It seems I have developed a bit of a tradition spending my birthday around wild animals. One year of my late 20’s we went to the rescue zoo in Austin with friends. On my 30th birthday Tim took the day off of work, and told me to decide whatever it was I wanted to do. I suggested we venture out to the drive-through safari near San Antonio, although I pouted a little internally that he hadn’t come up with any plans of his own for my birthday. I didn’t know it then, but he was working so hard to keep his world right side up that he couldn’t manage any grand, creative gestures. Being with me was all he could do, and as I look back – that was more than enough. We giggled at African deer licking grain out of my hand, and pet baby goats. It was a good day. A good memory.
The day before my 31st birthday, my friend and I went to the Aquarium of the Americas in Atlanta to see the whale sharks. Her husband recently left her before the trip, and I was facing my first holiday season as a widow. I felt a lot of things that day, but a sense of celebration wasn’t one of them. We put on a brave face for each other, and walked through that cool, dark aquarium. When we walked around to the main viewing area for the whale sharks, rows of black benches looking up to a roughly three story wall of glass, we sat for a long time and watched the tank. Smaller sea life consisting of fish, rays, sharks and turtles cruised around the tank in small clusters. The whale sharks swam impossibly slow, their tails swaying through the water like a large oak tree being blown by the wind.
We watched the tank in silence. Neither one of us gave a shit that I was turning 31 the next day. Another year seemed like a burden then, not a gift.
This year for my 32nd birthday, again I made plans with my friend to spend my birthday with animals. We agreed to meet in the morning and head to the North Carolina Zoo, a place I haven’t visited in about eight years or so – the last time I went with Tim.
The day started with an amazing surprise my friend made for me. I opened the door to sit down, and saw gold decorations everywhere.
“It’s a car party!” she giggled as I squealed in delight with all the decorations. It was perfect for so many reasons, especially with the miniature pinata llama she made herself. As I giggled and went through my birthday stocking of trinkets that morning, I knew one thing for sure – a year after the aquarium and we were able to create joy again.
The previous year, we drove around together tentative about our future. It seemed logical we would date and eventually care about someone else again, but the concept was inconceivable. We talked about the future as if we were going through the motions.
“Do you think about the kind of person you want to end up with one day?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she responded.
“I want someone tall. Who doesn’t do drugs.”
“I want someone who has a career. Also, tall.”
It seemed “tall” and “functional adult” were our only requirements in late December 2015. This year though, moving forward wasn’t something intangible in the distant future – we were living it.
“I mean he made me laugh and I certainly had fun with him, but it seems like he has a long way to go to figure out who he is.”
“Yeah, but he was tall at least.”
“So tall. Seems like that’s not enough though.”
It’s not enough, and of course life isn’t something you can determine by making a checklist of what you want to make out of it. My friend and I walked through the zoo, looking at the animal exhibits that remained mostly unchanged since we were little kids. I snapped pictures with my camera, and remembered random factoids about zebras and polar bears that I’ve collected over the years. I didn’t share them with her, because they didn’t seem to matter. The only thing I knew about the particular polar bear was that he was making us smile as he did back-flips into the chilly aqua water by the concrete cave viewing area. His individual quirks, personality and polar bear dreams were all a mystery to me. They weren’t mine to know.
Animals are too easy to personify, but I do it anyway. The river otter was running around his enclosure collecting leaves to build a nest in the hollowed out log where the other otter was sleeping. They could be brothers that hate each other for all I knew, but I giggled and told my friend he was making a bed for his wife while I waited for a text that did not come.
We weren’t sad in the zoo, but we weren’t totally free either. Trauma is a being like a shadow – you’re never going to shake it. We talked about our husbands, but it wasn’t the slow and calculated tone I take when I’m trying to get something said without weeping. I thought about Tim when I saw the elephants and the monkeys, and I wished he was walking around with us but I thought these things around taking pictures for my Tinder profile and talking with my friend about boys. It’s a polarity I’m slowly getting used to.
The whale sharks we watched last year were always swimming towards something. The zoo animals in North Carolina interacted with their fellow creatures and watched the world beyond their enclosure. I can’t pin point exactly why I love animals, but one of the reasons is that when I see them I feel simultaneously calmed and thrilled. It’s soothing to see the knobby, long legs of a giraffe stretch out as it walks over a grass field. Even behind the safety of a fence, it’s a little terrifying to look into the sharp eyes of a predator five times your size.
It’s kind of like turning another year older right now in my life. Slightly scary, filled with beauty, kind of foreign and delightfully wild.