My Best Friend’s Funeral: I’m Still Crying 15 Years Later

Dr. John Ruffing Veterinarian
Dr. John Ruffing Pet Food Projects Drive

Today, my friend John would be 56 years old. Even in whatever heaven for terrific people might look like, he is cringing about that. But in some sort of heaven is a certainty for John. No doubt.

I don’t even really believe in heaven or maybe I do, a little. But I know that a really good, decent man who endured too much bullying in high school and struggled to accept that he was lovable is certainly in whatever that place might be.

John was a dog rescuer – he loved Japanese chin and took in countless medically vulnerable, puppy mill rescues over the years. A few months ago, I was digging through my attic stuff and I found this little pen holder with a Japanese Chin embossed on it. I remembered buying it from Ebay for him and yet somehow never giving it to him – I forgot? I misplaced it? It was too late? I don’t know. I don’t know any other Japanese Chin lovers so I’m unsure what to do with it, except perhaps to incorporate it into my own little altar as a reminder of John and of the need to share our gifts now before it it too late.

To honor John’s memory, his family and I created the Dr. John P. Ruffing VMD Memorial Pet Food Project. It “lives” as part of Pittsburgh LGBTQ Charities (PLC) and we use the funds raised to address various pet food needs. Sometimes that means sending food to a caretaker or pet owner in need, sometimes it might mean organizing a pet food distribution.

Some of my very best memories of time spent with John include our trips to the countless pet food sources he located in the region – it seemed like we drove to Indiana or New Jersey sometimes just to get one certain little item. But John had clients who did drive from New Jersey and Indiana and beyond to have him treat their pets. He’d wander around, looking at all the paraphernalia that stores had – everything from keychain to trucker hats to furniture – and then he would load up a cart to the brim. He bought dozens of bulk bags of dog treats. He converted me to that, to my dogs’ delight, and I spent years filling kongs with bulk bin treats and peanut butter. Not so much with the cats.

Then we’d go to Denny’s or a Chinese buffet. His favorites.

So this is his birthday month and we set up a little Facebook crowdfund to honor him – we hope to raise $560 in honor of what should have been 56 years of John. You can also donate actual food via our wishlist that includes lots of treat options.

One of my other purified soul folx is with John in that heavenscape this year, intentionally singing ‘Happy Birthday’ off key even though she could easily say on key – that would be my mother. She adored John. We set up a little fund for her memory as well – Kerry’s Kitten Fund. But her birthday is November. Still, I feel like John would have been one of the folx welcoming her and showing her around, maybe stopping for a little lunch.

When I went to my own cat colony tonight, I told the cats about him and I wept, surprising myself. The pet food projects has taken a lot of the sting out of the sadness I still carry with me about his early death at age 41. Maybe it is the confluence of things – his birthday, my mother’s death in February, the return of OUTrageous Bingo (he LOVED this event) this month, and the inexorable movement away from a world where John and I shared experiences. He was barely on Facebook before he died. He didn’t get to use Etsy or Pinterest or Instagram or know any of my living pets. I didn’t get to convert him to Starbucks. We only met my wife a few times (she loved him, too.) I doubt he read my blog and he never saw that I received a national award. He didn’t meet his five great-niblings. He doesn’t know how must veterinary providers are struggling right now. I was in my thirties when we last were together. Now I’m 51.

I came across this Facebook post from Merlin’s Safe Haven Cat Rescue and immediately thought of him. When I think of the Rainbow Bridge, I see John heading down every single day to collect the most recent critters and ushering them across so they don’t spend any time alone. Even the cats.

I spent the night before John’s funeral sleeping in his bed with his beloved dogs, who had no idea where he had gone the past two weeks and had no conscious understanding that he was not coming back. I stayed with them so his family could take care of final arrangements. The next morning, I went to his funeral. Aftewards, the family and friends went graveside and then to a reception.

Instead, I went back to John’s house and cleaned out his refrigerator with my Dad’s help. After his two week hospitalization, it wasn’t a fun task. But it was one small way to be helpful, to show up and help John’s much-loved mother and sister. Doing something to take care of his dogs and his family seemed more important than anything.

My Dad and I helped his mother load up his dogs into her car for the very last time and head to her home where they lived out their lives in her care. She was like the rescuer above except these dogs had known so much love in John’s home. But they were never alone, even while he was dying and waiting to be buried.

What is John’s legacy? I can’t say, but I can try to ensure it is true to the man I knew and loved.

Happy Birthday, John. I am sorry you didn’t get to listen to Lady Gaga, to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration, or to crush on Mayor/Secretary Pete.

I had the time of my life with you.