I went to a zoo today, for the first time without you.
It was difficult. It was meant to be a distraction – I walked around with my sisters and my sister’s grandchildren.
I could not help feeling so aware of your absence, because we have been around so many zoos together over the years.
I’m not sure whether we ever went together to Paignton Zoo, the one I went to today. If so it must have been a very long time ago, I couldn’t recall any particular memories with you there. But we’d been to London Zoo, Marwell Zoo, Port Lympne, the one where we did the overnight ‘safari’ experience. Longleat, Woburn Safari Park, Gatwick Zoo, Drusillas, the Owl and Monkey Sanctuary on the Isle of Wight. The bird sanctuary place on the M4 where we bought the cuddly vulture.
And zoos abroad – Berlin Zoo, where we saw Knut the baby polar bear which had become famous at the time (and which we were later sad to see had died). The Loro Park and Jungle Park in Tenerife, Palmitos Park on Gran Canaria (which later burnt down). A zoo on Majorca, a little zoo recently on Menorca. A tiny zoo in a big park in Varna, Bulgaria.
And of course Monkeyworld down near the New Forest, which you had become so familiar with after getting hooked on watching all the TV programmes. You knew so many of the characters – chimps and orangutans – by name, knew their history, and you so enjoyed actually seeing them for real.
Dear John, we stood so often watching monkeys play together, admiring zebras (discussing the various subspecies and whether they were ‘Chapman’s’ zebras). Enjoying more obscure animals, like coatis and anteaters.
And I mustn’t forget the Isle of Wight Zoo where we first saw Binturongs. Such strange animals whose humorous name somehow slipped into our vocabulary and was sometimes used as a password. (I think in hospital I said to you once – if there’s an afterlife and you’re still around, send me the word ‘Binturong’ as a message and I’ll know you’re there. If I keep coming across lots of Binturongs I’ll know it’s you!) (No Binturongs yet.)
I loved that you appreciated such things. We didn’t have children but still loved going to zoos together, both of us being generally interested in biology and natural history, and just enjoying watching animal behaviour, marvelling at watching other creatures exist and move about and interact.
So today, John, I tried to think of you being with me, held gently in my heart.
Someone told me I had to find a way to take you forward into the future with me, keep you alive in my memory.
I tried to keep you alive by imagining how you would react, what you might say in response to what I was seeing.
I showed you the flamingos (remembering how you would always joking refer to them as ‘flaming goes’). I pointed out the baby giraffe to you, I commented on the smell of the rhinos, I picked out the sloth in the nocturnal house, pointing him out as I would to a child.
Were you with me, John? Did you see him?
And then as the difficult day wore on, I thought to myself –
Well, that there were three of us – you, me and the world.
Sadly you are gone, but me and the world are still here.
If I died tomorrow, those animals I saw today would still exist, that zoo would still be there.
So the world goes on, and I’m going on, by default, as it were. So I can’t help it, I have to keep living and seeing and doing things on my own.
Just me and the world, without you.
I hope you’d understand John.
I try and think what you might say to me now, and surely, surely you would say – yes, of course, you must go on living and enjoying the world while you can, on behalf of both of us.
So I will, I suppose. But it’s little consolation, thinking how you would have enjoyed the baby monkeys. Thinking of the expression on your face as you watched gibbons swing through the trees.