It was time for bed.
Which means it was time for books.
Which means there would inevitably be twenty questions no matter what time it turned out to be.
And, mostly, these questions would be rhetorical:
“Do you know Koko is the first gorilla who could communicate with humans?
“I read about her in school. Do you know how she communicated? She used sign language. She also had a pet kitten.
“I'd like to visit her one day.”
His choice for this particular evening, however, was a photographic book on polar bears that he'd borrowed from the school library.
It was a beautiful, uplifting volume about a little bear named Knut, who was born in the Berlin Zoo. Each full-color page elicited the same exclamation: “Aww, how cuuuuute.” It was an involuntary response.
Knut's perfection was unreal, as if, instead of fur and flesh, this baby polar bear was made out of stuffing and fluff at a factory at the North Pole. Each picture cuter than the next.
But as I leafed through the pages, I also felt a chill.
For some reason, my father's voice popped into my head: “Do you remember when we took you to the National Zoo when you were little,” he'd asked. “I always felt bad about that,” he added with a laugh. “It was not a stellar moment in parenting because right after we went to the zoo we took you to the Museum of Natural History. All I could think about was how first we take you to see the live animals, and then we take you to see the same animals, only now they're stuffed.”
I'm not sure I made the same connection as a youngster staring into the glass-bead eyes of a lion while we strolled through the Hall of Mammals. But, more than 30 years later, it seems impossible for me not to follow this story to its likely conclusion.
So, as The Champ was brushing his teeth, I Googled Knut.
“Dif you glnow that (spits) polar bears' fur is hollow? Its fur isn't really white, either, it's transparent.”
“Mmmm hmmm,” I answer distractedly as I peruse Wikipedia for more information.
“I glerned awl alout (spits) Knut in school today. He didn't walk around or open his eyes until he was a few weeks old. His mom rejected him so he had to be raised by zoo keepers.”
“Sounds like a nut to me,” I tried to joke.
“Not funny, mom. It's pronounced CahNooot! And he could have DIED if it weren't for those zookeepers.”
And just as he said the "D" word, the passage I'd been dreading was there before me: 'In 2011, Knut died suddenly at the age of five, probably the result of an infection, as hundreds of visitors watched in horror.'
Of course, the book left that part out.
And, of course, my son cut right to the chase:
“So … if we go to Germany, will we be able to see Knut?”
“Well … I'm not sure,” I stammered.
But he didn't bother waiting for me to cobble together something warm and comforting. ...
“Not every story has a happy ending, does it?” he asked.
“It's true. Not every story ends happily. But most stories have a few really good chapters.
“And, hey, Koko's still alive. I checked. She's almost 44 years old.”
“But how long do gorilla's live?”
“Oh! Look at that … Dang internet is down.
“Remind me to look that up in the morning.”