Home » Archives for Melissa

Author: Melissa

A Bum and a Cat Named Jensen

Gary wagged his finger, motioning for me to follow him down the creek bank. He was missing a few teeth, stood at least six-foot tall and scrawny. He wore a camouflage baseball hat and blue jeans. It was right in the thick of summer, so the lush foliage completely veiled the creek’s edges. I was walking three dogs, but I still wasn’t following him down that bank.

He said he had planted a tomato plant. He wanted me to see it. The amateur gardener in me wanted to see what he managed to grow along a creek, but the 125-pound pragmatist wasn’t moving off the greenway’s paved trail. I shook my head. He flinched. I didn’t trust him, and it hurt his feelings. I felt a keen sense of guilt, said goodbye as kindly as possible and kept walking.

I’d known Gary for over a year when he asked me to see his plants. When I say “know,” I mean I saw him on the Springfield Greenway where I walked my dogs. The greenway connects three city parks and runs two miles in each direction. There was no way to avoid him because he parked his green Ford pick-up truck, dented bumper and smashed-out taillight, next to the baseball field at Travis Price Park. He pulled it onto the grass between two picnic tables, where a patch of trees offered shade. He stayed in the same spot from morning to night. It didn’t take long to figure out he lived out of his truck.

At some point we had started waving to each other. Then he had introduced himself, and we greeted each other by name, but that was as far as I wanted our relationship to go. Sometimes being too nice to a bum can get a girl in trouble, and I reminded myself about that very fact when I felt guilty about keeping my distance.

But for whatever reason, he wanted my trust, and he wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Multiple times he waited for me next to the trail with a gift in his hands. His body language, shoulders hunched, a shy and hesitant smile on his face, reminded me of the way young dogs get as low to the ground as possible when they greet pack leaders. Gary wanted to convey he wasn’t a threat.

One time he handed me a daisy, a wild one picked from the field across from the steel bridge. It matched the tattoo on my forearm. Another time he gave me tomatoes from his plants, then wild blackberries, then bananas and a marijuana bud wrapped in a cellophane wrapper from a pack of smokes. Close to Thanksgiving, he gave me a ten-pound frozen turkey.

“Where did you get this?” I asked. I’d never been gifted a frozen turkey before, and I really had no idea how to respond.

“From the getting place,” he answered.

Most of the time Gary’s attention made me feel strangely flattered and uncomfortable all at once. But, there were also moments it made me downright uneasy because it bordered on creepy. He knew too much about my movements. He mentioned when I missed days or when I walked three dogs instead of four. Even though I parked almost one mile away from him, he knew the color of my Honda and whether I was running early or late.

Sometimes, I walked through the historic district in town and avoided the greenway altogether because I didn’t want to see Gary. I didn’t want his gifts. I didn’t want him noticing days I missed or how many dogs I walked. And I especially didn’t want to feel guilty about not being nicer to him.

As time went on, more and more people I knew became friends with Gary. He was the kind of person who attracted a crowd. Mr. Dennis, the park’s maintenance man, spent a few minutes on his morning rounds chatting with him, so did a local politician. An avid biker named Barry occasionally ate lunch with him on sunny afternoons. Eventually, I learned Gary sold eight-ounce bags of weed, which explained why he attracted such an eclectic crowd. A pot dealer is everybody’s best friend in a state where it’s still illegal. Even with his popularity, I stood my ground and kept my distance.

But, one day my feelings about Gary changed, and they changed within seconds. He was standing next to the paved path, just like he did when he had a gift. In his hand, his callused, dirt-creased hand, sat an orange longhaired kitten. For the first time since I met him, I walked straight up to him. I didn’t think about the reasons why I shouldn’t. I couldn’t because that adorable kitten overrode all my instincts. Like a beagle on a scent, I couldn’t reason.

“Who is this?” I asked. The kitten’s eyes were emerald green, his nose as pink as a puppy’s tongue.

“This here is Jensen,” he said.

“Jensen,” I repeated.

The name settled comfortably between us.

“Where did you find him?”

“He found me,” he said.

I was standing closer to Gary than I’d ever been before. I smelled the booze on his breath, saw his cloudy, red-rimmed eyes, the broken blood vessels across his cheeks. This man had a disease. He was an alcoholic and had been for years. That’s probably why he lived in his truck and sold drugs at the park. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was Gary had rescued a kitten. It was all the proof I needed about his character.

