I was one of two adults in a behind-the-scenes class at the zoo, along with 25 fourth graders, including my son Jason. The other adult was the instructor, a zoo volunteer named Mrs. Swanson. We were in our fourth day of lessons, studying mammals, when all of a sudden, a veterinarian in a white coat burst into the room.
“Attention, everyone! Attention! Twiga is having a baby!”
Everyone in the room gasped, and then asked almost in unison: “Who’s Twiga?”
“Twiga is our female giraffe, and she’s about to deliver. If you want to see a miracle, come and watch!”
The vet rushed off. There was silence, then a burst of energetic fourth-grade babbling. Mrs. Swanson called for attention. Eventually, quiet reigned. “This is exciting, but we have a lesson to complete,” she said.
Groans, murmurs and a pronounced “Boo!”
“Mrs. Swanson, isn’t it time for a snack break?” I asked. As the children raced to the table, I approached Mrs. Swanson, and she seemed to know what I would ask. “We can’t let the children see a live birth,” she said when I reached her desk.
“Really? Why not?”
“Well, we don’t have signed parental permission.”
“Mrs. Swanson,” I said, “I will take full responsibility if any parent complains. You can’t deny them an opportunity of a lifetime because we don’t have a bureaucratic form.”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said, but the hesitation in her voice told me she was giving in.
Upfront Seats To A Birth
I gathered the kids and they followed me to the giraffe enclosure. Less than two feet from the fence was Twiga. While her belly was slightly swollen, there were no apparent signs that she was about to deliver a baby — until we saw a small black hoof appear from under her tail. Mrs. Swanson turned pale.
(MORE: Lessons We Learn From Loss)
“Did you see that?” one of the children asked.
“Oh, no, it’s going to fall on its head,” said another.
“Here it comes.” Then there was a gasp, as the newborn fell to the ground from its mother’s standing position with a PLOP!
There was a short-lived silence followed by “oohs” and “ahhs,” and then total quiet. Noses were pressed to the chainlink fence so hard that many of them probably had imprints on their skin for days.
Mother giraffe began licking her newborn. She then paused and delivered the placenta. I thought I heard Mrs. Swanson hyperventilating behind me.
Struggling to stand, the baby raised itself to three and a half legs, crashed, then started all over. After four tries, the children began to cheer as it managed to maintain its balance. Then it wobbled, stumbled and staggered over to the right place and began to nurse. The children fell totally silent, entranced.
I felt a tug on my hand. “Mom, mom, do giraffes have belly buttons?” Jason asked.
Well, I thought, there was an umbilical cord, so there must be a navel. What I said was, “Sweetie, I honestly don’t know.” He moved back to his friends, who by now were buzzing about something else.
A Shared Love of Giraffes
From then on, giraffes were a constant theme for the two of us. In 1973, when Jason was four, I ordered a computer-generated book after providing some basic information about my son. When the book arrived, it was called “NOSAJ, the Friendly Giraffe.” I must have read that book to Jason 100 times. He loved it — and couldn’t wait to get to the end when it revealed that NOSAJ was Jason spelled backwards.
NOSAJ was our private connecting word until the end of Jason's short life.
When he was an early teen, I took him for a visit to the Wild Animal Park north of San Diego. I learned that there was a special tour for the vast property that would let us see the animals up close and personal.
As the truck moved across the plain, the guide shouted, “Giraffes!” We whipped around to look behind us. There, racing toward us with saliva strings waving in the wind, was a family of three — mama, papa, and baby. The truck slowed to a stop.
Our guide came forward with a basket of carrots, handed one to Jason and said, “Put the end of it in your mouth.” Without blinking, Jason grabbed the carrot with his teeth. “Now, stick your neck over the edge of the railing." So Jason did. In a few moments, Papa giraffe boldly approached us, sauntered right up to Jason, paused for a once over glance, and — with my heart doing flip flops — chomped off three-quarters of the carrot. Jason’s grin stretched beyond his ears and wrapped around his head!
Jason seemed like a different person after that last giraffe adventure. My sense was that it gave him a new confidence so desperately needed in the difficult teenage years.
I lost Jason, my only child, 25 years ago this December 26.
I will always regret not answering his fourth-grader’s question that day at the zoo, about the ever-present reminder of what connects mother to child. If he were here, I would tell him: “Yes, Nosaj, giraffes have belly buttons.”
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