We picked him up on a winter day in early 2003. We crossed the Missouri into Council Bluffs, meeting with a breeder and taking one small, furry, absolutely adorable puppy back with us in the back seat. I’d initially been arguing against getting a dog. I was leaving for college that fall, my brother was inching closer to the busy life of a high schooler, and I didn’t want my parents to be solely responsible for all of the work that taking care of the equivalent to a toddler I knew would be. But they went ahead anyway, the first interaction with a puppy overwhelming as it can be.
Our family changed that day. For the next decade, every single time my parents, my brother, or I came home, we were greeted as if we’d been gone for weeks. He’d bark, he’d drag some toy over so we’d play with him and if that didn’t work, he’d go for a shoe so that we had to make sure he didn’t shred it. There was hardly ever a point over that time when any of us were home alone – Simba was always there. Silences broke with a bark, arguments ended when he distracted us just long enough to cool us down, entire days came to a halt when he struck some funny pose.
During the winter of early 2011, I spent a few months at home in Millburn. During one stretch, my mom had toe surgery and I’d drop her off at the hospital for her rehab sessions since she couldn’t drive. Simba would be in the back of the Highlander, and we’d take long walks in a nearby park that had some nice trails. We parked in an icy parking lot one afternoon and before I could put his chair under him to make his jump down from the SUV, he leaped out onto a patch of black ice. His front paws slipped out from under him and his jaw went smack into the ice. He gave out a little yelp but quickly got back on his feet. Within a few minutes, he was again fearlessly leading me down the snowy trail, the slip tossed aside as if it were an old toy.
One day, my brother, generally more engaged by Simba than anything else around the house, found a bit of cloudiness in Simba’s eyes. They quickly looked into it, finding that goldens were susceptible to vision problems. Simba’s eyes slowly got cloudier and my parents quickly took him to a couple of vets, finally stabilizing his vision with a cocktail of eyedrops that they carefully put in his eyes twice a day. The mail stacked up on the table, dishes were left behind, bills occasionally went unpaid, but Simba got his eyedrops like clockwork with a level of care and attentiveness that many children would envy.
Yesterday morning, his heart couldn’t keep up with his energy. While wandering out outside as he usually does in the morning, he collapsed, struggling to get back up. My parents managed to get him into the car, but by the time they got to the vet, he was gone. He slipped away in one of his favorite places – in the back of the car with us as we went somewhere.
I was never really sold on the idea of dog people. As Simba proved to us, we’re just people people who find in dogs the same values we see in our best friends: unending loyalty, selfless attention, a caliber of nonverbal communication that puts even the most well-selected words to shame. A dog’s unyielding curiosity, his purity of heart and of purpose, his unparalleled ability to look up at the world, to look up at us – these we wish for ourselves. Our dogs seem to innately understand the simplest idea about us as people – that all we need to be at our happiest is our favorite people right next to us. And this huge, shaggy, spirited, partially blind golden retriever, for ten wonderful years, made everyone he met just a little more human.