Every spring the Cincinnati Zoo holds its Zoo Babies promotion. This year the star of the show was the first baby giraffe born at the zoo in 26 years. And through the wonder that is the Internet, the announcement of the birth was accompanied by a YouTube video of this tiny (6-foot!) replica of its parents entering the world.
I fell hard for this baby giraffe named Zuri, a Swahili word that means “beautiful.” I was at the zoo the first weekend she was allowed to run in the outdoor enclosure, Mother’s Day as it happened. Two weeks later she fell in her stall and broke her leg. For a month and a half we held our collective breath as zoo vets worked to heal the leg of this fragile equine creature. People lined up daily for a glimpse of Zuri and her mother Tessa. My great-nephew showed me his plush giraffe and got out his Fisher-Price doctor kit and wrapped a makeshift cast around its leg.
Zuri lost her fight on July 1st. The zoo posted the announcement on Facebook that evening and the outpouring of grief and support for the zoo community was immediate and ongoing through the Fourth of July weekend. And within the comments, again and again, people made the connection to loved ones they had lost: infants, children, parents. They talked about the difficult necessity of explaining death to toddlers, in some cases for the first time.
For me, Zuri’s death happened in the same week that one of my nieces was facing the imminent end of a 13-week pregnancy. So I was weeping for Zuri, but I was also–and mostly–weeping for this dying child in Melissa’s womb. We fall in love with life in spite of its terrible fragility. We almost can’t help ourselves. Baby animals and baby humans get beneath all the defenses we try to set up to protect ourselves from the messiness of emotions.
I commented in an email to a friend that in walking with my niece through this painful time, there are no words, only shared tears. He agreed, and went on to say this:
You are right, there are no words for it and there are no easy answers and any attempt to try and answer why would sound foolish and fall on unbelieving ears. At times like this there are only shared tears, the presence of those who love the person going through the difficult time, and trust in the God who promises us that we are never abandoned, particularly in our greatest moments of need. We can feel abandoned, but feelings can be false; faith reassures us that God stands at our side and weeps with us in these terrible moments of darkness. Faith also tells us God goes where we cannot and holds this little one in His divine embrace.
Zoo Babies coincides with Easter every year and it’s part of that springtime celebration of new life–the fluffy, pastel, rainbow-colored happiness we all want in our lives. Zuri’s death reminds us that resurrection follows a terrible and unknown darkness. But our faith reminds us that death doesn’t have the last word. That word belongs to our God, who is mysterious and unimaginable love.