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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.

The Lionfish Hunter

As y’all know I like to pay tribute to people who help animals. Last month Mason and I visited the Puget Sound Goat Rescue. For September, I interviewed an environmentalist who is passionate about saving the reefs off the Florida coast. Meet Gus Sims.

 

The Lionfish Hunter

Gus Sims is an Emmy-winning cameraman. He shoots all sports, but I met him through drag racing. On most race weekends, Gus roams the pits, the starting line or return road and shoots drivers and racecars. He should smell like burning rubber, steaming clutch discs, brake cleaner. But he doesn’t. He smells like the sea.

Gus looks like he spent a lifetime on the water too. He’s tan, ageless with sun-bleached hair and a toned physique. For the most part, he’s a quiet man. That is until he starts talking about scuba diving.

Gus and I have been carpooling together for the past year. You learn a lot about someone when you ride an hour to and from racetracks in cities all over the United States. That’s when I learned how talking about scuba diving enlivens him. When Gus isn’t at a racetrack, he’s underwater. He dives in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And he’s helping to save his backyard by hunting lionfish.

Why should we care about the lionfish? Native to the South Pacific, the lionfish don’t belong in our waters, but somehow, whether by hurricane or as a stow-away under a ship’s ballast or released from some rich guy’s aquarium, they have arrived. And they are destroying the balance of marine life from Alabama to North Carolina.

Lionfish are striking, exotic, flamboyant creatures. They wear burnt-orange or maroon stripes and dazzling fins that flow around their bodies like designer scarves. But don’t let their beauty deceive because they are venomous creatures. An even bigger problem is their appetite. They eat everything, but maybe most importantly they devour the small fish that keep the reefs clean. Already taxed by higher water temperatures and bleaching, our coral reefs are struggling to survive, and if they fail, they’ll take an entire marine ecosystem down with them. Some experts predict it would end the ocean’s fishing industry.

Another issue is the lionfish doesn’t have a predator, meaning nothing along our shorelines can kill them. And they just keep reproducing. A female lionfish can have as many as 2 million eggs per year. The only reason these invaders haven’t caused an underwater apocalypse is because of men like Gus Sims, aka lionfish hunter, aka badass.

 

Q&A with the lionfish hunter

When was your first encounter with the lionfish?

I saw them in the Bahamas 10 plus years ago. I noticed them in the Keys about 6-7 years ago. That’s when I became active in eradication. You have to be certified by State of FL to kill and remove them from the sanctuary. Other places in the Gulf and Atlantic can harvest anytime without restrictions…meaning anyone can hunt the interlopers.

 Approximately how many lionfish have you killed?

I’d guess 30 in 3 years. I’ll take one that I killed and use it as a teaching tool to show people, kids, other divers. Some people hear of the problem but show-and-tell is just one more element to helping the public understand.

How would you describe a lionfish?

They are beautiful creatures but bad Mama Jama’s for the reef ‘s ecosystem.

Have you ever been stung by one? Did it hurt?

No. But a small prick may result in swelling and a few days of pain. A more intense sting can be painful and limit mobility for a while.

The lionfish is edible. Do you ever eat them?

There are many ways to prepare them. There is a lionfish cookbook and everything. We usually just fillet and chop raw and make ceviche. Dip is good.

Sometimes we will take our kill to REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation.) They dissect the animals and study stomach content. We are always trying to help gather any type of information that will help combat the problem.

What’s the reward?

I do believe the work we are doing is paying off. The one I killed yesterday was the first one I have seen in a while. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that there are enough of us looking and trying to deal with the problem. And we are seemingly doing a good job.

We will always be battling the issue because of how many eggs are laid each year. All we can do is try and maintain the population and not let it get out of hand again. One kill is one less.

(For more about Gus and his underwater adventures, you can visit his website right here.)

