crawled along Interstate 279 with Simba on Laura’s lap, eyes staring at us wide open, as if sensing that something was about to happen.
We sat with him in the examination room for a near eternity, holding Simba, petting him, speaking to him softly, then crying and crying, telling our little pup how much he’d meant to us since the first day we were lucky enough to have him enter our world.
The veterinarian administered the injection with a soothing, reassuring voice. Laura and I held tight and spoke into his soft brown ear, letting him know that he was safe, that he was loved, just as we had done when he was a little puppy. Slowly, Simba’s lion-like head dropped into Laura’s lap. And he went to sleep.
It’s hard to fathom that such a little dog could bring so much joy to one family. The gap still hasn’t been filled, but the giant, joyous piece that he added to the sum total of our household far outweighs the pain of his loss. For four years that seemed like 40, Simba filled our house with love. He also brought us Grace, who still prances proudly around the neighborhood, not as a scared survivor but as one of the famous brother-and-sister rescue pups.
Today, she continues to climb onto the back of the couch, surveying the neighborhood, watching for black squirrels, bounding up the steps each morning to welcome the new day. She reminds us that a 15-pound rescue pup can change the world, at least for one lucky family.
Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University, lives in Forest Hills with his family. He can be reached at email@example.com.