We used to do that rather regular thing of going around the table on Thanksgiving so that each person could answer The Question. “What are you grateful for?” we’d ask the next person after the one before had remarked on health, family, love. But then that whole holiday routine got blown up the first year John and Vicky were married when her answer was an impish “I’m thankful for that puppy John is going to buy me.”
I still ask myself the question—I think it has become a coping strategy.
Last week, Mom, Dad, Dave, and I went to the Nashville Zoo. I was thankful for wheelchairs that day. Oh, we didn’t have any wheelchairs, but I was thankful that there were such things because we will need them someday soon. We could have used a couple at the zoo.
Dad got four complimentary tickets to the zoo from one of the college-age daughters next door. Saleh and Zienab Al-Akashi have six children including Jinan and Noura, both pre-med students at Lipscomb University and part-time employees of the Nashville Zoo. The four children that follow the future physicians are Naba, Abbas, Mohammad, and Zahra and they range from twelve years down to four. Saleh works two jobs and is finishing classes for a technical degree; Zienab transports children, runs a household, and mows the yard.
Dad made friends with Saleh last year when we all first moved in here on the ravine. He knows when Saleh arrives home between jobs—that’s when they meet in the driveway. Dad asked Saleh if he could weed-eat for him. It wasn’t long before Dad got permission to mow for Zienab. I hear that Dad will plant a flower garden for Zienab this spring, too, with Saleh’s agreement.
“You are so nice to us, Mr. Blair. What can we do for you?” Saleh asked.
“Saleh,” Dad told him, “You and your wife are working so hard raising this family, it’s just a privilege for you to let me help.”
One day Saleh brought the four tickets to the zoo. “You said you wanted to go to the zoo?”
That evening, Dad said, “Saleh gave me four tickets to the zoo. Well, actually, he didn’t give them to me, his daughters did. They work at the zoo, you know. When the weather gets nice again, we can go to the zoo. That’s the only thing I wanted to do in Nashville.”
The dark blue macaws are just to the right past the entrance.
“Look, Honey,” Mom said. “Blue macaws. Can you see them?”
“No, not very well. I’m cold. It’s cold out here.”
“You should have worn a heavier coat,” Mom said.
“Well, I know that now,” he answered.
“Dad, put Dave’s jacket on,” I said. “We put it in Mom’s basket.”
Mom rolled up beside me with Dolly, her Rollator walker. “Well, this is going to be fun. He can’t hear and he can’t see.”
“Well, aren’t you glad you have Dolly?” I asked. “This is the whole reason we needed that Rollator.”
“It does nothing for the pain,” she answered.
Uh-oh… her legs… pain…this IS going to be fun.
We passed the red-crowned crane (he couldn’t see that, either) and inched our way up the hill toward the carousel and “Lorikeet Landing,” where the colorful ‘keets light on shoulders and heads and hands in a mesh enclosure. No strollers. I guess that means Rollators, too. Mom and Dad sat on a bench. Mom sighed and blew.
“How much further to the giraffes?” she asked. “They’re my favorites.”
“Well—me, too. There’s a lot of walking here,” I answered. “Dave, did you happen to pick up a map?”
No, he didn’t.
“It’s around this loop here,” I said. The sign said “African Savannah.”
There were no Red River Hogs in the hog pen, and we cut off the loop at the first viewing station for the elephants huddled in the far corner of their field.
“Dad, look way out there. They’re in that far right corner of the field,” I said.
“I can’t see them. They’re too far away. Oh, wait, are they moving? I think I can see them moving.”
“Let’s stop here for a minute,” I said, pointing toward fifty wooden tables in a big field. Festival Area. I thought about the time we brought grandchildren to the Halloween celebration; games and activity tents had covered the field.
“I knew there would be a lot of walking,” Dad said as he propped himself on a big rock in the curve of the path, “but I didn’t know there’d be this much.”
“Let’s head back this way.” I pointed back toward the entrance. We had rested plenty but Dad was staggering a bit, even with his cane, and Mom was moving slower and leaning hard on Dolly.
“We almost need wheelchairs to get around this place,” Dave said. “I brought Mom out here the last time she came to Nashville and I pushed her in a wheelchair.”
“Remember when you pushed me all around the Memphis Zoo in a wheelchair?” Mom asked.
“Yes, I do.” Mom and I both started to laugh. We pushed and pulled that wheelchair over cobblestone, onto little trains, up dirt hills. That was over seven years ago, before she walked with a cane, before Dolly was a fleeting thought, before Mom lost fifty pounds. At the end of that day, Mom was doing fine. I needed a heat pad and ibuprofen at the hotel. But, we did see the visiting Giant Pandas!
“Your daddy would never ride in a wheelchair—he wouldn’t even use this walker,” she said.
“Well, we have two wheelchairs at home,” Dave said, “and when we need them, we’re going to use them.”
“We’ve got that motorized chair, too,” Dad said, “and we ought to get that thing running.”
We all sat down at the picnic tables near the gibbons. Dad finally saw one of the white ones.
“Hey, Boy, come on over here,” he hollered, waving his cane in the air.
“Dad, stop hollering,” I said.
“Well, I want to see him up closer. Where are the monkeys?”
“Dad, there are no monkeys here.”
“No monkeys? What kind of a zoo doesn’t have monkeys? No apes?”
