Haunted by a death of a young one

By Dave Andrusko

Mei Xiang

You don’t have to live in the Washington, DC area to appreciate that the death of a giant Panda cub who was just six days old would cast a heavy pallor over a town that most of the time obsesses on the Washington Redskins football team and Capitol Hill doings. But if you do reside in DC, Virginia, or Maryland, you likely would nod your head in agreement with the insight of the Associated Press which wrote

“Four American zoos have pandas, and several cubs have been born in the U.S., but the bears at the National Zoo are treated like royalty. The zoo was given its first set of pandas in 1972 as a gift from China to commemorate President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country.”

It is truly amazing how closely Washingtonians keep track of the fate of baby pandas. Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, the National Zoo’s first panda couple, had five cubs in the 80s but all died in the few first few days.

When now-14-year-old Mei Xiang delivered Tai Shan in 2005, it is no exaggeration to say he became an instant celebrity. I know we dutifully brought our kids.

In the years since there had been five unsuccessful attempts to impregnate Mei Xiang, which is why her surprise delivery was such a delight, made more so by early signs the baby cub was healthy. The exact cause of death is unknown as of this morning, but reports are that the cub had liver abnormalities and fluid in its abdomen. (“The mortality rate for panda cubs in the wild is unknown, but in captivity, 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females die in their first year,” the AP reported.)

If the cub was apparently doing well, what alerted the staff? It was Mei Xiang’s “distress vocalization” that prompted keepers to check on the newborn. “She knew something was wrong,” wrote veteran Washington Post columnist John Kelley in a wonderfully touching column.

One woman told the AP, “It sounds like the mom is in mourning. Whether you’re a parent to an animal or a human being, it’s just so sad, the loss of a child,” she said.

You already know where this is headed, but it doesn’t change two of the many lessons that we can take away from the baby cub’s untimely and unfortunate death.

First, in his column Kelley writes about how during a walk through any old graveyard you will see the tombstones of many, many children who preceded their parents in death. Life was—and in many places of the world remains for children—very fragile. He concludes

“A panda is not a human. A cub is not a baby. There’s only so sad we should allow ourselves to be. But still, that’s pretty sad.

“The older I get, the more I’m struck by the pitiless coin that is human life. On one side is our amazing resilience. The body can take a lot before the soul leaves it. Just ask any emergency room doctor. On the other side is the equally true fact that life is amazingly fragile, able to be snuffed out as quickly as a candle in a draft.

“It’s that second quality that the loss of ‘our’ panda cub reminds me of. 

“Can you ‘love’ a panda cub you’ve never met? No, I don’t think you can, really.

“But there are plenty of people around you can love — you do love. Tell them that.”

Yes, life is fragile and fraught with danger. I was driving a few weeks ago and a young man was driving a small vehicle without lights of any sort. I never saw him until I drove by. I happened to be one lane over. Had I not been, I would have run him over and in all likelihood killed him. I shook for an hour.

Yes, tell those we love that we love them. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Second, the AP quotes from a Facebook commentator who observed of Mei Xiang

“So sad watching her! She seems quite distressed and seems like she keeps looking for her baby. Can’t figure out why they don’t bring him/her back.”

Another story writes of how Mei Xiang “slept while cradling a plastic toy in an apparent show of maternal instinct.”

There are often common themes among the heart-wrenching stories of women who deeply, mournfully regret their abortions. In a real sense they, too, keep looking for their babies and they can’t figure out why they can’t be brought back.

Kelley began his column

“Walk through any old graveyard and you’ll read a history of heartache engraved upon the tombstones. We all die, of course, but seeing a child’s name there is a reminder that some deaths hurt more than others.’

It is a tragedy almost beyond words when any child dies. I honestly cannot fathom how I would begin to respond to the death of one of my children.

But if one of them died by my choice, I would be haunted until the end of my days.

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