It’s been six weeks since I wrote a blog. Actually, it’s been six weeks since I wrote anything. It’s been six weeks since I got through twenty-four hours without bursting into tears, and it’s been six weeks since I slept soundly and woke up looking forward to the day ahead.
It’s been six weeks since Simba went to sleep for the last time.
He padded into my life fourteen years ago, when I went to see a litter of Golden Retriever puppies on a warm breezy day in July 2001. I knew I wanted a male, and there were three in the litter. Two were frolicking in the garden, playing together. The third one took some time to locate – when we eventually found him, he was fast asleep underneath three of his sisters, who were bundled on top of him. That was Simba (or Big Boy as he was called by the breeder). When the breeder asked me which puppy I wanted, I looked down at the one who had been sleeping under his sisters, and who had followed me over to the table, rolled over onto his back and was gently playing tug with the hem of the long skirt I was wearing, trying to get my attention. I’d completely forgotten all the things I was supposed to check before choosing. I looked down at him and knew he’d already made my choice for me.
Three weeks later, when he was seven weeks and a day old, I brought him home. I’d never owned a dog. I’d never even been around them much, so when Simba arrived, I had a vague notion of what I thought it would mean – an angelic puppy to play with, who quickly learnt all the house rules I’d decided on and who would generally be the perfect dog.
It didn’t really pan out like that. Here’s an example – one of my house rules was that for the first few months he would live in the kitchen. It was a safe, contained space, and seemed ideal. On the second day, once he’d gotten the lay of the land, I decided to start getting him used to being on his own in the kitchen. As soon as I closed the kitchen/living room door he started crying. My mum was with me as we listened from the other side of the door. We agreed we needed to let him cry himself out but stick to the rules. He’d quieten down eventually. We waited. And waited. And waited. He didn’t. He cried so long and piteously that we shed a couple of tears on the other side of the door. It didn’t take us too long after that to cave in and let him have the run of the living room and kitchen. He was ecstatic. When we listened from the other side of the living room/hall door, we heard silence. It was the silence of a little furry victory snooze.
That was to be the blueprint of my life with him. He was allowed in the living room and kitchen, but definitely wasn’t going to be allowed on the living room furniture. He’s not even here, but I still find it odd if I sit on his side of the sofa. He was allowed downstairs but definitely not upstairs. That lasted until he learnt to climb the stairs. Alright then, he was allowed upstairs but had to sleep downstairs. I can’t remember when or how that changed, but it did, years ago. Still – he might be allowed to sleep upstairs, but only on the landing – definitely not in my room. Well, ok, so he slept in the room, but he definitely, definitely was not going to share my bed. I’m struggling to fall asleep these days because there isn’t a warm furry body hogging three-quarters of my bed.
And when he was younger, in what I think of as his ‘furry destructor’ days, it wasn’t just house rules that he bent, damaged and broke.
He ate through the Sky cable three times, until the engineer had the genius idea of pinning the cable up along the wall, around the door, across the wall and out of reach of puppy teeth. It cost me £60 for each visit. During his teething phase he also ate through the legs of the dining table, three of the dining chairs, a few pairs of shoes, CDs, books and my brother’s wallet (including cash and credit cards). During the destructor days he was also an absolute nightmare to walk. He would pull on his lead so hard my wrists were red raw and he was constantly strangling himself – it didn’t seem to slow him down. He would see a leaf in the middle of the road and decide he needed to investigate it instantly, oncoming cars be damned. He once pulled on his lead so hard when he spotted a stray carrier bag on the other side of the road that my Dad, who was walking him at the time, actually took a nasty tumble. Did Simba stop and check up on his pal? Erm, eventually, yes… Once he’d confirmed the carrier bag had no food. Ahem.
Which brings me onto his greatest love and pleasure in life – food. Food was the way to his heart. Food was Simba’s overriding lifetime goal – how to get food, how to get more food, how quickly he could gobble up his food, how much of my food he could persuade me to share, how much food he could hoover off the floor, what food he could find on our walks, food, glorious food.
An example of his dedication to food from the brief time he slept downstairs…
I’d held a birthday party and barbecue at my house. A great time had been had by all, including Simba. He’d enjoyed going from guest to guest claiming treats and cuddles and gobbling up dropped crisps. Eventually the party wound down, the guests left and I went to bed. In the middle of the night I heard a thumping sound downstairs. Thump, thump, THUMP. Silence. Thump, thump, THUMP. Silence. I thought someone was trying to break in through the back door. I was terrified. I couldn’t hear Simba and I was even more terrified. I phoned my brother and he promised to be over within the next five minutes. Knowing back-up was on the way, and with shaking legs and an umbrella as a temporary weapon, I crept downstairs to check on my poor puppy. Complete silence. I listened at the hall door and heard nothing. Taking a deep breath I opened the door and hit the light switch, ready to scream and attack at the same time. Nothing. The living room looked fine. Simba was sitting up in his bed, looking at me with a very odd expression. He didn’t come and greet me, tail wagging like the tails of a helicopter, as he usually did. Odd. I ventured into the kitchen and the only thing that looked out-of-place was a square of grey cardboard in the middle of the kitchen floor. For a moment I couldn’t understand. I picked the cardboard up and as I turned it over I suddenly understood. Earlier that evening I’d put the leftover birthday cake, still on its silver stand, in the far corner of the kitchen, tucked into the corner of the counter. Thump, thump, thump as he jumped and pulled the cake towards him, inch by inch. Silence as he took a break and then as he ate the evidence. I looked at Simba. He looked at me. I called my brother and explained. There may have been expletives from the other end of the phone.
