Monday, June 18, 2007

To Chai, Mother of Hansa

The birth of a baby is usually a cause for celebration. The birth of Hansa, an Asian elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo, was no exception. In November of 2000, when Hansa was born, I didn't have any children of my own. Even so, I avidly read the news of Chai's 22-month-long pregnancy, eagerly awaiting the baby elephant's arrival. When she was born, she was christened Hansa, which means "supreme happiness."

As soon as Hansa was strong enough to receive visitors, I went the zoo to meet her. I was shocked at how much love I saw communicated between mother and daughter elephant as Hansa slowly weaved in between Chai's legs, gazing up at her periodically for reassurance. "You're okay, little one," Chai's return gaze seemed to say, "Mama is right here." I snapped a picture and hung it proudly at work, as if she were part of my family.

It wasn't until a year later that I truly understood the love between a mother and her child. In November 2001, Eleanor was born three weeks early. She resembled a baby bird that had fallen from its nest: scrawny, skinny, and unable to nurse. Still, I was amazed, and a little terrified, at the intensity of my love for this little creature. Like all mothers, I vowed to protect her always, and to love her like life itself.

Last week, Tobin came home from work and asked me, "Did you hear the sad, sad news?" I hadn't. "Hansa died," he said, and the breath was taken out of my lungs. I held back tears. Asking "why," I thought immediately of Chai, and how she was feeling. Does she understand her baby is gone forever? Or did Hansa die in the veterinarian's area, away from the comforting gaze of her mother? Will Chai know Hansa's absence is permanent, or will she think Hansa was taken from her, and live her life in hope of someday reuniting? (In the days that followed, I read that Chai was with Hansa when she died, and that Hansa's body was removed only after Chai left it).

I know that Hansa was only an elephant. But still. There is something universal in the language of grief and loss, in the empathy from one mother to another.

For several days, I found it hard to believe that Hansa was gone. Elephants seem too strong, too large, too substantial to die. I thought, surely Hansa was too heavy, and the angel of death lost its grip trying to take her away.

I remembered Eleanor's growing understanding of death a few years ago, her confusion about the mechanics of life-after-death. "It's not all the way dead yet," she would say if she saw some dead thing (a mouse, a spider, a snail). "It looks all the way dead to me," I'd say, until one day I realized that she thought the entire creature would levitate up to heaven. "I still see its body, so it isn't yet dead," she reasoned to herself.

I get that. On this Earth, I will never understand how one minute a loved one is here, sipping tea with us, laughing at shared jokes, heart beating in rhythm with the universe. And then, blink, they are gone, leaving behind only memories and fading fragrances on clothing.

Reading the heart-breaking accounts of mothers who's babies have died, like Kate's baby Liam, and Lori's babies, Molly & Joseph, I sometimes wish we could invent a grief-sharing program, where mothers could sign up for 1/2 hour slots in which we'd shoulder the mother's grief, giving her a chance to breathe, to shower, to enjoy a chocolate chip, if only for the few minutes before the grief returned with its crushing weight. But I know that's not possible.

We visited the zoo two days after Hansa's death, but avoided the elephant exhibit even though it was open by that time. It felt wrong somehow--disrespectful of Chai. How does one express their sympathy to a mother elephant? Or to any mother who has suffered the loss of a child? "I'm sorry" just doesn't cut it. There is no healing incantation, no magic salve.

Still, I say to Chai, and to Kate, and to Lori, from one mother to another: I see you. I know you had a child, and your child is now gone. I will not forget.

I wish you peace.


Little Monkies said...

I would sign up to share that burden in a minute. What a wonderful thought...although I suspect it would be the most difficult thing I had ever done.

Beautiful post. Love you.

slouching mom said...

I think that grief-shouldering program sounds lovely. I wish it could be implemented. I'd so be there for my shift. I'd never be late. It would be the best thing I'd ever done or would do, I imagine.

bgirl said...

such a thoughtful post ally.

i too felt so sad when i heard the news of hansa. like you, hansa is a part of our family (ryder name his stuffed elephant after her) and each trip to the zoo involves seeing hansa and her mama.

grief-shouldering, show up as you are to receive some relief. love it ally.

Seattle Mamacita said...

it was so sad to hear that Hansa died especially since Griff always looks for her when we visit the elephant barn and I don't know what it will be like for him when i take him everyone has expressed a very thoughtful post ally

canape said...

That was quite perfectly written. Just beautiful.

And yes, it would be so good if we could actually take the grief if only for a minute.

jen said...

oh, what a gorgeous post. and what a gift, if only we could truly give it. but then again you did, just now.


Jenn said...

What a beautiful, beautiful post.

Poor Hansa; once a mom, always a mom--it's about the soul, not the body that we're in or how many legs we have.

Worker Mommy said...

What an exceptional idea (the grief sharing program). My heart aches for those that lose children. I've lost a parent and that was devastating - but somehow I imagine losing a child as a different, more difficult pain - after all we're not supposed to outlive our children.

Incredibly thoughtful post, Ally!

Bon said...

i too think the grief-shouldering program would be wonderful...and in some way, would make us all more human. or elephantine...whatever.


Emily said...

I, too, have just discovered you. Given that the first word my eldest child could spell was "zoo" and that my second's first word seems to be "quack quack," I obviously need to keep coming back.

Until I had children, I never understood what people meant when they said, "We are not meant to bury our children." Now, it is so clear.

Lori said...

Ally- I have just returned home today and caught up on your posts. This is so beautiful, and I am deeply touched that you would include me, and my babies, in this tribute. It really does bring some comfort to know they are remembered, and to be acknowledged as their mother.

I received an email from the zoo telling of Hansa's death. Like you, I felt so, so sad. Not long ago I wrote a post that talked about the grief displayed by elephants, and so I do believe very much that Chai is feeling this loss deeply. I know that the next time we visit the zoo, I will feel Hansa's absence. Sometimes absence is as palpable as presence.