“I’d like to see the tiger before—“
His voice trailed off.
We sat in the zoo café, staring at the figure before us: large eyes, thinning cheekbones, pale muslin hat with long flaps like the blinders on a warhorse.
No one finished his sentence. He could have meant “before I go.” We all heard, “before I die.”
I jumped up, racing blindly out into the thick stream of bodies at the San Diego Zoo, searching for a golf cart-like vehicle I had seen carrying VIP’s around the park. I found one. “Someone needs to see the tiger and he can’t walk all the way up there. Can you take us? I’ll pay you anything.”
“Do you have a reservation?”
“We’re not supposed to.”
“He has cancer….”
The driver’s face showed no emotion. “Just a minute”. She called on her walkie-talkie. Could my tearful request be so common that it touched nothing within her?
“Ok,” she said into the phone with no expression. To me she said, “Hurry up. I don’t have much time.”
“Neither does he,” I said, my voice cracking.
I ran back to the café, “Bring your coffee, everybody. We have a ride to the tiger!” David moved slower than the rest of us, the flaps on his hat swaying in the warm breeze. He climbed into the back of the vehicle, his long legs folding like a praying mantis.
Our driver didn’t look at him, but she drove with a sense of a woman on a mission. No one spoke as we flew down twisting back alleyways closed to the public. There was something quite magical about it that I knew was not lost on David. We got to see the zoo backstage: a baby giraffe on wobbly legs still hiding in the tall barn, odd goat like creatures getting a pedicure, the baby panda on her way to a nap, and, as we rounded the bend, the back entrance to the Bengal Tiger Exhibit.
She was larger than any of us imagined, a magnificent head, and a body like a mountain range at sunset. She rested on a ledge in the shade, looking right at us as if she had been waiting all day for David.
He got out slowly, camera tucked in his hand, his eyes misting as he walked toward her.
Our stoic driver slid her hand off the steering wheel, and we all watched David’s languid stride until he stood at the fence, looking in; the tiger looking out.
A stillness settled in the air.
I wanted to call out to David, “Don’t move!” Once he lifted his camera, he would take pictures; the tiger would move off the ledge. David would go home to chemo and all that lay beyond.
Don’t move. Stay there, looking at the tiger, the tiger looking at you….
The late afternoon light shifted, the tiger’s face illuminated, her golden eyes unblinking. Her spine lengthened as if to say to David, “Here I am, in all my magnificence: a gift to you.”
David’s body suddenly became animated with the energy of his youth, the camera an extension of the wild creative spirit that he shared with this animal.
As if she knew all of this, the tiger did not jump off the ledge. Perhaps she was a matriarch, in the later stages of her life. Perhaps she felt a kinship with this man in the funny hat, whose life was also waning. She stayed on the ledge, her head shifting slightly as David knelt and leaned sideways and forward – stopping short of standing on his head – to get just the right angle.
I never saw his pictures. Months passed, and it has been two years now since he has been gone. I know the photos are safely in his digital library, but no one can quite look at them. Not yet. And how we grieve, for when love is so fundamental, its absence is simply not to be believed.
I wonder if the Bengal tiger is still on her ledge, her golden eyes shifting in the late afternoon sun, searching, as we all are, for David to walk around the corner, lift his camera, and capture us all.
Beautiful and vivid, Elizabeth. A touching tribute and living memory of a moment filled with sadness and aliveness. Thank you.