My mother is in the hospital with pneumonia, so I had just come from her house in Diamond Bar, where I had retrieved some items that she needed during her stay in medical prison. I was sitting in the left turn lane on Grand Avenue, thinking about how we care about others.
Sometimes caring is genuine and sometimes it’s faked, but when it’s your mother, the genuineness of it goes deeper and broader than anything, deep like the deep roots of an ancient tree in Lord of the Rings, and broad like the stretch of our identity, which is like the muddy Mississippi River of a Jimmie Rodgers song, and which I’ve seen from the shore of the French Quarter and I could hardly even see the other shore. Mother stretches into everything. How you shake someone’s hand. What goes through your head when you get angry. The things that play below your thoughts like malware in a computer. The unexpressed things that make people say you’re a good person. How you react when you read a newspaper story about someone killing somebody else. In all of those things, there are pieces of Mother, like the reflections of light through crystal.
I’ve been calling my mother on the phone more than she professes she wants (“You have a life to live!” she says), but I think that’s because she doesn’t want to be a bother and I sincerely want to be a bother. I don’t want to be laying comfortable and warm on my sofa, feeling just great, while she’s laying in a hospital bed in an ugly green gown that’s open in the back, her lungs hurting all the time. That’s why I call so much. That’s why I visit the hospital every day. That’s why I drive to her house and brings things to her. And that’s why I was sitting in my car at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Diamond Bar Boulevard that day, bringing her a bagful of her belongings that she needed.
That’s when I saw him. He was a medium-sized mutt, dappled white and black, and only about a year old. He was running into the street and cars were stopping for him. It was alarming to watch. He was a bit frantic in his actions, as if he were lost and searching for his owner, rushing to a spot in the street, then stopping unexpectedly and swiveling his head around, then just as unexpectedly running in a different direction across lanes of traffic. Everyone who saw him feared for him.
When the light turned green, I made a left turn onto Diamond Bar Boulevard, and it just so happened that at that moment, the dog was safely on the sidewalk to my right. Still, I knew he might run into traffic at any time, so I pulled over and rolled down my window.
“Here doggie!” I said.
He looked up at me curiously. In a split-second decision, I parked the car then and there, in the red in front of a bus stop, and jumped out of the car.
“Here baby!” I said, trying to approach him.
He cautiously approached me and sniffed my hand, but I was cautious about him, too. You never know when a dog is going to bite you, after all. I squatted down and was about to snatch him when suddenly, he bolted and ran into traffic, as if saying, I don’t have time for this, I’ve got to find my owner!
I stood up and watched, dreading what would happen. Diamond Bar and Grand is a very busy intersection, after all, and he kept running into lanes where drivers weren’t expecting him. Worrying that I had locked myself out of my running car, I got back into my car and watched. Then, just as suddenly, the dog veered back to our side of the boulevard, and a shiny black pickup truck behind me opened his door. The dog went up to check the man out, and the driver got a bit of a hold on his harness. Behind us, a bus and many cars were waiting to see what happened. Seeing that the guy was having trouble getting the dog into his truck, I jumped out of my car and grabbed the dog from behind. I lifted him into the cab, despite the fact that the dog was peeing on my hand, and bam! We had him!
“Go pull into that parking lot,” I said to the truck driver.
Once we were safely there, I climbed into the cab with the other driver. He was a sixtysomething auto mechanic who had just moved here from New Jersey, he said, and he was as giddy as I was to have averted a disaster. But now we faced a different problem.
“What do we do now?” he said.
“Well, there are shelters,” I said, “but they usually keep them for a couple weeks and then kill them.”
I was thinking about other dogs. My first dog, a dachshund named Gretchen, whom we loved for a couple years until he became paralyzed, as many dachshunds do (with a genetic disease now called IVDD), and my parents put him to sleep, as the euphemism goes. My second dog, a Samoyed named Czar, who kept me company throughout my teenage years, and whom my mother gave away during my freshman year in college because I wasn’t there to take care of him.
Then, unfortunately, I was thinking about another dog I had found under a car in our driveway and I had fallen in love with. He was big and brown. He was scared and lost. I brought him into our garage that night, and then in the morning, brought him to the shelter. His owner would be looking for him. He would be frantic. But when I called later, I discovered that the owner never picked him up. I wish I’d had the time to take him. I can only presume the consequences. I think about that dog often, in fact, with great regret.
“Let’s not bring him to a shelter,” the Jersey guy said.
I was also thinking of other pets. Our cat Zorro, who lays around all day sleeping, just waiting for mealtime. My old bunny Quesadilla, who lived an astounding 14 years, perhaps because we took such good care of him. My old bunny Count Chocula, whom so many children had petted and loved. There are so many animal companions in our lives, and I dread to think how helpless they all are.
So I was holding this mutt, rubbing his face and back, trying to make him feel more relaxed. He had his front legs on the passenger seat, looking me in the face as if to say, Is this my new owner? and was warming up to me. To look at him, he seemed like a cartoon dog, like the kind of mutt that Little Orphan Annie might have had, and he had an open, friendly spirit. He was wearing a black harness, implying that he wasn’t a stray, but not a tag, so there was no phone number we could call.
“Hey listen, I have an idea. When I first saw the dog, he was coming from over there,” I said, pointing up Grand Avenue. “We should just drive up there and see if anybody is looking for a lost dog. There’s a condo complex up there and not much else.”
“Well, that sounds as good as anything.”
So we started driving towards Grand Avenue. We were two strangers thrown together by circumstance, trying to do the right thing. In some ways, I felt like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or the Skipper and Gilligan, whichever seems more lost. We pulled onto Grand Avenue and then made a U turn back to the condo complex. I kept petting the dog, rubbing his face, holding his beautiful gaze.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying.
He was a darling. He believed me, even if I didn’t know if I did.
Immediately, we saw a thirtysomething guy walking down the street and talking on his cell phone.
“Let’s ask this guy,” I said.
“Okay, but what are the odds that he’s the guy? I mean, are we going to ask everybody we see? It seems impossible.”
I rolled down the window as we pulled up to the guy. I interrupted his phone call.
“Are you looking for a lost dog?” I asked.
The guy looked at me as if a lightning bolt had just hit him.
“Yes!” he cried.
I held the dog up so that he could see, and the man suddenly had the purest look of unmitigated joy in his face. I mean, there were tears in his eyes and the emotion had filled him up. The dog was excited, as well. The man came up close, grabbing at the dog’s head, holding it, petting it. For a moment, I thought he might kiss me. It was that lovely of a moment.
And when I was driving home, I thought of my mother. I thought of love like a muscle that you flex and exercise, and which gets stronger or weaker, depending. I thought of love as a decision. And I thought of what vast and mysterious ways in which I love my mother. And a half-