From that day forward, Jensen never left Gary’s side. He acted more like a dog than a cat and followed Gary to the bathroom, the picnic tables, and even to the creek bank to check on the tomato plants. When Gary was busy with his acquaintances, the kitten played with walnuts and sticks and dandelions. He chased butterflies. He snoozed on the Ford’s hood or in the bed or under a tire during the summer. In the fall and winter, he slept inside the cab. When it was really cold, Gary pulled out of his shady spot so Jensen could sun himself on the dash.

As Jensen grew into a cat, my relationship with Gary grew into a friendship. On the rare occasion when he wasn’t parked by the baseball field, I worried and asked if he was okay as soon as I saw him. He never told me where he went, but he beamed when he heard my concern.

I met his closet friends, like Crazy Lou, Sniffer Johnson, and CB. They were all poor, unemployed, uneducated, and harmless. They all told stories of family drama, legal woes, and disabilities. Yet, they made me feel like a welcome part of a clique I never even knew I wanted to join in the first place. It became a ritual that when I passed them, they would all wave and holler my name. And right there in the middle of it all was Jensen. For the year he lived at the greenway, he became the park mascot.

I saw Gary and Jensen for one of the last times on July 4th. People were gathering at the park for Springfield’s fireworks display. It was early evening. Since it was a holiday, Gary’s crowd was bigger than normal. Like always, the group waved and yelled when they saw me. Either Gary or Crazy Lou or CB offered me a hotdog they were grilling on a hibachi. I passed on their generous offer because I was in a hurry. I wanted to get my pack walked before the fireworks started. Nearby, a group of strangers were setting up lawn chairs.

“Are they bothering you?” they asked.

“Bothering me? They’re my friends,” I said. And I realized it was true. Gary was my friend, and it was all because of Jensen.

Later that week somebody, maybe the people from the July 4th festivities, complained about the rowdy crowd hanging out at Travis Price Park. One afternoon as I crested the berm leading to the baseball field, I saw five Springfield City police cars surrounding Gary’s truck. When I inquired, the cops motioned for me to keep moving. The next day I found Gary’s mugshot online. He had been arrested for public intoxication and possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. I called local shelters, but nobody knew anything about Jensen.

I didn’t hear a word for two weeks. In those two weeks, I looked for Jensen every day, twice a day. Finally, I ran into Crazy Lou. She said Jensen had “done time” in the dog pound while Gary was in the slammer. She said it had been funny as hell to watch those cops wrangle Jensen. It took them hours. Gary and Jensen had finally been released and reunited, but both were banned from the park for “infinity.”

I was thrilled they were together again. After all, they only had each other. But I also felt a keen sense of sadness because I’d never see them again. For me, their relationship was an everyday reminder about the purity of an animal’s love. Animals don’t recognize social class or material wealth. All that matters to them is how good a person is on the inside. I imagine that for Jensen living with a bum in a truck was the best life he’d ever known.

It’s been almost two years since I last saw Gary and Jensen, and I still think about them when I pass their empty parking spot. At first, the park felt so lonely I occasionally walked through town just so I didn’t have to see that empty spot. I often thought about how ironic it was that I used to walk in town to avoid Gary. After Crazy Lou told me about the “infinity” ban, I started checking on Gary’s tomato plants. They thrived for months. Then one week it rained so hard the creek flooded and washed them away.

Why Sea Turtles Need People Like Honora Gabriel

Mason and I swam with sea turtles three years ago. It was (by far) the closest I’d ever been to the reptiles, so I was unprepared for both their grace and their friendliness. The turtles glided through the clear blue Caribbean with an elegance that hinted at their longevity. Their family tree branches back to prehistoric times. It was an amazing experience, the rare kind where I entered a foreign land yet felt completely welcome.

This memory resurfaced a few months ago when Honora Gabriel told me she was spending two weeks saving sea turtles in Costa Rica. The turtles need help because six out of seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

Like every member in a well-run household, sea turtles have chores. In essence, they are the gardeners of the oceans because they mow the sea grass. Untended sea grass is like a weed. It kills everything. Turtles also keep the jellyfish population under control because they eat them. Plus, their hatched eggs leave nutrients in the sand that help combat erosion. Because of the turtle’s shrinking numbers, these chores aren’t getting done, and that affects the whole marine ecosystem. The Sea Turtle Conservancy put it like this, “All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.”

