If I knew one thing, in 2004, it was that I was leaving Charlottesville.
In 2003, when my wife came back from Baghdad, she didn’t want to be married anymore. The next day, she took my dog, Sapphire, for a run on O-hill, let her off the leash and into traffic. When I found Sapphire’s body on the 29 Bypass, she wasn’t bleeding, but she wasn’t breathing either.
So when I was living in my basement apartment on University Circle, I was not what you might call “happy” with my two years in Charlottesville. I was waiting to sell the house, sign the papers, divvy up the wedding gifts, and leave town.
As a transplanted actor from New York and Los Angeles, I avoided community theater. But I had done two shows at Live Arts, where I met great and talented people—artists making theater for the sake of making theater.
And, I used the Rivanna Trail a lot—to get outside, to get out of my mind, to remember Sapphire. One Saturday, I showed up to help maintain the trail. I started doing that monthly. The group was a community that was literally building the type of community it wanted to be.
I even met a beautiful woman. I instantly felt I would fall in love with her. And we tried to get together—start and stop. Then, she told me, with kindness, that I was not ready, emotionally. And when I was ready, she couldn’t promise she would be. But she said to let her know, and maybe we could be together then.
Then on my mother’s birthday in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. A few weeks later, I was south of Baton Rouge volunteering at a Lamar Dixon Expo Center, which had been temporarily converted by the Humane Society and LA/SPCA into an animal field hospital.
The Expo had six open-sided stables, each with about 48 horse stalls. Those stalls were made into holding pens for two to four rescued dogs each (cats in another building). And the barn on the end was a Veterinarian M.A.S.H.
I spent two days walking dogs and cleaning up dog shit. Plenty of pit bulls, plenty of unspayed/unneutered pit bulls. We watched one give birth at night. We slept in tents or on donated cots. Food, coffee, and Powerade was donated. It was September and it was hot.
The Humane Society leaders asked for new volunteers to go into New Orleans and search for pets left behind. I formed a team with Mark, a home renovator from Portland, Oregon, and Megan, a makeup artist from Santa Monica. Together we drove early each morning into a predetermined sections of city, ones that had been submerged in 8′ of water. There were no people in these parts of the city.
We rescued about five pets a day, some barely alive, and all of them hungry, thirsty, and in shock. Sadly, we found even more animals dead, having been trapped in a flooded house that now smelled of rot, mold, decay, or death—or any combination thereof.
My last day in New Orleans, we were alerted to two dogs that may be alive in a house around the corner. We kicked in the rotten door, as we were used to by now (having been underwater, the doors were so warped that they needed to be forced, sometimes broken).
Inside, there was no sound and no horrible smell. The floors were still wet and packed with canal mud. There were no paw prints either—nothing had been walking in here. Then, we heard the wimpiest whimper.
In the next room, two spaniel mix dogs were on their sides, stuck to the mud on the buckled wood floor. They were young, maybe 2 years old, and weak, barely able to hold up their heads. It was hard to tell that they were breathing.
We had the address of a nearby horse farm where a Seattle-based group called Pasado’s Safe Haven had set up animal rescue. Megan drove fast, of course, while Mark and I each held an emaciated dog wrapped in towels and T-shirts.
Using dog crates as an operating table and my camping headlight as an operating lamp, the doctor got a needle into one dog’s collapsed vein. With the slow injection of liquids, she was able to lift her head, move her legs, open and close her mouth, and take deep breaths.
A young woman from Pasado in camo pants and tie-dyed T-shirt named the dog Daisy-Ray. She took my number so that if there was no owner found, and when Daisy-Ray was well enough to travel, I could adopt her. Relieved and happy, I spent the night with Mark and Megan walking “bite hazard” dogs. And then it was time to leave.
I had driven there without a break, but driving back, I stopped at a cheap motel in Tennessee. I was thirsty and hungry, but too tired to eat, when my phone rang. It was the woman from Pasado. She told me Daisy-Ray had died. All I remember saying was “thank you.”
I stood in the motel parking lot watching the sun set behind a strip mall that contained a Dollar Store, a gun/pawn shop, a liquor store, and a check cashing place. I tried to concentrate on all the dogs we saved, but I kept thinking about Daisy-Ray. I kept thinking about Sapphire.
I thought about the artists, about people I would see tomorrow, about my great and talented friends. I thought about the beautiful woman who, if I was ready, might be ready, too. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “Tomorrow I’m getting in my car and driving to Charlottesville. Tomorrow, I’m going home.”