October 6, 2107
Love affairs can start with such simple words:
"What do you think of Henry?"
That is what I emailed my wife as I forwarded a link to the "Dog of the Month" for Dearborn Animal Shelter in February 2007. Henry was a gorgeous part Labrador/part Chow mix with a fluffy tail arched elegantly over his black flank, a sheer blackness of a body offset by a white apron down his chest and dalmatian-looking footies (white with black spots) on most of his paws. All of this accentuated by the sweetest face.
We had gone a little over month since losing our family dog, McTeague, and it had been hard to see any dog as a suitable "replacement" pet. The local Westland, Michigan, shelter/pound where we had found McTeague simply had no obvious Fleming candidates. We tended to like bigger, black dogs, at least two years of age (we were too busy . . . maybe the word is "lazy" . . . to potty train a puppy), and we hadn't found that instant next dog.
However, a drive to the Dearborn Animal Shelter quickly brought us to the next addition to our household. Henry was spectacularly gorgeous, and gorgeous/pretty were the only words to describe him. He was not the handsome dog that McTeague, part Lab/part Rottweiler, was, but he was a dog you could assume needed only a simple brush through his luxurious coat and that magnificent tail to make him the most gorgeous dog on the block. He had been a stray, found on the streets of Dearborn, roaming for how long nobody knew, and then had been at the Dearborn shelter for several months without any takers. The shelter staff had estimated his age as between 2 and 3. As many pet owners know, older pets and black-furred pets often go un-adopted. Poor Henry was both. I believe he had already been designated dog of the month several times to try and entice people to adopt him.
It wasn't hard to understand why no one would adopt him. He seemed incapable of acknowledging a bond with a human. We "interacted" with him in a room where he had no way out, something he clearly wanted to do, rather than sit and meet the humans in the room (it's a surprise that we still adopted him, as McTeague, and Marcus, our most recent adoptee, seemed to have learned the manipulative tricks by which to ensure adoption -- hanging by the human every second, licking frantically, wagging tail incessantly). No, Henry seemed more intent on finding his ways back to the streets from whence he had come. Nevertheless, he possessed the sweetest, gentlest nature. We were hooked.
Within minutes (any significant decision--new pet, car, etc.--is made within minutes by this family), we had signed the papers to bring Henry to the Fleming home.
Today, Henry, renamed Sylvester, passed away. Less than three months from a heart attack and recovery, my heart is broken.
Henry actually earned the name Sylvester before we ever saw him. In the vet's office, suffering the agony of putting McTeague down, our son, Lincoln, not quite 8 at the time, said that we should name our next dog, Sylvester. Outside of my disappointment to not continue with the Frank Norris-themed dog names, we thought it would be a great name for a dog. To get a black and white dog, with the personality of a cat, seems to suggest divine intervention. Sylvester immediately was, and always will be, a Sylvester.
True to his street days in Dearborn, Sylvester was a bolter. For the three years that we remained living in Livonia, he would frequently bolt out the front door, streak through our lovely, but small, neighborhood and end up on or across the traffic nightmare that was Stark Avenue (just a dog's short run to I-96). Inevitably, he would be retrieved by one of us or one of the Rabbaut kids (there were a few of them) as we all comically chased Sylvester to this Stark conclusion. Frankly, I am amazed he lived to be 13.
We also had to crate him for awhile as the life on the street must have encouraged him to do everything, and I do mean "do everything," anywhere. A combination of Fleming cheapness and perhaps that afore-mentioned Fleming laziness resulted in him being put in the crate previously purchased for McTeague--a much larger dog. We quickly learned that you can't give Sylvester a little room; that's enough space for him to defecate and still retreat to the far reaches of his crate. Since I was traveling to Grand Rapids so much at that time for my job, I heard Pix's swearing and muttering about cleaning up the shit even before she actually placed a call. A big beautiful tail is not nearly as loved when it serves as an unfortunate broom that sweeps back over that ebony-black flank.
