All Through the Serengeti
Watching my son develop into a two-year-old has been like watching a time-lapse video of a tree growing from a seed. He started as a compact little bundle containing only the essentials for survival, just a purely physical pocket of existing. Organs were switched on and his little digestive system sputtered to life. His brain was raw and new and blinking in the bright sunlight. Flipping the switches, eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping, and all the time perceiving. Light, dark, loud, quiet, warm, cold, hungry, full, these hands, that smell, this skin. He was a sponge, thirstily absorbing, drinking sound, light, Mama’s milk, love.
At some point he started talking back. Something turned on, or he got strong enough, or he woke up, and he started to want things. He wanted to reach for my finger. He wanted to be upright. He didn’t want to be on his belly. Then he wanted to be near me, not because I could feed him, but because he knew me. He wanted the fan to spin, the music to play, the trucks to drive past the window. He wanted to hold the spoon and stir the vegetables as they hissed in the skillet. Dogs, wheels, taxicabs, buses, seals, pictures of himself, Father’s phone, his Llauma, his boots on, eat snow, hop, run, this way, I do it, snuggle Mama, bite Mama, chocolate milk? more chocolate milk, please?
Branches and branches with more little twigs sprouting off, with buds and leaves unfurling and stretching further and opening more, and the music that accompanies the time-lapse video swells and riots. What is it? What is that charge or droplet or gauzy ectoplasm that yearns and urges and creates, that is not content with merely existing but instead must actively celebrate and explore?
It was 14 degrees outside when James and I took the Grey to watch The Nutcracker. As the crowd filled the auditorium he wanted to explore, but once the show started he was happy to sit on Llauma’s lap, lean back so that her chin rested on his head, and fixate solemnly on the stage. What he thought of the origin of the unfortunate Nutcracker is hard to say, but when a tall, spindly giraffe wandered on I imagined he would be in ecstasy. I looked over at him. His expression was unchanged, impassive. Maybe he was frightened or overwhelmed. It would be completely justified if he were: the loud music, excited crowd, bright lights and costumes and sometimes frantic movement onstage are too much for some weathered adults, let alone for a toddler with only two years under his belt. Still, I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t thrilled by the giraffe.
After the show we took him up to the stage to look at the sets and say hello to AntiJen. It was the first time I have seen someone’s jaw literally hang open. We stayed until nearly everyone else had gone, exploring backstage, seeing the train up close, watching Uncle Curt work his Drosselmeierish magic. When we finally got home it was an hour past the Grey’s bedtime.
“Big g’raffe out there?” he asked, pointing out the window in the direction of the theater.
“Oh, did you like that giraffe?” I asked.
“The big giraffe is going to sleep now. Would you like to hold your big giraffe?” He nodded, picked up the larger of his two plastic giraffe toys and hugged it to his chest. He held it while we brushed his teeth, straightened his blankets and pillow and turned off the light. He held it while I held him, head in the crook of my elbow, back supported by my arms like a baby’s, long legs sticking out and dangling down like a giraffe’s.
“Which song do you want to sing?” I asked. “Bus song?” His favorite song for the last month or two has been “The Wheels on the Bus,” which goes like this: The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round; the wheels on the bus go round and round, all through the town. The wipers on the bus go swish swish swish… He clutches his yellow schoolbus and sings along with us around his pacifier.
“Giraffe song?” I was at a loss, but James easily launched into a giraffe version of “The Wheels on the Bus.”
“The hooves on the giraffe go clop clop clop…”
I joined in. “…clop clop clop, clop clop clop, the hooves on the giraffe go clop clop clop…”
We finished together: “…all through the Serengeti!”
The Grey listened through several verses of the Giraffe Song, then accepted kisses from both of us and lay down, still embracing his plastic giraffe. I am sure that he slept with the full strength of his attention and his expanding imagination focused on those gangly creatures he knows only through pictures and videos. Two years ago he could not have imagined a giraffe, and I know he spent last night riding one through the Serengeti.