During my junior year in college, I resided in The Village, a duplex-style dormitory reserved for upperclassmen. An RA wasn’t on high alert to knock on a door for loud music or for the burning of incense. A parking lot was just yards away, so unloading groceries was a cinch. Collegiate neighbors, with their beer cans partially hidden in between their sides and their chairs, could sit around a bonfire only a few feet from their front doors. Each dorm room resembled a studio and was comprised of a living/sleeping area with two beds, a full bathroom, and a small kitchen. My roommate often stayed at her boyfriend’s, so except on the rare occasions when she stopped by to inventory her clean clothes, I was in possession of the entire studio to myself.
Unlike my high school years that saw me fully engaged in many extracurricular activities, I preferred to keep to myself during my college days. I enjoyed being away from home; oddly, though, I did not partake in bonfires or parties with my neighbors. It wasn’t because I was not invited — it was because I enjoyed my home away from home that offered quiet and an abundance of air to breathe freely. I enjoyed staying inside to read or cook. I enjoyed tidying up my living quarter and rearranging the Kim Anderson posters on my walls, and refreshing the potpourri bowl in the bathroom. I also enjoyed musing the idea of being a homemaker. A couple of times I simmered orange peels in a pot on the stove. I eventually gave up on this attempt at a natural air freshener as I never could discern any scent from the simmering rings of citrus.
As groups of fellow students outside my duplex horsed around — delivering flirtatious lines, crude comebacks, and jokes about their professors — I sat in bed with the pink and blue flower comforter set from my preteen years and watched TV. At my mother’s house in a nearby city, we did not have cable, so while I was away at school, I hungrily surfed the channels: MTV, HSN (those hosts fascinated me with their ability to talk about either a hairbrush or running shoes for a full 20 minutes); infomercials with Sally Struthers for Save The Children (one night I made the call to become a donor but quit in the process because it turned out to be too complicated); and a police drama called Silk Stalkings, in which both leading detectives were best friends. One late night, when the raucous outside reached a climax, maybe around one- or two o’clock in the morning, I set down the remote control after having landed on Animal Planet.
Similar to most nature and animal shows, this program that covered a family of chimpanzees was narrated by a man who offered insight into what the animals were thinking and why they were behaving a certain way. I can’t recall the adolescent boy chimp’s name, but maybe it was Joe? Joe was the center of this chimpanzee family (and program), and he was a handful! He was the youngest of maybe four children, some old enough that maybe they possessed their own nucleus families. With the narrator’s guidance, I saw that Joe’s older brothers and sisters were exasperated with him. He snatched food from them. He poked them when they were sleeping. When one of them would run out of patience and try to fight him off or chase after him, he would bee-line for his soft-spoken mom. (I can’t remember her name, either. Maybe it was Ann?) Ann would open her arms to receive her youngest, who would cling onto her with his short arms as he turned his head and gloated at his frustrated and perturbed brother or sister.
The program followed this primate family as it travelled through the dense forest in a quest for a new home and food. The narrator explained the climate of the forest, how the chimps built their beds, and other day-to-day activities that included rest and back scratches. Throughout the journey, Joe exploded with bursts of light and energy, and he was relentless in his antics to pick fights with his brothers and sisters and then run to the safety of his mom. As always, Ann protected him, gripping his torso with her thick black fingers and shielding him with her body when one of her other children attempted to smack him. She never yelled at her other offsprings, only guarded her spoiled youngest son. One day, though, Ann didn’t protect Joe and, instead, rested herself against a tree.
Ann wouldn’t budge from that large tree. The narrator pointed out that her breathing was slowing down and that her glazed eyes seemed faraway. At her children’s urging, including Joe’s, she gave herself a couple of pushes from the tree but then fell back against it. Joe pulled on her arms and hit her head. She continued to look dazed. On the next day, it was apparent that Ann was ill. Her older children pushed her to stand while Joe climbed the tree that she was resting against. As Ann remained immobile, her bloated belly accentuating her tired body, Joe sat in the tree. He stayed there even when his siblings ordered him to come down for the food that they had managed to find and brought to him and their mother.
On day three, the older children prodded Ann without receiving any responses in return. No flutter of the eyelids. No limp jerk of the hand. No puff of the breath. Ann had passed away. While Joe remained in the branch overhead, they circled her body. The narrator said that they were trying to make sense of their mother’s death. Finally, after a while, they accepted that she was gone. They called out to their baby brother, their mother’s apparent favorite child, to climb down the tree. They couldn’t stay at that location; they needed to move on to search for their new home. Joe briefly averted his eyes down at them in a show of understanding, before looking back out into the distance. They called out to him. Then, they pounded the ground with their fists. Their angry demand did not daunt or deter Joe. He remained in the crook of the tree limb that hung over his mother’s still body.
On day four, Ann’s older children made up their minds. They must resume their journey, leaving behind their stubborn, trouble-making, spoiled youngest brother. The camera zoomed out to show the vast forest, the siblings trekking away in a solemn single file, Joe’s small form slumped on the branch, and Ann’s perishing body sitting against the trunk of the old tall tree. The narrator shared that Joe never did again come down from that tree, where he remained until he, too, died.
I remember that when I finally turned off the television it was quiet outside my room. Everyone had gone home. I wasn’t able to sleep, shaken by and contemplating Joe’s sad death. Whenever Danith tells me a story about an animal, I like to retell him mine about Joe and Ann. I had always been aware of an animal’s capacity for love for his mother, but it wasn’t until in the last few years that my eyes opened wider, allowing me to see without a narrator’s help. The beauty of love between a child and its parent is more than ducklings waddling after their mothers across the road or calves snuggling up to their mothers in search of milk. The beauty lies in the connection that transcends the physical touch.