Mother Is a Reflection of Light Through a Crystal Goblet

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.

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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.

Sally Groves with her new baby

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.

My second dog, Czar

My second dog, Czar

My grandmother's Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My grandmother’s Pomeranian (L) and our family dachshund Gretchen.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

My bunny Quesadilla and our cat Zorro.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

“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-hour later, I walked up to room 581, brought her her bagful of things, and didn’t mention anything about any of this.

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[Sorry, but I have no pictures of this incident.]

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A Liar and a Thief

Last month, I went out to perform magic on the street.  Between shows, I noticed a guy standing on a crate about 30 feet to my right.

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“We’re having a trivia contest here and we’re giving away cash!” he said.  “Free cash if you can answer these trivia questions.”

That’s the kind of pitch that will gather you a crowd.  People lingered, wondering what the catch was, and then he would launch into the questions in a loud bark.

“What is money made out of?”

“Paper!” somebody would yell out.

“No!” he would answer.

“Plastic!” another person would yell out.

“No!”

“Fibers!”

“No!”

Audience members would fumble their way through all the possible responses, and then, after a couple minutes, somebody would yell out, “Cotton!”

And the guy would smile and hand out a $5 bill.  That attracted even more people.  The guy was giving out money! 

“What color is the sky?” the guy continued.

“Blue!” somebody would yell out.

“No!”

“White!”

“No!”

“Black!”

“No!”

After a few minutes, somebody would yell, “Clear!”

And the guy would give out another $5 bill.  The guy was giving out money!

After a few questions, the crowd had grown quite large.  At that point, the guy would change his tactics a bit.  He would address someone in the audience directly.

“Sir, are you a good person?”

“Yes.”

“If you can prove to me that you’re a good person, then I’ll give you a $20 bill.  Stand on that crate opposite me and answer my questions.  If you’re proven to not be a good person, I’ll still give you $5.  Is that fair?”

“Okay.”

And then the spectator would step onto the crate.

“Okay, first question: Have you ever told a lie in your entire life?”

There would usually be a pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, second question: Have you ever stolen anything in your entire life?”

“There would be another pause, and then the spectator would answer, “Yes.”

“Okay, so you’re a liar, right?  And you’re a thief, right?  Do you feel that you deserve this $20 bill?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve already confessed that you’re a liar and a thief.”

That’s when the guy would launch into his sales pitch, which turned out to be pure evangelism.

“But even though you’re not a good person,” the guy would continue, “Jesus was sent down from heaven to take away your sin….”

It was vicious.  First, he lured spectators with the promise of cash prizes.  Then he asked a representative spectator some personal questions.  Then he would twist their answers to imply that the spectator was an awful person.  (After all, just because somebody has lied a few times in his life doesn’t make him “a liar,” and the same applies to the thief appellation.)  Then he would sell his gospel as if he were selling soap–spiritual soap.

Sometimes, he would point to his golden retriever, which was a darling dog that lingered behind him.

“Isn’t he lovely?  Doesn’t he look happy?  He is, in fact.  Unfortunately, we brought him to the vet a few weeks ago, and it turns out he has a terminal illness.  Vet said he has only six months to live.  So he’s walking around happy as can be, but unfortunately, a death sentence is just around the corner for him.  And so it is with all of you.  You may be walking around happy as can be, but a death sentence is just around the corner for you.  Will you be ready?  Have you asked Jesus into your life?”

I was performing out there for a couple of hours, and the longer I listened to the pitch, the more it depressed me.  In fact, I became quite depressed, which certainly isn’t my way.  Each time he told the dog story, he would pronounce a different death sentence on the dog: sometimes it was six months, sometimes two months, sometimes nine months.

So, Mr. Soap Salesman, why do you think you deserve my trust when you’re a liar?

After listening to him for a couple hours, I cut short my magic performances.  I couldn’t take listening to his spiel any longer.  And on the drive home, I felt the weight of humanity weighing on me, disgusted at the lies and truth twisting that people would engage in just to prove that they were right and everyone else was wrong.  The only way I could dig myself out of the funk was to think of something lovely.

When I get home, I thought, I can put Lulu on my chest and pet her face.

And when I got home, there her furry white face was gazing at me behind the glass balcony door, gazing longingly in at me, hoping that I would bring her in and put her on my chest and pet her face.  And that’s just what I did.  It wasn’t a reasoned philological argument.  It wasn’t a spiritual accusation.  It wasn’t intellectual at all.  It was just petting Lulu’s face, which is one of the most wondrous things in the world.

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Be Strong

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My longtime companion Claire has many assets, but strength isn’t one of them.  She comes from a long line of quiet skinny people.  Skinny looks great in a short dress, but it doesn’t help much when you have to hang up on a telemarketer.  When we take our walk, I quickly leave her in the dust.  When we return home, I’m invigorated by the exercise, but she’s always depleted.

“I have to take a nap,” she says.

Once, a woman made overtures towards being her friend by inviting her to a party, and Claire responded happily.  Soon, however, it became clear that the woman was only interested in converting her to a Chinese cult religion.

“Call her up and tell her not to pick you up, that you’re not going,” I said.

Claire hesitated.  I could see the conflict in her eyes, which let me know what she was thinking: I don’t want to be mean to her.

“Do you want to become a member of that cult?” I said.

“No.”

“Then call her up and tell her you’re not going.”

So just before Claire’s father died in 2011, he made Claire promise something.

“Promise me you’ll be strong,” he said.

“I promise, Dad,” she said.