A Dog, a Mob Boss, and a Bloody Blue Ribbon

Miss Annie Daisy

I’ve been waffling about posting this blog because it’s still hard to admit my disease. Then, I ran into Mort, a Vietnam vet, on the greenway. He also suffers from depression, and he was having a bad day. When I told him about my disease, his face changed. For the next twenty minutes, he told me how thankful he was to find someone who understood. For the next week, we walked together every day. That’s why I finally decided to post this. Because I want everyone who feels like Mort to know they aren’t alone.

 

A Dog, a Mob Boss, and a Bloody Blue Ribbon

 

I went through my third episode of clinical depression six years ago. That spring the only company I craved was my six-pound dog Miss Annie and Tony Soprano, a fictional TV character. I wouldn’t have survived without either of them.

I was diagnosed with depression almost twenty years ago. For two decades, I took all the precautions. I exercised religiously, slept seven hours nightly, and swallowed antidepressants daily. And then, I made the foolish decision to quit my meds at the same time I left a fifteen-year career. I quit taking the antidepressants because of allergy season. The antihistamines made me shaky, and the antidepressants made it worse. I rationalized I hadn’t relapsed in years. I rationalized I’d be safe to go without medicine for a few months. Wrong answer.

During the worst of it, I spent twenty hours a day in bed, only I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t sleep because the enormous weight of nothingness crushed my ribcage until breathing was a chore. Blinds shaded my bedroom in the gray tones of a cloudy evening. If I inched up the blinds, I could see the multiple green hues of spring, but they’d been closed for months. It was winter inside our house, frigid, desolate, dark.

In my serotonin-deficient brain, I felt like a shell, empty inside, weightless. I smelled like greasy hair. My house was filthy too. Dog hair collected in tufts, toppled up and down the hallway, as though they were tumbleweeds blowing across an abandoned Texas town. Anyone who has suffered from clinical depression knows how hard it is to describe the immobility of it, the immobility of the mind and the body. But my dog understood, and Annie never left my side, not once. And she never asked me to explain.

Miss Annie didn’t care that I smelled like body odor or randomly broke down sobbing. She’d been my best friend for thirteen years, my first dog, the reason for my love of all animals. Ironically, Annie and I were opposites. She was a priss, and I’m a tomboy. She was a purebred Yorkshire terrier. I prefer mutts. I like walking in the rain. Annie walked in the rain if I held an umbrella over her head. But none of our differences mattered. If anything, they made us two halves of a whole.

The only solid, definable part of my life during the depression was Annie’s six-pound weight. She curled into a ball against my hip, hair as soft as velvet. I’d run my pinky across her little wet nose, a nose shaped like an anchor, as though some cosmic force interceded when dogs were designed. At the darkest times, the times when I didn’t know if wanted to wake up ever again, when I planned my suicide down to the exact minute I’d swallow the pills, she kept me anchored to the here and now. There were even moments when I ruled out suicide simply because no one else could take care of Annie like me. She was so much a part of me that in some region of my mind, I believed if I died, she would too. As though we only existed because of each other.

My feelings about Tony Soprano had more complicated roots. The Sopranos is a crime drama that first aired from 1999-2007. It’s based on an Italian New Jersey mobster called Tony Soprano. During that spring, I played all six seasons, one after another from dusk until dawn. Sometimes, I didn’t even watch, just listened. As much as I needed Annie’s weight, I needed Tony’s voice. A large part of my obsession stemmed from the fact Tony also suffers from clinical depression. It runs in his fictional family as predictably as it runs through my real one.

In the second season, during the episode “Isabella,” Tony confides to his psychiatrist, “Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit…I don’t feel nothing, nothing. Dead. Empty. Everything I touch turns to shit. I’m not a husband to my wife, not a father to my kids, not a friend to my friends. I’m nothing.” Tony Soprano held a mirror to my brain.

