Amanda was my soul sister. Intelligent, talented, hilarious and extremely irreverent, she was the fraternal twin I’d never had but always wanted. We met when I was 22 and she was 18, at a Hollywood recording studio where a mutual friend was cutting an album. Bright, fresh-faced and disarmingly pretty, she was a little blond dynamo with an infectious energy, cool sense of style and a delicious sense of humor. I immediately fell in love with her – it was like we’d been friends our entire lives. And from that day forward we became practically inseparable, hanging out whenever we could, yacking on the phone for hours. She even moved into an apartment just two blocks away from mine. Some of our antics, adventures and escapades from those early days are legendary. And while I always came second to whomever she was dating, I was her main girl and she was mine.
As a child actress and teen film ingénue who’d starred a hit movie by the time she was 15, Mandy was someone accustomed to a lot of attention and adoration. In fact, she was often recognized when we were out together in L.A., be it at El Coyote, Canters Deli, La Poubelle or some of our other favorite haunts. Although the Mandy I knew was generous, easy-going and down-to-earth, she could turn on the charm and play the superficial celebrity game when she needed to – it was almost like she had two distinct personalities. And like most actors who work in “the business,” she could be terribly self-involved and narcissistic.
While she loved me and valued our friendship, I always knew that being with her meant putting up with the “Mandy Show.” After all, this was her world and I was simply living in it. But introvert that I am, I didn’t mind being in her shadow all that much. I’ve never been impressed by popularity, wealth or fame, and Hollywood always felt like high school to me. It wasn’t a world I coveted or wanted to be a part of, although I found its inherent dysfunction rather fascinating. Really, I just loved Amanda and wanted to be her friend, flaws and all, and knowing that I was special to her made it all worth it for me. That is, until she discovered drugs.
Addiction is a terrible, seductive, destructive force, and in my younger years I watched several people succumb to its dark siren song. Amanda had always been intrigued by the underbelly of life, so it was no surprise to me when she started dabbling with mind-altering substances and eventually got involved with a small-time drug dealer. In the years since we’d met she’d grown increasingly disillusioned with acting and often talked about leaving the business. Growing up in Hollywood had distorted her sense of reality and the world, but she couldn’t stand the idea of being a “normal” person – it simply wasn’t exciting or interesting enough for her. So by 23 years of age she was simply burned out and looking to rebel.
Soon enough, coke and heroine became her new passions. Suddenly she became willing to sacrifice everything – her career, her relationships, her family, her reputation, even her dog – for drugs. I’d always known she had a crazy streak and was capable of all kinds of self-destructive behavior, which she’d typically played out in a devilish spirit of fun, but this was different. I tried to reach out and reason with her, but she became secretive and evasive, repeatedly denying she had a problem. The space between us grew and eventually became a chasm as I realized I was no longer useful or important to her. I knew I couldn’t stop her from going down this path, a path I had no intention of following, so I walked away and went on with my life.
Twenty years came and went. All the while I never stopped thinking about Amanda, hoping she was okay, praying she wouldn’t die of an overdose or at the hands of an abusive boyfriend. Then last year I decided I was ready to reach out. I sent a letter to her parents, hoping it would get to her, which it did. And when I finally got that first voicemail I was delighted, yet saddened, all at the same time.
I barely recognized her voice. Gone was that impish, girlish energy, that inimitable Mandy liveliness. This voice was slow, slurred and weary. Although she’d been clean for a while, it was obvious she’d been through the ringer, that all those years of drug abuse had taken the spark out of her soul. Since we’d parted ways she’d been arrested several times, gone to jail, gotten clean, even had a daughter. She’d moved back to her hometown, where she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She admitted that she didn’t know who she was or what she was supposed to be. And true to form, most of our phone conversations were about her, but that was okay. I was just happy to have her back in my life.
We talked about seeing each other, although I must admit I was afraid of the changed person I might face. I’d seen recent pictures of her circulating online and it was obvious that the drugs had ravaged her face, her teeth and her body. Yet I was so relieved to know she was safe and sound, that she had survived what she liked to call “just a phase.” I realized how much I’d missed her and when we talked about old times and laughed like we used to, I’d get glimpses of the old Mandy and suddenly all felt right with the world. Before we hung up we always said I love you. And then she stopped answering my calls.
I knew that morning that something was wrong. I’d had a dream the night before that she and I were together, finally reunited after so many years apart. We were in a crowded club and I put my arm around her so we wouldn’t get separated. The dream was so realistic I could actually feel how thin and fragile she was. Wordlessly she told me she needed space and time to heal, that I couldn’t be a part of that and she hoped I would understand. I told her I did and that I’d see her soon. Then I woke up.
