At the zoo several months ago, I put my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter in the carrier for the first time since her sister was born. The exhibit displayed most of the lizards and fish at an adult’s eye level, and I preferred the carrier to continually stooping and lifting her to see. Oh boy, I had missed it: the heat from her belly pressed against my back, her tiny hands fluttering against my shoulder blades, her breath in my hair. Over my shoulder, she could see everything I saw. I could reach back and grip her calves in the palms of my hands, feel their warmth, and the occasional kick against my body.
The best part of being pregnant with her was feeling her kick against my body. Even in the womb, she was always a calm and quiet child. I call her my Yogi. Some evenings, I would sink beneath the warm waters of a bath, put my hands on my stomach, and wait. Occasionally she’d surface, one foot sliding across my belly, like a dolphin arching for a moment above the flat glass of an ocean before disappearing again.
After she was born, I carried her everywhere. I’d put her on my chest at first, and let her sleep with her cheek pressed against my skin. When she got bigger, I’d sling her onto my back. After she weaned, carrying her was our most intimate time. Sometimes she would press one cheek up against my neck and fall asleep there, secure, her soft heartbeat almost palpable. I felt secure too, in the knowledge that I could carry and keep her there with me, safe, not to be swallowed by any dangers.
When I was pregnant the second time, I eventually got too big to wear my first child in her carrier. I couldn’t carry two children at once; my heart ached over this. Afterward, I’d have a new baby to carry, a sweetness that did not diminish the grief of losing that particular aspect of my relationship with my firstborn. But reality was that having another baby made my first a "big girl." Big girls don’t ride in carriers, anymore. I wasn’t ready to open my fist and let that go.
Once I’d secured her in piggyback position behind me, I leaned my head back to nuzzle her face against mine. I was glad, so glad, that I could still heft her weight. Even more, I was glad that she still wanted to ride.
We stopped for a long minute at the terrarium housing the chameleon. A rainbow of colors dappled this one, like it had been painted by Klimt, and it clung to the branch with two clawed thumbs. Only its eyes moved—each sheathed in the same scaly skin covering the rest of its body—swiveling in all directions, like a compass gone mad.
I read out loud the plaque beside the glass. It said that a chameleon’s eyes can move in independent directions, which felt creepy, and that while hunting, a chameleon could eye two potential targets at once. Its tongue, the plaque said, was longer than its body, rolled like a ribbon inside of its mouth.
"That’s crazy," I murmured to my daughter, "How can that be?" That was before noticing the live crickets in the terrarium. It was, apparently, lunchtime. My daughter and I waited, transfixed, watching the chameleon watch a cricket with its one eye. The chameleon must have been a foot away from its prey, motionless as death. Was it breathing? I couldn’t see, perhaps not. Then, slowly, a millimeter at a time, the creature’s jaws cracked open, wider, wider. Motionless, silent, we watched the chameleon watching the cricket. I think I held my breath.
All at once, the chameleon’s tongue shot out. I don’t mean the way you picture it in your mind, a cartoonish version of a lizard and its tongue flickering out like a snake. That tongue was a bullet. It was a missile. It was long and skinny as string, except the end, which was a flat, sticky paddle. The paddle struck the cricket, Smack! and the tongue flew back into the chameleon’s mouth, Snap! If I had blinked, I would have missed it.
I yelped and reeled backward several steps. I couldn’t help it. The whole time I had been expecting just exactly that—the long, sticky tongue, a cricket turned snack—but when the moment actually came, it came so suddenly, so dazzlingly fast. The cricket was there, and then it vanished, and the air rushed into the space it once filled.
Behind me, my daughter began to cry. I stammered to her, "It’s okay, love, I’m sorry."
My husband gave me a look. "Why did you react like that?" he asked. I couldn’t help it; I just reacted. I kept apologizing, but my hands were shaking. I was embarrassed about it, and tried to brush the moment off. I tried to breathe slowly and calm my daughter with an aquarium full of fish. But she kept crying and my own heartbeat did not go back to normal for several more minutes. My nerves felt frayed, like string that had been nearly cut through.
So we walked it off, until my back began to ache at the weight of my daughter. She is getting too old for this, too heavy for me to carry. The time is coming very soon when I will not be able to carry her anymore—and when she will not want me to.
In the weeks since we visited the zoo, my big girl has grown into other adventures. She shoves on her Ladybug Girl boots and clomps to the park without asking me to carry her part of the way. She tenderly arranges glass teacups and sings all the words of "Jingle Bells" after only hearing it once. And just like I do, she says "oh boy" and runs for a rag when her sister spits up. It seems like every parent of grown children on the planet has warned me that one day, God willing, my daughter will grow up for good and leave my house, air rushing into the space she once filled. Smack and snap goes the sound of a baby grown; something you expect but still don’t see coming.