Honora is in her late thirties, petite with a mane of black curls. She’s a pharmaceutical consultant who designs programs that help patients get access to life-saving medications. She also blasts through every glass ceiling she encounters. The Charlotte Business Journal named her one of the “Top 25 Women in Business” in 2015. The following year the Mecklenburg Times gave her a “Woman of the Year” award. And in 2019, she’ll take over as Board President of Susan G. Komen Charlotte Chapter.

I’ve known Honora for over a decade, and I’d be proud to call her a friend even if she didn’t care about animals, but she does. And she does something about it. In December, Honora volunteered with Costa Rica Volunteer Now on the Playa Camaronal Wildlife Refuge. She slept under a mosquito net, chopped trails through the jungle, and lived on rice and beans for two weeks. And she did it so that we all get an opportunity to swim with sea turtles.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you know the Farnival likes to pay tribute to everyday badasses who help animals. People that prove anyone can make a difference. Recent additions to our list include Gus Sims and Barbara Jamison. Now it also includes Honora Gabriel. Two weeks ago, I caught up with Honora and asked her about her trip to Costa Rica.

So….why sea turtles? 

I’ve always felt a connection to the ocean. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then when I went to Ithaca College, I met [my husband] Jason and we would meet everyday at this sea turtle fountain. It’s the place where our relationship grew. It’s also the first place he told me he loved me, and Jason ended up getting that same turtle tattooed on his arm.

I can’t say why, but I feel like turtles are my spirit animals. So when I decided to leave corporate America, and I did leave corporate America, I wanted to mark it with something important to me. And I decided to save turtles.

Coolest thing you learned about sea turtles?

They return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtles can be thousands of miles away, but they still come back to the place where they hatched. This boggles my mind. For instance, say they are in Australia and they are coming to Costa Rica, how do they know when they have to leave? It really boggles my mind that they know when to leave, and that they make it back to where they were hatched. And turtles hatch from all over the globe. They are everywhere except the Polar Regions.

Can you describe where you stayed?

I’m going to liken it to a dorm at a scout camp because most people can relate to that. It’s a long building with concrete floors and walls. The ceiling is tin. You can hear the iguanas crawling on top of it at night. You can hear their tails. The windows are four-feet wide and kept open all the time because it’s hot, so we were totally exposed. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets. You are basically living out of your book bag.

I shared a bathroom with 15 other girls. There was another bathroom for the ten guys at our dorm. And because of the plumbing you couldn’t flush toilet paper. We had three toilets. Right across from the toilets are three showers. One didn’t work, water dribbled out of the other two, and it’s all cold water. Now, keep in mind, between the 25 people in our dormitory, we could only run water one at time. So sink, shower, toilet, one a time between 25 people. So, you had to warn people, “Hey, I’m showering,” or “I’m going to flush” or “I’m going to brush my teeth.” These are the conversations that occur.

What was a normal day of volunteering like? 

We had dayshifts from 9 -11 am and then between 3-5 pm. The night shifts were three hours sometime between 7:30 PM -1:30 am.

At night we patrolled the shoreline to find turtles heading to the beach or already laying their eggs. Raccoons are a natural predator, so we’d fend off the raccoons so the turtle could lay her eggs. Then, as she’s laying her eggs, we dug, stroke for stroke, behind her to make a parallel tunnel so that we could collect the eggs. Once we collected the eggs we took them back to the hatchery, dug a hole, and buried them. We also did hatchery patrol. If I was on this shift, I was chilling at the beach fort and every 30 minutes I checked the hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatched, we took them to the ocean.

The day shifts were manual, sweaty labor. We built trails at a nature preserve where people can pay to hike and see the hatcheries. If people come at night, they can see the hatchlings go into the water. It’s kind of like a National Park in the United States. The lead biologist was very focused on improving the trail system, and he wanted to make new trails. Well, talk about sweating your butt off. So, the people in the front go through with machetes, then we went through with shovels to dig the plants out or with rakes to rake the leaves, and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Ultimately, better trails mean more people will come to the sanctuary and that means more money for the turtles.