I went straight to my phone and texted her. No response. All day I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to call her parents. I didn’t have their phone number so I did a Google search, hoping to find it online. And that’s when I saw the headlines. She had been found dead in her apartment the day after the 4th of July, after missing dinner with her family. I couldn’t believe it. She was only 43 years old. All those plans of seeing her again, gone. All those future phone conversations – we had so many more catch-up stories to tell – were not to be. All those hugs we couldn’t wait to share, they were never going to happen.
I couldn’t believe that my girl, my soul sister, was gone. To make matters worse, it was July 8, Mandy’s 44th birthday. Instead of celebrating with cake and presents, her family was putting her in the ground. I was numb with grief. But nothing soothes my soul like being with animals, so when my rescue friends, Jennifer and Nick from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue, invited me to spend the day visiting a couple of Atlanta metro animal shelters and possibly rescue a few dogs, I jumped at the chance to join them.
The kennel was absolutely packed. I hadn’t been to a municipal animal shelter in many years, so when we walked in I’ll admit it took me a few minutes to get my bearings and my emotions under control. There seemed to be hundreds of dogs in there, as many as five or six to a run, their voices raised in a cacophony of barking that echoed throughout the kennel and into my brain. So many pit bull-type dogs with sweet faces and pleading eyes, whining, crying, jumping up against the chain link barriers, desperate for salvation and hungry for love. It hurt to give them attention and it hurt even more to walk away, wishing I could save every one of them and quietly hating the irresponsible humans who had put them there.
I was walking down the last aisle of dog runs when I spotted her, a large, gangly red dog with a Mastiff-like head, smooth coat and a very sweet face. Lying to one side, she looked like a sphinx, gazing about her with a noble yet solemn expression, as if determined to maintain her composure in such undignified surroundings. She lay calmly, stoically, as if she understood the futility of joining her brethren in their never-ending song of longing and despair. I’m not sure if it was her dark, soulful eyes, those big paws or that wrinkly face that got me, but I felt immediately pulled to her.
As I approached the run, one of her kennelmates, a blue female pit bull, rushed the fence, tail whipping back and forth at top speed in anticipation. Feeling sorry for the poor girl, I crouched down and pressed my hand against the chain link so she could sniff and lick my skin. Yet all the while I fixed my gaze on the red girl, who hadn’t moved and was politely watching me, as if waiting her turn. When I called to her she jumped up, a flicker of hope alighting in her eyes, but the blue pit became territorial and immediately blocked her path. It was obvious that she was the dominant dog in the run and that the red girl was the submissive, the way she hung back with her head low, afraid to get too close for fear of reprisal.
“Jenn, look at this dog!” I called over to my friend, who’d been busy checking out some of the small dogs she wanted to pull, “She’s so special.”
Like me, Jennifer’s face was tight with emotion. No matter how frequently a rescuer pulls from high-kill shelters, I don’t think they ever get used to the sight of so many homeless dogs, the multitude of innocent creatures who have ended up in such terrible circumstances at no fault of their own. Almost two million of them lose their lives in U.S. shelters every year because of human irresponsibility and over-breeding. People suck, she and I have agreed in unison, over and over.
“I want to pull this dog, can we do it?” I asked beseechingly, watching Jennifer’s face as she gazed at the beautiful red girl, who was now pacing back and forth behind the blue pit, her wrinkly face full of longing. Jenn explained that we’d have to get a foster home lined up first, as our rescue already had over 800 animals in its system and boarding yet another dog wasn’t an affordable option. Plus, most of our foster families were already overwhelmed with animals. It didn’t look good. Yet I could tell from her face that Jenn also saw what I saw, that there was something very special about this wrinkly-faced dog. We looked at each other and sighed.
Crouching down next to me, Jenn coaxed the blue pit to one side of the run and kept her distracted so the red girl could finally get to me. As I poked my fingers through the fence, stroked her soft fur for the first time and felt her warm tongue bathe my hand in kisses, I could barely contain my emotions. I had to get her out of here, but there was no way I could foster her myself, as my German shepherds, Heidi and Chloe, disliked other dogs and would surely beat her to a pulp. Yet I felt destined to save this dog. She could not die here! After all, I had already named her.
Nick joined us and we agreed it was time to go. I gazed into the young dog’s eyes and told her I was sorry. It was agonizing to get up and leave her there, as every instinct, every fiber of my being screamed at me to do otherwise. But what could I do? We had to find a foster or she had nowhere to land. As I followed Jenn and Nick toward the door, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder, just in time to see Mandy put her paws up on the side of the run and watch me walk away.
To be continued…