“No, the closest thing to a monkey you’re going to see are these gibbons.”
“What are they?” he asked.
“Gibbons. You heard her, they’re gibbons,” Mom said. She shot him a look.
“Well, nothing is close enough for me to look at,” Dad said.
We tried to explain about natural habitats and current trends in keeping wild animals.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s go look at the meerkats.”
Mom counted the meerkats. Dad leaned on the clear enclosure and dropped his cane over the side to circle the head of one of the colony’s sentries.
“Ernie, quit that,” Dave said. “Don’t do that.”
“I’m not bothering him,” Dad said. But he withdrew his cane.
“Now I like those,” he said.
We passed the big stork.
“So that’s what a stork looks like,” Mom said. (Dad couldn’t see it.)
I saw the tables in front of the snack bar near Unseen New World where the snakes and amphibians live, and knew this would be our ending point for the day. We would not make the Jungle Loop with the lemurs and cougars and leopards and ostrich. Even if we did have wheelchairs, we wouldn’t make it. We were all tired.
“Dad, let’s rest here,” I said.
“I think I have to quit here,” he answered. I was glad he said it.
“Well,” Dave said, “I am going around this loop here to see the tigers. It’s what I came for and I’m going to see the tigers.”
“Okay, we’ll just wait for you here,” I said.
“Now, why would she come to the zoo with that little kid?” Dad pointed to a young mother pushing a stroller.
“Why wouldn’t she?” I asked. “It’s a great place.”
“Yeah, but what does she get out of it and what does that little kid get?”
“Well, it’s a safe place to be, quiet, no cars to dodge, and you know, here are these animals that she’s shown the baby in his picture books.”
“I can see where it’s safe. Nobody would threaten her and her child here,” he answered.
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that kind of ‘safe,’” I said. “I was just thinking that you can be on the walking trails and no cars…”
“Look,” Mom said, “Flamingoes.” She pointed to the sign for the Flamingo Lagoon.
“You want to go down there?” I asked. “I think it’s just right there around the corner past the petting zoo.”
“Yes. I want to see the flamingoes.”
“Dad, you stay right here. Don’t you go anywhere. You stay right here,” I said.
“Where are you going?” he asked Mom.
“We’re going to see the flamingoes,” she called over her shoulder.
“Ohhhhhhhhh, they’re beautiful,” she said, “and so many of them.”
We stopped by the petting zoo on the way back to Dad.
“Llamas, goats, donkeys…oh look, there’s a camel!” Mom said.
We turned on the path to see that Dad had found a friend. A young man and two children, a girl maybe eight and a boy about ten, were saying their goodbyes.
“Mr. Blair, it was very nice visiting with you.”
“Who was that?” the girl asked as they walked away.
“He’s my new friend, Mr. Blair,” the dad answered.
“We were having a philosophical discussion,” Dad explained as we neared the tables. “We were talking about why people come to the zoo. He’s a writer. He’s from Los Angeles. He came to the zoo to get ideas for his stories.”
“Hm,” Mom answered. (We’ve come to recognize “Hm” as the signal that Mom is bored.)
“And he left his cell phone at home,” Dad said. “He doesn’t like to be interrupted when he’s getting ideas.”
“Hm,” Mom answered. “He’d talk to a fencepost,” she said in my direction.
Dad was oblivious; he probably didn’t hear her. “And he thinks it’s a big intrusion to use your cell phone in a nature place like this,” he added.
“So did you see the tigers?” I asked as Dave walked up.
“Yep. Two of them. And the lynx, too.”
“Then I think we’re ready to go,” I said.
“How far is it back to the entrance?” Mom asked.
“It’s not as far as we’ve come,” I answered.
“Next time we come, we need some wheelchairs,” Dave said.
“Well, we’ve got wheelchairs,” I answered, “but I’m not sure I could push one around this whole zoo.”
“We need to get that motorized chair working,” Dad said.
“Well, I’m not sure that motorized chair would be good around here,” Dave said.
“Too many hills?” Dad asked.
“Yeah. We need wheelchairs or maybe a golf cart. I don’t think they allow golf carts, though.”
“Where did we get the wheelchairs?” Mom asked.
“Fannie Tietze,” I answered. “Remember her? Sweet, sweet, elegant woman. She died last month and wanted people at church to have her things. No one wanted a wheelchair so I said I’d take one and then the son told me that I should take both of them.”
“They’re in perfect condition,” Dave said. “I haven’t figured out how to fold that smaller one. You need to help me with that.”
What am I thankful for? I am thankful for family, health, and love, those very “regular” things that everyone answers in response to that “regular” question.
I am thankful for family, especially the family of four that we’ve put together here on the ravine, and that we are all happy. I am thankful that there are children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren close by. I am thankful for that puppy that John bought Vicky, the little Shih Tzu who is now ten years old, as well as the other dogs, cats, and foxes that have come into our family lives.
I am thankful for health—Mom and Dad’s health at eighty years old. I am happy that their health allows them to make trips to the zoo, to the grocery store, to church. I am grateful that Mom’s health allows her to care for their apartment and that Dad’s allows him to garden for himself, us, and the Al-Akashis.
I am thankful for love—the love of a good man, the love of parents, children, and grandchildren, the love of neighbors, and the love of friends—old and new, living here or watching over us from the other world.
I am grateful for wheelchairs.