Another task was picking up trash and sticks off the beach. There was an amazing amount of driftwood on the beach, and that’s important to move because the baby turtles can’t crawl over it. We called that natural trash.

What made you angriest about the human trash?

The trash is so disappointing because it can get lodged anywhere in the sea turtle. It gets lodged in the their nose, in their throat. And there is so much of it.

There are so many straws on the beach. One day I was like I’m going to count how many straws I pick up in two hours because that will be impactful. I lost count after thirty minutes.

Number two is plastic bottle caps. I didn’t think about this before, but now I notice how many things have plastic caps. Think about it for a minute next time you’re in the grocery store. Everything we buy has a cap.

And number three is shoes.

Shoes?

 I’m not making this up.

Do you feel like you made a difference?

In my heart, I want to feel like I made a difference. But when I think about those two weeks in the grand scheme of things, I’ll say no. For example, one of my tour guides told me that he traveled from the Philippines to Costa Rica. He said what registered on his navigation system was an island and that was an island of plastic that resides in the Pacific. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That kills me.

What I can do is focus on spreading a message, a message that makes people change their ways because it’s the small things that help. You go to the grocery store and get plastic bags. Where do those bag go? It’s floating around in the ocean and it looks like a jellyfish. The turtle eats it. It ends up in his stomach, and then the turtle is dead. Everything in our life is plastic. I find myself refusing bags at the store or bringing my own bags. I refuse straws, which sounds like such a small thing but it’s important and anybody can do it. Just refuse a straw.

I bought every member of my family a book about turtles, so that they understand that everybody can help. For instance, something else people can easily do is shut off their lights. If you live on the coast, shut off the lights because all of those hatching turtles are going to gravitate towards the light instead of the ocean. And then they’ll die. So, my point is I hope I can make a difference by educating people about the simple ways everybody can help.

 

The Ultimate Antidote for Homesickness

The hardest part of loving my dogs is leaving them, and because of my job I’m on the road 120 days a year. Luckily, I have an incredible house sitter who is both trustworthy and affordable. That’s not the problem. The problem is I miss them from the moment I drag my suitcase out the front door until the moment I return. When I finally realized leaving them wouldn’t ever feel okay, I developed several coping mechanisms that help get me through both days and nights. I’ve even discovered the ultimate antidote, the one quick fix that completely erases my homesickness.

Nights are the worst. I sleep cuddled between three dogs at home, but in a hotel room the sheets stretch around me like a deserted wasteland. To make this cold, empty space feel more hospitable, I wear fleece pajamas (even in summer) and travel with a heating pad. I plop my carryon bag on the comforter for its weight and create a cocoon around my body with pillows. On those extra lonely nights, I swallow a few melatonin and gorge on Netflix.

Days are easier for two reasons. One, I’m busy. Secondly, I actively seek out co-workers who love their animals as much as I love mine. Before I ever ask my friends about their significant others or children, I ask about their dogs. I chat with Lance about his pit bull’s proclivity for swimming and Chris about his mutt’s old age struggles. I talk to Big Mike, an avowed dog person, about a kitten who recently captured his heart. And when I’m feeling really homesick, when I miss my mutts the most, I ask Todd Veney about his dog Sammy.

Sammy is a five-year-old English setter who Todd and his wife Jacque adopted almost four years ago. They adopted Sammy because they had recently lost their adored setter Lucy. Lucy had been a rarity for a bird dog, sweet, timid, and quiet. They had high hopes Sammy would be the same because she slept in a ball on Jacque’s lap during their first ride home. But, the second they unhooked her leash, things drastically changed.

Todd and Jacque didn’t know much about Sammy’s past, but her behavior provided clues. She loved men but avoided physical contact with women, including Jacque. She also suffered from extreme anxiety that translated into insomnia. During their first year together, Todd and Jacque contemplated finding her a home better equipped for her issues. But they didn’t give up, and one day their relationship simply clicked. Sammy and her mom became inseparable, and her anxiety morphed into a hilarious lunacy, a lunacy that makes her a guaranteed antidote for my homesickness.