I’m so used to giving him a tiny crumb of whatever I’m eating that even now, six weeks later, I still leave a corner of my toast, or a morsel of dinner, and it takes a second before I remember my furry foodie friend isn’t here to gobble it up.
But he was so much more than that. He was an absolute sweetheart. He had the gentlest nature, even for a Golden. We once had some relatives over who had a young child with them. She was fascinated with Simba. He was a real life teddy bear. She started off gently enough, stroking him and hugging him. But it quickly took a more exploratory and annoying turn – she started trying to put her fingers up his nose, and in his mouth, wanting to inspect his ear canal and so on. I tried pushing her away and gently hinting to her mother that it wasn’t a good idea. I could see Simba had had enough – he kept trying to walk away and she kept chasing him. In the end, he hid behind my legs. But not once did he growl or snarl or snap. He just came to me for help.
Another time, I had a friend over who was going through a tough time. Instead of enthusiastically humping her leg (his favourite game with this particular friend) he quietly put his paw on her knee, and then lay down at her feet.
I’m convinced he thought he was human, or at least more human than dog. He was never interested in playing with other dogs. When we took him to puppy classes he used to go and sit behind the chairs – he didn’t want to be around the other dogs. But as soon as there were more humans than dogs he’d be out and jumping up on everyone wanting to be friends. It was the same in the park – he’d ignore the dog and jump all over the owner. He had a huge personality. I’d be walking him and we’d get stopped by someone who knew him already, who had made friends with him on an outing with my Dad or the dog-walker. They’d always stop and play with him and he’d greet them enthusiastically like a long-lost friend – I just happened to be attached to his lead, one of his many minions attending to his needs.
That was part of his magic though. Everyone wanted to be around him. And that magic brought our little family even closer together. We all loved him. We all wanted to spend time with him. He was the baby of the family. If I hadn’t taken him over to my Mum’s for a couple of days she’d ring me and ask if everything was okay. My brothers were always involving him in some comical scheme for their amusement, and he was (mostly) a willing participant. My Dad moaned about having to take him for lunchtime walks and yet he was offended if I mentioned getting a dog-walker to help out. Lunchtime walks were his job. Even our family holidays revolved around Simba – CenterParcs became our favourite place, because they were so dog-friendly.
That’s what I miss most. I miss his friendship. It might have been a friendship without words, but what we lacked in actual conversation we more than made up for in gestures and routines and the language of looks.
We understood each other. He knew when I was feeling down – he would look at me, give me a gentle lick and then come and cuddle up next to me. I knew when he was feeling ignored and needed some TLC (he was an absolute doggy diva when he wanted to be, and would dramatically sit on his side of the sofa and make a point of turning his back to me and then looking over his shoulder to make sure I was watching and feeling appropriately guilty).
No matter how much time I did or didn’t spend with him, no matter how bad my mood when I walked through the door, there he was, with those beautiful sparkly brown eyes, looking at me with adoration, his tail thumping, just happy to be with me, doing whatever I was doing. If I was in the kitchen, he’d be there, drooling as he watched me cook. If I was unpacking groceries, he’d be inspecting each item that came out of the bags. If I was upstairs getting ready, he’d be sitting on the bed, watching me put my make-up on or doing my hair. If I was watching TV, he’d be on the sofa next to me, his head in my lap so I could give him a cuddle.
Simba taught me what it really means to love unconditionally.
He saw me through family traumas, through boy trouble and through two bouts of cancer (on the days I couldn’t get out of bed, he didn’t leave my side – he wouldn’t even budge for my mum when she tried to move him so she could sit next to me. He left my side to go for a wee or to eat and then he was back next to me, guarding over me). He was instrumental in helping me find my writing mojo and change my career – I wanted to write about him (my first attempt at a book was about a little girl and her dog) and I wanted to be at home writing so I could spend more time with him.
Nothing fazed him or kept him down for long – not the four bouts of cancer he overcame, not the awful attack by two dogs he survived, not the change in his daily routines depending on whether I was at home or on a contract.
He taught me that once you’ve found your life goal (food, in his case), you never give up on that goal – he spent his whole life single-mindedly looking for, eating and enjoying all sorts of food.
He was my companion, my housemate, my friend. A gentle, sweet, funny, stubborn, loving soul that I was lucky enough to spend fourteen years living with and learning from.
I’ve heard people say that you can have many pets in your lifetime but there will always be that one special one. He was my special one. There will never be another quite like him.
When he died, he took a piece of my heart with him. But, just as in life, he gave so much more than he took. He may have taken a piece of my heart with him, but he left a piece of his heart with me.