But his mental state wasn’t the only reason I clung to him back then. I also needed Tony because my inner little girl needed a father. I wanted someone to protect me because I was scared and sick, and I wanted that person to be a mob boss. Tony is a cheating, murdering, lying, thieving narcissist, but he loves his daughter Meadow, unconditionally. In the last season of The Sopranos, a mobster from a rival family confronts Tony’s daughter in a restaurant, says she has cream on her lip. He caresses her cheek. Meadow tells her father about Coco’s threatening behavior later over their kitchen table.

I watched the episode “The Second Coming” a hundred times. Each time I couldn’t tear my eyes off Tony’s face as he processes Meadow’s story. His rage is palpable. It’s so powerful he can’t sit still. He has to act, has to punish the man who violated his daughter. In the next scene, Tony storms through the restaurant, knocks Coco to the ground, then kicks his teeth out against the tile floor. His message is clear: nobody fucks with Meadow Soprano.

From my earliest memories, my father was the anti-Tony, the antagonist of my nightmares. When I was nine years old, our barn-cat Josie, longhaired and orange, had a litter of kittens. My younger sister and I were each allowed one. I tied a pink ribbon around a kitten I named Taffy and a blue string around one my sister called Coco. Both cats looked like miniature versions of their mother, but their personalities were vastly different. Taffy napped or cuddled twenty-two hours a day, while Coco ransacked the barn.

I spent afternoons sitting on a hay bale while Taffy purred away on my chest and Coco played with my hair ribbons. Pink, blue, yellow, purple, and orange ribbons littered the floor. The fabric wasn’t thin or shiny but hefty, made of a cotton-wool blend, as though it’d been knitted. Coco shredded most of them, and the remains spread like silly string across the planked floor. They were the same kind I used for their collars.

One afternoon, my father was grabbing some garden tools out of the barn. The ribbons annoyed him, and he started shoving them in a garbage bag. Coco must have thought he came to play because he swatted my father’s hand and sliced his skin deep enough to draw blood. Looking back, parts of me knew Coco was doomed when I saw the look of rage that crossed my father’s face. Parts of me will always blame myself for what happened next.

That night a shotgun blast pierced the evening. The ringing afterwards sounded as loud as the blast. I raced downstairs, frantic, but my mother, bent over her checkbook at the kitchen table, acted as though nothing happened. The windows reflected her perfectly coiffed curly hair, gold bracelets glimmering from her wrists. She looked so normal, so calm I questioned whether I had heard the gunshot or not.

“Your father shot a skunk, that’s all,” she said.

Two days after the gunshot, I found Coco’s collar. At first the ribbon blended with the dead leaves. Dried blood colored it a similar bark brown. I reached for it, sure but unsure, wanting to know yet screaming against it. The ribbon was stiff, crusty, but there was no denying it was Coco’s collar.

In retrospect, my need to protect the defenseless started with finding Coco’s collar. My idealism didn’t coalesce until years later, until I met Miss Annie and realized the depth of an animal’s personality, but that was the moment when speaking for the voiceless became my life’s goal. If I had acted, if I had hid Coco in my closet or taken him to a neighbor’s shed, if I hadn’t egged him on or left the ribbons scattered across the floor, maybe he would have lived. In a way, every time I save an animal, I’m giving back to that little girl who will always blame herself for her father’s mistakes. For me, my depression, rescuing animals, and my obsession with a mob boss are entwined with that bloody ribbon. It’s where all three of them began.

It’s been six years since my last (and hopefully final) bout of depression. I’d been ill for months, bed-ridden for two. The doctor said I’d been low for so long that the antidepressants would take time to build up my serotonin levels. I returned to civilization as though through snowdrifts, but I returned. Miss Annie stuck with me every step of the way, her tiny paws pitter-pattering behind me, her eyes a constant reminder I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t unloved. Three months after I recovered, I started fostering dogs for ICHBA. I named all the homeless mutts after Soprano characters.

***

Please, please, please if you are feeling depressed or suicidal reach out to someone. You are soooooooooo not alone!!!!

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK [8255])