Todd’s stories about Sammy cause a smile or laughter ten times a day. One of her funniest quirks is that she poops when she gets excited. And she gets electrified about the dog park. Whenever they visit, she drops a trail of pellets from the car to the gate because she won’t stop long enough to take a proper poop. She also gets animated about car rides, mostly because they equal trips to the park. If Sammy is alone in their van for any length of time, she will jump from the backseat to the front and leave behind the aromatic evidence of her excitement. During the entire two minutes it takes her to perform this acrobatic feat, she wears her goofball grin.

Speed is another one of Sammy’s idiosyncrasies. That dog is fast, so fast none of the other dogs at the park can keep up with her. But Sammy doesn’t care. All she cares about is racing full throttle, tail swinging like it’s her motor. One day Jacque drove outside the fence while Sammy sprinted inside a straightaway. She clocked her at 34 mph.

Unfortunately for her folks, sometimes her penchant for running results in an unapproved trip to the neighborhood duck pond. When they find her, she’s always soaking wet and dripping mud, but in such a euphoric state it’s like she inhaled nitro.

For Halloween, to emphasize her natural abilities, Jacque made her a WWII fighter-pilot costume, complete with a set of cardboard wings. Sammy loved her wings, as though she found her calling. Brandishing her tail and beaming with pride, she sprinted inside their invisible fence and chased cars around their corner lot. Before long, fighter-pilot Sammy became a neighborhood celebrity and some people even stopped to take pictures.

What I love most about Sammy is that in every story, picture, and video, she is unquestionably happy. Her feathered tail is always swinging and she’s always wearing her signature goofball grin, tongue pink and unfurled like a banner for some canine “House of Happiness.” That’s why Sammy is the ultimate antidote for homesickness. She reminds me to find joy in every moment, even the moments when I’m away from my dogs.

So, if you are ever traveling solo, I recommend sleeping with a heating pad and a cocoon of pillows. I also suggest finding a family like Todd, Jacque, and Sammy. The good news is dog lovers aren’t hard to find. The bad news is that dogs like Sammy are one of a kind.

Christmas Photoshoot Outtakes

I swear we tried to do a Christmas card this year. We bought all the props, bathed the dogs, tried shooting in three different locations. But each time it ended in a wrestling match or a coordinated strike, a downright refusal to participate. So, instead of posting a beautiful card with our pack wearing their festive attire, we’re sharing the outtakes. I hope you enjoy watching it as much we did shooting it.

Merry Christmas y’all.

 

Walking with Lucy

Lucy

Since everything in my world revolves around canines, I immediately thought about a dog named Lucy when a friend told me about a viral twitter feed. Danielle Muscato asked women, “What would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?” Some women said they would go dancing, to the grocery store, and the park. But many others answered exactly like I did. We would walk.

Full disclosure: I’m a walker. I started walking two decades ago at Penn State and haven’t stopped since. In the beginning it was transportation, but now it’s ritual. I walk six miles a day at home, and when I visit other cities for work, I often walk there.

Walking alone seems like such a simple ask, but for women that activity comes with a whole load of complications that all boil down to one factor. We are the weaker sex. We learn about our inferior strength young. Many learn because of an incident, a reckoning. For me, it happened in the sixth grade. A disturbed boy with messy black hair and laser-beam blue eyes pinned me against the wall and pressed his hard-on against my thigh. I’ve always been thin and athletic and managed to wrestle away, but that second of panic, that second of understanding my physical limitations lingers into adulthood.

We also learn about our vulnerability from other women, a shared lore passed on from one to another. Throughout my life, cousins, friends, mother, mother-in-law, professors, and colleagues have all warned about the dangers of walking alone. Don’t wear headphones. Keep a wide berth of personal space. Never lean into a car to give directions. Don’t make eye contact with strangers, but don’t look down either. Stay away from large groups of men on empty streets. Always carry your phone. And never, ever walk alone in the dark.

Women’s personal reckonings combined with this shared lore creates an internal alarm we all carry. Whether consciously or not, a vigilance exists in every woman. It’s what makes us street-smart, but it also comes with a whole load of restrictions. For years I carried that alarm around like dead weight because it limited where and when I went places, until I met Lucy.

Lucy was a purebred, shorthaired German Shepherd. Someone found her running down Charlotte Pike and surrendered her to a shelter. We adopted her with a small rip in her left ear, but otherwise she was beautiful, colored a warm brown with black markings that aligned like mirror images on each side. She had a stubborn streak and hyper personality, and at home, she acted like a wild child. Lucy was the dog who taught me how much I didn’t know about raising a canine. But she loved to walk as much as I did.