Although she’s not naturally a strong one, Claire has other assets.  Over the years, I have slowly discovered this.  Early on in the relationship, I was waffling on whether she was a good long-term partner, because strength is important.  I wondered whether she would be able to stand up to the challenges that face a couple.  I didn’t want somebody who would fold at every confrontation, either with a stranger or even with myself.

Compassion and gentleness, though, she’s got that market cornered.  It was pointed out to me most clearly in 2008, when Claire and I visited an animal shelter, looking for a bunny to use in my magic shows.  There were many to choose from, but one stood out above all others.  He was ash grey and a year old.  When Claire put her hand near his face, he turned his face into it.  That settled it. That was the bunny for us.

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We called him Quesadilla.  He was another in a long line of bunnies that I had had since 1990, when I first started doing magic.  There was Snowball, my first bunny, who was white.

Then I started giving them funny names so that the kids would laugh.  I named the next one Count Chocula, and he lasted an amazing 14 years.  A vet once told me that he had never heard of a bunny living that long.  He didn’t seem creaky in his old age, only grumpy.  When he passed on, we wrapped him in a plastic bag and buried him in the backyard, placing a cross on top.  But it wasn’t deep enough for the coyotes, who dug him up that night.

So when it came to this bunny in 2008, I named him Quesadilla.  The name made the kids laugh, but Claire could call him a serious name, Casey, for short.

“Because he deserves a serious name,” she said.

I used him in all my shows and all the kids loved him, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

“Are all rabbits this calm?” they would say, petting him.

“No, there are good ones and bad ones, just like people,” I said.  “This is a good one.”

David Groves and bunny Quesadilla 2011 b

When you petted his cheek, he would close his eyes and get into it like it was a piece of lovely music.  In fact, it was like a piece of music, in that it was a melody that was being played between the two of us.  Rabbits are simple creatures, and since they’re so far down on the food chain, they’re always a little bit scared.  But it seemed that while we were petting his cheek, or between his ears, or his shoulders, that he wasn’t scared for just a little while.

But Casey tended to flee from me, even after I got to know him.  Perhaps it was because I treated him straightforwardly.  I grabbed him whenever I needed him for a show.  When he bit me territorially, I gave him a rap on the nose.  When he didn’t seem to want to be with me, I walked away.  Perhaps it was also because Claire, for the most part, was the one who fed him.

That’s when I started noticing how Claire’s gentleness could accomplish things that my straightforwardness could not.  First thing In the morning, Casey would be waiting by the balcony sliding-glass door for her.  She would feed him baby carrots and cilantro, or whatever green leafy vegetable was in season.  She would kneel down on the floor and coax him inside, waiting as long as ten minutes, if that’s what it took.  Then she would stroke his face, his head, his body, in a gentle and loving manner.  She discovered the love within him and nurtured it.

In the evenings, Claire would come back from teaching an English composition class at the college, and first thing, she would ask me.

“Have you fed Casey yet?”

And if I hadn’t, she would go out there with another bowl and her gentle ways.  Every night, she would spent ten minutes saying goodnight to him.

Claire believed that Casey had feelings.  When we went away on vacation, she would get down on her hands and knees and talk with him.

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“David and Claire are going away,” she would say.  “Katherine will take care of you.”

Claire believed that he understood the word away.  

I would sometimes make fun of her.

“David and Claire are going to Humboldt County,” I would say to Casey.  “We’re going to visit some old friends, one who’s a retired Special Ed teacher and the other who’s a retired landscape architect.”

And Claire would give me a crooked smile.  But it never discouraged her from her task of talking with animals, Doolittle-like.

Maybe it’s because Claire never had children.  As a child, she had been saddled with much of the job of raising her two younger siblings, and so she realized that it wasn’t all roses and I love yous.  Not only that, but her first husband didn’t want children.  When she got to me, the decision had already been made.

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A couple weeks ago, Casey got sick.  It was the heat.  Bunnies don’t withstand the heat well.  He had been out in the sun too long, and when he got into the shade, he was lethargic and unwell.  We both tended to him.  Claire waited for him to indicate what he wanted, but I knew that you had to force some things on him, so I placed the water dish directly under his mouth and prodded him to drink.  He responded, drinking more than I’ve ever seen him drink.

We were worried.  We had never seen him like this.  Not having kids, he had become an important part of our household.  We tried to feed him fresh carrots and cilantro, but for three days, he wasn’t interested.

On the Tuesday, I flew to Kansas to chase down my ancestors, which has been covered in this blog.

Tuesday night, Claire had a dream.  She was talking with her father, who had died two years ago.

“Armstrong,” Dad said.  “Armstrong, Armstrong, Armstrong.”

When she woke up, she knew what her father had meant.  When her Dad was on his deathbed, he had asked Claire something very important.  It seemed to be one of those moments of crystal clarity for him.

“Be strong for me,” he had said.

He knew she had to work at it.  She had lost so many people, her brother, her boyfriend, and her stepdaughter among them.

“I will,” Claire had said.

In the morning, when Claire came out to see Casey with a bowl of carrots and cilantro–three days’ worth had already been refused–it turned out that Casey had passed away during the night.  His small body was laid out on the balcony, still warm. I’m sure she gasped.

Claire promptly left a voicemail message for me in a shaky voice.

“Call me right away.”

When I heard it, I was hoping that my mother or sister hadn’t died.  But Casey was a part of our family, too.

“Can you put him in a plastic bag?” I asked.  “Can you call the city to pick him up?”

And that’s when she told me about the dream.  Yes, she would be strong.  She had promised her father that she would.  But I love her all the more because she wasn’t.