I didn't want a dog. And it's not that I don't like dogs. In fact, I categorize myself as a dog person. But I had three sons under the age of 12, a cockatiel, a frog and a rat. I had enough parenting to do. I didn't need another creature to feed, nurture and clean up after. My wife and the kids bitched at me, but I held the line. No dog. Ever.
Then, one morning in 2001, my wife went to the local animal shelter to fetch a have-a-heart trap for the pesky raccoons who were tearing up our yard. She left a frothy message on my office voicemail: "I found our dog! Go to the animal shelter! You'll know it when you see it." I howled a silent "fuuuuuck!" I really didn't want to schlep over to the animal shelter, but I knew that if I didn't at least take a look, I'd spend the rest of the week in the, uh, doghouse.
Over lunch, I angrily drove to a grim brick building near the freeway, and asked the officer in charge where the dogs were. He pointed through a door that lead to a courtyard. Across a sad patch of lawn was a long row of gray cages. Most of the dogs were pit bulls, or Staffordshire Terriers of various sizes and ages, barking, jumping up and down or furiously gnawing on the metal bars. Was my wife kidding? Then my eye wandered to the last cage in the row. And there, sitting calmly, staring out at me, was this dog.
My wife was right. This was the dog. This was our dog. There was no way this COULDN'T be our dog. I mean, this animal looked through those bars and snatched my soul. It was a full-on "come to dog" moment. As I approached the cage, her ears drooped submissively and her tail slapped the wet cement. I stuck my finger through the bars and she licked it.
I ran back to the officer and told him I wanted the dog in the last cage. He pulled out papers showing she'd been spayed and given shots and that she was four months old. Her owner was older and had gotten rid of her because she didn't have the energy to care for a puppy.
"That'll be $32.00," he said.
I took her home, hid her in the laundry room and waited for the boys to get home from school. When they opened the door, she bounded out, tail wagging, paws churning on the linoleum, peeing everywhere. The boys were beside themselves. She was instantly beloved. We decided to call her Sylvie, the name we would have given our daughter had we had one.
And I was totally wrong. Sylvie didn't become my responsibility. We all took part in walking her, feeding her, loving her and cleaning up her shit. And she returned our love by trying to be good. She never barked unnecessarily. She never demanded love. She never begged. She never climbed onto counters for scraps. Our house had no fencing, but she never left the property. She just found a warm patch of lawn and hung out, our sentinel.
She seemed to have an innate sense of herself, like she knew she was a dog, and she knew how to be the best kind of dog—unobtrusive but always willing to engage. If she wanted food or love, she padded over and rested her head on an available knee. If she wanted to play, she dropped a stick in front of you, crouched and growled. If she wanted to be walked, she stood by the door and glared over her shoulder, waiting for someone to take notice and get the job done.
And she knew, deeply, how to love. One night, my young son was rolling on the carpet with her. As she pinned him and licked his face, he started to cry. We asked him what was wrong and he said, "This is what we're going to miss when Sylvie dies."
Sylvie became the center of our family life, the warmth around which we all gathered. My sons were separated by years and different interests, but she brought them together; she was the family glue, the one thing we could all agree on. Her thumping tail, which could clear a cheeseboard from a coffee table, was the heart beat of our family. She walked our boys through childhood: When the eldest left for college, she moved to our middle son's bed, and when he left for college, she moved to my youngest son's bed. Alone with us, she remained positive, approachable and endlessly fascinated by all smells, particularly animal shit and meat. Every morning, she greeted me as though I hadn't seen her for a month.
Of course, she wasn't perfect. There was a chair that she knew she wasn't supposed to sleep on that she slept on whenever we left her home alone for more than a few hours. This became known as Sylvie's "Fuck You" chair. And she had an unfortunate habit of ferociously barking at men in uniform. More than once, we found FedEx packages dropped in the center of our driveway, left there by fleeing delivery men. But her misdemeanors made sense. I mean, unless you're a bomb-sniffer, why would a dog trust a guy in a uniform? And wouldn't you act out, if you were left alone in a locked house for five hours?
Sylvie only had one really unfortunate trait: mortality. And that horrible day came when we noticed a lump on her hip, a lump that the vet told us was an inoperable tumor. We called our adult children and told them we'd have to put our dear Sylvie down within a few days. They were welcome to come home, or grieve from afar. They came home from different parts of the country, and they all arrived in tears. The five of us sat with her on the couch and smothered her with goodbye love.
A few hours before the vet came, the six of us went out for a walk. She didn't go the whole way, turning back before we got to the tree that marked the end of our daily walks. And when we got back to the house, she refused to come inside. She chose a spot in the sun, and set herself down. I think she knew that March 29, 2015, was her day. So, we circled her on the lawn, and the vet came, and as we watched her go, she looked at each of us, then put her head down.
Sylvie lived constancy, loyalty, perseverance and unconditional love. And, as my son promised, we miss all of that dearly. It's hard for me to believe that I ever worried about having to parent Sylvie, because in her own way, she parented us, showing us how to be a better family.