I discovered Lucy’s gift the first time I walked her without my husband. In the early years of my marriage, we rented an apartment in Nashville, right off West End Avenue. It was after ten. I wanted to go to Centennial Park and see the Parthenon, a full-scale reproduction of the Athenian original. For the month of July, the city splashed floodlights on the replica. The lights changed from red to white to blue in waves. But I was alone, and that was the only reason I paused. Was it safe to go to a city park alone and after dark? The more I considered the reason I shouldn’t go, the more annoyed I felt. Then, I became defiant. I leashed Lucy and headed out the front door.

Vanderbilt University was a few blocks from our apartment, and we cut across campus. At one point, three college guys moved towards us. They were loud. Drunk loud. My internal alarm started ringing and my body stiffened. In a span of ten seconds, I rationalized the best case scenario was a snide comment. In the worst, they approached me. I never once entertained the idea they would simply leave me alone.

Lucy sensed my unease because a heightened awareness vibrated from her every step. She stood perpendicular to my thigh, matching my pace stride for stride. She looked intimidating, like she belonged on a poster for police dogs or a WWII flick. One of the guys caught sight of her, signaled to his buddies. They looked up, paused, digested the woman and her dog approaching. In unison, they moved off the path and circled wide to pass. They never said a word.

Lucy and I kept moving, but I felt as though I’d won some sort of battle. I felt like I could fly. Like I was soaring. I didn’t realize how caged I had been until that exact moment. The moment when I understood what it meant to be the toughest motherfucker in the room.

Lucy and I hiked for five miles that night. We strode down West End Avenue and up Elliston Street, circled Centennial multiple times. Lucy kept her snout high, rarely sniffing the ground. Her pointy ears rotated like satellites towards a couple talking on a park bench, a bum rustling through a trash can, an old man rolling down the sidewalk in a wheelchair. She saw it all before I did. The incident with the college boys wasn’t a fluke either. Multiple people crossed the street when they saw us coming, an act I had always initiated prior to that night.

Before we went home, Lucy and I sat for a solid ten minutes and watched the lights on the Parthenon morph from red to white to blue. Their reflections stretched and shifted across Lake Watauga, as though there were two versions, one real and one abstract. And I got to see all of it because of Lucy. With her, I could hit snooze on my internal alarm. I could forget a lifetime of warnings and enjoy the simple act of walking.

In the following months, Lucy and I trekked miles through Nashville. Often, I wore headphones and listened to music. Sometimes, I carried a phone, but mostly I forgot it. When we moved to Robertson County, Lucy and I hiked in the woods together. We went at night in the winter with the trees so bare it felt like the whole world watched. And I didn’t care who watched because I had my dog. Lucy never left my side, acted completely oblivious to the simple yet rare gift she gave me. She gave me the freedom to walk alone.

The Pecking Order

Miss Annie Daisy

Mason and I took Miss Annie Daisy canoeing on the Red River shortly after we moved to Robertson County, TN. Miss Annie, a six-pound Yorkshire terrier, was my first dog, my soulmate. I took Annie everywhere, and if that meant doing it illegally, then I broke the law. Over the years, I zippered Annie into my backpack and carried her into stores, restaurants, parties, office buildings, libraries, classrooms, movie theaters, and television studios without anyone even knowing. And she never made a peep because Miss Annie felt the same way about me as I did about her. As long as we were together, we were happy.

The Red River derives its name from the color, a reddish-brown mixture with mud as thick as clay. Our research said the slow-moving currents were perfect for a lazy day of floating. We packed sandwiches and a six-pack of beer in a cooler, stuffed towels, books, and clean clothes in a dry bag. We rented canoes from Red River Valley Canoe Rentals in Adams, Tennessee. They said the trip took four to five hours, loaded us in a bus painted like tie-dyed shirts, and dropped us off eight miles upstream. We’d land at the same place we parked.

The afternoon started exactly as planned. We occasionally paddled but mostly just drifted. We saw a herd of deer grazing in a pasture, snapping turtles sunbathing on half-sunken snags, a groundhog standing outside his cave. A red tail hawk swooped above the river’s surface, hunting for a rodent in the greenery lining each bank. We passed farms with cows drinking from the water’s edge, glided under a bridge with an arching trellis. Honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet fragrance.