By the time we moved to the Grand Rapids' area (Caledonia), Sylvester's urge to bolt had mostly subsided. However, he had picked up a higher level of anxiety I didn't think could exist in a dog. Gun shots had always freaked him out (I figured some Dearborn homeowner must have shot at him while he roamed the streets). Since his favorite tie-out was off our side porch, allowing him to stretch his chain almost to the road, he may have become the target of some mean-spirited boys. I have no evidence, but their personalities certainly fit the kind of kids who might taunt a dog, or throw a rock at a dog, or who knows what else. Long since liberated from the crate, he now occasionally turned to peeing in the house, often at the base of our cockatiel's cage, or in our exercise room in the basement. Neither was ideal. Bartleby didn't need one more reminder that the damn dog got to roam free, while he didn't. And I didn't need the excuse not to go do the exercise bike.
He probably benefitted the most in our family from our move from a tiny ranch home to a huge multi-level house in Caledonia. So many more rooms to explore, a king-sized bed to claim as his throne, and so many stair landings to lay at and trip people in the dark.
Caledonia, however, was his and my dream for walks. It took us only five minutes to leave our beautiful sub-division to travel Alaska Avenue alongside beautiful farms, open spaces, still undeveloped subdivisions. One direction took us past a grizzled, impressive bull, a shaggy golden beast, in a fenced-in field that seemed hardly able to hold such a beast. Sylvester would pull at his chain, as if the promise of an attack would verify his toughness. The other direction took us past a house of 5, 6, maybe even 7 dogs, to which he would barely turn his head. I will never forget a chilly spring morning when we watched a foal just recently born shaking in the grass, while the mother licked away the birth fluids. Somehow I believed that Sylvester also sensed how special that moment was.
But, then we had to move . . . again, the second time in 3 1/2 years. How beloved was Sylvester to our family by this point -- despite his anxieties and occasional in-house urinations? When 12-year old Lincoln was given a chance to state a preference between a house with a pool or a house with a big fenced-in back yard, he picked the latter, because he knew it would give Sylvester lots of unchained yard to roam through.
Oh, have I mentioned yet that he was not a barker at all. This point becomes relevant two to three weeks into our life in the new home in Edwardsburg.
About 3:00 am one Saturday night, we wake up to the sound of a large thud from our front porch. I creep to the front door, look out, and notice that some yahoo had ripped out two or three of the newel posts on the railing of the front porch. And what had this done to my large guard dog -- apparently, nothing? No bark, no growl, not even a lifting of the head. He was still upstairs laying next to our bed.
Police get called out so that I can report the vandalism. Does Sylvester bark? Hell, no! Does Sylvester even come downstairs to investigate the commotion? Hell, hell no!
Within days, Sylvester has a brother, Marcus (I am delighted I can resume Frank Norris-based names), a two-year old part Basset Hound, part Newfoundland. And he barks. Oh, yes, he barks. Our peaceful house is gone because my dumb cat-named dog couldn't once bark at vandals or cops at our house. Of course, it doesn't take long for Sylvester to find his voice in concert (a discordant concert) with Marcus's voice. Pretty soon both stupid dogs will bark at any leaf that hits the house.
For much of the last 5 years, Marcus has kept Sylvester young. We watched with glee as the pursued (Sylvester) became the pursuer, hounding Marcus around the house, nipping at his legs, grabbing the nape of his neck. I think we foolishly believed that Sylvester would live forever. And his chicken-shit nature never went away: first gun shot, first firecracker, first loud bang, and he would want to go hide in the main floor bathroom, a bathroom so small that his laying against the base of the toilet slowly pushed the toilet off its bearings.
However the last 10 days have been at times unbearable: no eating, long stretches without drinking, little interest in anything. Evenings seem the worst as he lies sprawled in the tiny hallway leading to our main floor bathroom. His weight has dropped while his stomach has distended, probably the result of a tumor somewhere inside. When he stands, he appears confused, when he lies down he seems resigned. The vet is convinced he is not in any pain, just not feeling good. The pain is in our hearts.
And now today, October 6, 2017, Sylvester is no longer of this world, hopefully meeting McTeague for the first time in Doggie Heaven. For those up there, he will probably respond to any number of names:
Sweet Potato Boy
What he won't respond to anymore is Henry. So long, Henry. There is nothing to fear where you are now.