Saturday morning the boys woke up early, their voices carrying down the hall before the sun was up. The sky was overcast and pale with the milky light of pre-dawn, and I nosed in next to T, smelling the fragrance of his skin where his clavicle meets his shoulder, and burrowed farther under the covers. But soon they were at our door, two eager faces, one with a jack-o-lantern grin of missing teeth, the other a pacifier still in his mouth, in spite of the fact that he is almost four.
“We’re going to the zoo today!” they announced, as if we might have forgotten.
We’d planned the trip for a week. A two hour drive north across the boarder to the Granby Zoo, and somehow, suddenly, it was Saturday, and they were ready to pounce, impatient, grinning, gregarious. T got up first, and while he showered, they tucked in under the covers with me—and we whispered about what we were looking forward to seeing the most. Me: the hippos. Sprout, was hoping for lions. Bean said, “possibly giraffes.”
It’s not something I ever did as a child—curling up with my parents in bed. The closest thing to it was curling up with my dad on the wide arm of his big brown La-Z-Boy.
But it’s something that feels completely intuitive and animal, to nose in next to each other, all warm and soft and still only half-here and half in the fantastical blurry almost-nowhere place of dreams. And it’s something I love, maybe it’s the thing I love the most about being a mother: this dozy time with them under the covers next to me, when they’re still in their pajamas, their hair all mussed and sweet smelling.
Sprout always tucks his hand into the nook of my neck, and Bean often ends up, propped on an elbow, telling me about something or other with a still-dreamy, faraway look on his face.
The porcupines know what this is like: to doze together, and to dream. The hippos too, know how it matters to be near in rest, as they spend their time underwater breathing only occasionally, first one, and then the other; taking long slow breaths before drawing their heads back under the surface to doze, one upon the other’s haunches, lulled by the lapping blue water of dreams.
This is what being a mother teaches me again and again. That we are animal first, then human. with spirits bigger than our skin and breath and bones, this truth humbles me again and again.
As the shower thrums, we hear T start to sing, “Oh we’re going to the zooooo…” and we burst into simultaneous giggles, and then join in, singing all together a slapstick, made-up song. Then there were socks, and jeans, and cinnamon rolls bought from one of our favorite bakeries the night before, and coffee, and then more coffee in to-go mugs, and a box of snacks, and hats and rain gear and then we were off.
And if I can pass along anything about going to the zoo with young kids it would be this: go at the end of the summer season. Go in the autumn on a somewhat rainy day. Go with snacks, and warm clothes and zero expectations, except to be amazed.
We had the zoo to ourselves, almost. We rode the monorail, and saw every single animal in the zoo, and had all the time in the world to feed the nectar drinking parrots, and pet the sting rays, and watch the tigers get fed, and stand in baffled delight as the elephant made a bee-line for us and then picked up a trunk full of dirt and hurled it directly at us, flapping her huge ears, before trundling off.
We had enough time to eat lunch, and let the boys run everywhere they wanted to run, and then ride, side by side in an extra-wide push-cart. And because it was the end of the season, the carnival rides were all closed, save for the bumper cars, which were free, and Sprout’s face was worth a million bucks when he figured out that he could press down the accelerator pedal and actually drive.
And the truth of it all is that I’m not sure about zoos. I’m not sure about the way it feels to stand there, watching on one side of the glass, while the small world that exists on the other is terribly finite. But I also know, that these creatures are the captive evidence of some far greater, wild—and also dwindling–proof: the world is rife with such extravagant, vital, irrational beauty.
That there are hippos, big and unwieldy, with nearly waterproof hides, and self-sealing nostrils. That “jackalopes” exist at all. That porcupines sleep, despite their quills, one piled atop the next, breathing in synch, sharing porcupine dreams. That giraffes must stoop, legs spread like precarious A-frames to eat the tender grass. That the primates are so like us, eyebrows moving up and down in curiosity or disapproval as they watch us watch them from beyond the wire mesh or glass. And that intolerance is something that is exclusively and terribly human—borne of some feverish desire to draw lines, to exclude, to possess.
But before that, beyond that, we are animal first. And if going to the zoo can anything beyond simply standing in wonderment, I hope that it is this. A reminder of our place among the creates of this earth, and that our work, as brave and tender and terrible humans, is to love, to care for, and to dream.