Miss Annie curled up in a pile of towels I’d arranged on the dry bag. She occasionally stretched or licked my hand. She was perfectly content because Annie loved sunbathing, laid in the sun all year around. When it was too cold outside, she napped in squares of sunshine on the wood floor. But Annie wasn’t a swimmer. I introduced her to water when she was a puppy. We’d been hiking along the Potomac River in Virginia on an August afternoon. At some point, I flipped off my hiking boots and stood ankle-deep in the river. I held Annie where she could feel the water lapping against her undercarriage. She spent thirty seconds in the river before she lurched out. She despised water for the rest of her life.

A few times, I slid over the gunwale and floated for a few hundred yards, but I was the only one. Mason grew up up flipping burgers at the neighborhood pool, and chlorinated water was the extent of his experience. In time he got over his fears, eventually snorkeled off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but back then he wasn’t a confident swimmer. He always worried about what lurked underneath him.

Mason paddled from the stern. He worked outside and sported a farmer’s tan. His chest was pale while his arms were brown, lean, and muscled from running cable up and down a quarter-mile racetrack. His chest never tanned. It didn’t burn either, just stayed winter white. I liked that Mason worked outside, that he came home covered in dirt and sweat. I liked his callused hands and pale chest. Men who work at desks or wear suits never appeal to me.

We snacked on apples and nuts, had a beer, then two more. By the third hour, I could tell Mason had a buzz, but so did I. His hazel eyes, normally so clear, glowed red and glassy. The river forked around a small island. The water merged on the other side, then funneled through a narrow straightaway. The currents in the fork were calm, almost tranquil, but they drastically changed in the straightaway. We weren’t prepared for it. Sun and beer drunk, bordering on drowsy, we hit rough water.

Ripples were the only sign of the river’s strength, but I noticed them much, much too late. The water yanked the canoe and we capsized. The current’s force felt as powerful as an ocean’s riptide. The canoe’s bright red keel scooted past me, but it barely registered. I didn’t consider that we were losing our only mode of transportation. I wasn’t thinking about the clothes, books, cooler, beer cans, and sandwich bags lost somewhere at the bottom of the river. And I wasn’t thinking about Mason either. My only concern was Miss Annie. For a few frantic seconds, raw terror vibrated through every maternal particle in my body.

Mason emerged first, twenty feet downstream. Annie’s tiny head popped up in the opposite direction, right in the heart of the rough water. I can’t think of a better way to define the term split-second decision than that exact moment. I was faced with the choice of helping my husband or helping Annie. Sure, I thought about it, but in retrospect my reasoning was biased. In less than a second, I rationalized Mason was taller, had a chance of touching the river’s bottom. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he could swim. But, even if my logic could have more objective, I can’t deny that my gut reaction disregarded my husband for my dog. It was though I didn’t have a choice. I silently told Mason I loved him and turned towards Annie.

Miss Annie’s black eyes were wide with fear. She wildly kicked her little paws, but she didn’t have enough physical strength for fighting the currents. I positioned myself behind her and created a breakwater. Annie acted as though she’d been swimming her whole life in the calm water between my arms. Once she stood all four paws on dry land, I started searching for Mason. He reached us first. He came slogging through the foliage, barefoot but baseball cap still on his head.

The first thing he asked, “Is Annie all right?”

Annie stood by my feet shivering so hard she seemed as though she might crumble. With her hair soaking wet and hanging flat, she looked like an overgrown rat, but she never looked more beautiful to me. I didn’t know what to expect when I found my husband, maybe anger, at least annoyance, but Mason acted as though it never crossed his mind I’d do anything but help Annie first. The pecking order was always clear.

***

Recently, I was shopping for dog food. I passed several racks displaying collars, training leashes, vitamins for joints, brushes for long or short hair, shampoo for hot spots, and life jackets. I paused, backed up. The dog market has exploded over the past decade. Stores now sell items specifically for canines, such as life jackets, that weren’t popular or available when I first met Annie. The yellow, orange, and red vests ranged in size from extra-small to extra-large. The larger ones looked suspiciously like the human version. I picked up the tiniest one, examined the buckles, read the tag. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier was modeling it. Annie passed away four years ago, but I bought it anyway.