Wide Awake: Happy Birthday, Ryan
How a trip to the zoo can change everything

Before I had kids, I once planned to take my four nephews on a Saturday trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. It was torture for me to walk away from my sister’s house with only three in tow, and one little boy with his teary face pressed against the window. Ryan had a fever and couldn’t go.

I promised him that when he was better, I would take him. So the next week, I took a vacation day from work and went to pick up Ryan, who was then 4 years old.

Since my first nephew-excursion to the zoo was just a few days earlier, I can’t say I was looking forward to my second visit. I didn’t have kids, so the zoo wasn’t on my list of hot spots. But as it turned out, this day with Ryan was one of my best days – ever.

Ryan was – and is – a man of few words. So on that day, we didn’t speak a lot, but we took in many, many sights that Ryan found fascinating. Zebras? Elephants? No way. I was stunned at how Ryan walked right past the animals, as if they weren’t even there.

Instead, we examined water fountains, rock formations, statues, all kinds of colorful pebbles, large grates and silver, circular drains. We slowly inched our way through the zoo, because every step brought us to a new discovery. We crouched down a lot. And often stayed still, looking at things no one else was watching.

When we left, I asked Ryan if he would like to ride on one of the horse-drawn carriages parked at the zoo’s gate. He looked like I had just asked him to ride a rocket to the moon.

We rode through Fairmount Park, and I watched Ryan’s chin bob to the rhythm of the horse, until he fell asleep.

A few years later, a nurse told me to think of something that made me happy. (You know when a nurse tells you that, what follows isn’t pleasant, but that’s a different story). The first thought that popped into my head was my day with Ryan, and I relived a time when the zoo had no animals.

My children have, of course, also shown me those simple joys of life. But Ryan was the first to show me. Because of him, I told my boss I wouldn’t be working that day, and I spent the afternoon sifting through gravel and riding in a carriage. As a young career woman in her twenties, I got a glimpse of what kids add to your life. I learned from a 4-year-old how great it is to step back and notice the smallest, simplest things.

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to keep with me, even though it is hard.

Ryan turned 23 on New Year’s Day. He is a lovely, dependable, young man. But now that day-trip to the zoo seems like a lifetime ago. I imagine that someday Ryan will have a similar experience with one of his children or a niece or nephew. And he will learn, like I did, that a day at the zoo can be so much more than animal-watching. He will see that someone little can change your whole perspective on life, and often they do. Ryan did that for me.  So I wish him the happiest of birthdays. I hope he has a simply wonderful day.

January 2012
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