Last week my husband and I took our youngest son, Zion, to the zoo. He had been begging us every day for months. And I kept finding excuses so I wouldn’t have to spend an entire day as a snack-carrying pack-mule walking around an overpriced animal penitentiary. It’s difficult for me to reconcile one of the world’s fastest hunting mammals being trapped in such a small run in the middle of Missouri, or to see the owl spread its wings only to run into the netting above, or to watch a family of baboons sit and eat iceberg lettuce from Costco while they gaze at the small openings in the chain-link fence. But when Zion cleaned his own room, made his bed for two weeks in a row, then told me he wished he had two sets of parents, his dad and I to love and snuggle him, and then a second set “just to take me to the zoo someday,” my heart nearly broke and I gave in.
We walked around holding hands all afternoon, laughing at baboon butts and marveling at how the penguins scoop through the water like hot spoons melting butter. At one point Zion tripped, skinning off a layer of pants fabric, and said, “Ugh . . . perfect,” as he got up. I laughed and made a note of his sarcasm to my husband, “This kid cracks me up. I wonder where he gets this stuff.”
Then I started to notice it a lot. He said it again when one of the zebras pooped as we were watching it (“Perfect.”), then as a little girl in front of us dropped her ice cream cone on the ground (“Perfect.”), and when he tried to use the exit door to enter the lion exhibit (“Ahh. Perfect.”) We went home that day conned into a season family pass to the animal jail with sore feet, hungry bellies, and a kid in the backseat who beamed so brightly at us with his chicklet teeth. It made it all worth it.
A few days later I was borrowing butter at the neighbor’s house when I walked out and slipped on a pile of acorns in their yard. As my ankle twisted and my body went down, I instinctively shouted out, “Perfect.” I caught myself and started to laugh. Of course, I thought. He got it from me. I’m the one Zion mirrors and mimics, the one he follows around as if we were tethered by an invisible string. I’m the one he’s listening to when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when the grocery store is sold out of the brand of peanut butter on my list, or when I drop a bowl of brownie batter in the kitchen and it sprays all over the floor. “Perfect.” The irony is, of course, none of these things is perfect. But now, thanks to me, Zion associates accidents, irritations, and odd mistakes with the word perfect.
I remember when I was small and spongey the way Zion is now. I can still see tiny me—a wispy girl with wrists as wide as silver dollars and blue eyes almost as big. My daintiness didn’t get in the way of my curiosity in those early years. I spent long, sweaty hours running barefoot on the copper earth of our village in Africa. I would chase chickens and the little monkey we had for a pet. I ate woody sugarcane stalks and peeked down the outhouse hole to see glowing worms wriggling in the underworld. I was curious and utterly receptive, looking up into my mom and dad’s eyes every day as they told me, “You are special and perfect, Little Bird. And do you know why?” And I would give back the answer they’d taught me through loving repetition, “Because God made me that way.” Perfect.
Even though I trusted my grown-ups, there was a day when I started to ask myself, “If God made me perfect, why do bad things happen to my body?”
I was five. It was the late eighties and our village that sat on the equator near Poko was in the wettest wet of the rainy season. My life of dirt-digging, of riding on the back of my dad’s motorcycle, of folding wet laundry with my mom to hang on the line, had been jerked to a halt by Malaria.
I remember laying on my waterbed, rolling on the mattress like ocean waves as I shivered because of the pain. I had been vomiting for days with a high fever, trying to crawl out of my skin, and feeling pain so deep in my belly it made me wish I could fall asleep and never wake up. I went in and out of darkness and light as my parents hovered and whispered. Have I told them? Am I talking out loud to them or just thinking the words? Am I going to die today? Is this what it feels like? Is this still perfect? Am I still perfect?
My mom sat on the floor, scanning me while she flipped through Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook. There was a photograph on the front of men in some jungle that looked like ours, wading through a deep river, carrying the body of a sick man on a bamboo stretcher.
My grandparents were afraid of sickness when my mom and dad told them we were moving to the middle of Africa. They worried about me and asked about medical care, but my mom and dad said God would take care of me, that God’s will was stronger than any outside force. In that moment, as the darkness burrowed into my body, I wasn’t sure about that anymore.
Mom ran her index finger down the table of contents, finding the chapter “Serious Illnesses That Need Special Medical Attention.”
“Meningitis, page 185, Malaria, page 186,” she mumbled, flipping to that page while I flipped in and out of darkness.
In one moment of light, I saw my body lurch up and down in the back seat of our old Landrover Defender, my head bobbing on my mom’s lap as my dad hit potholes as big as graves. Usually at that time of year you had to engage all of your muscles just to travel on these roads, but I had no muscles left. In the next flash I saw a hospital. I saw green-masked scrub-wearing doctors, a spinal tap, my mom’s face close to mine. I saw my first and last name on a medical chart with a few new labels given to me by the doctors: severe malaria, immunocompromised, fortunate to be alive. I saw days and nights that I lost track of, and then, eventually, I saw home again. I saw my body weaker and smaller than I had ever been. But my parents had added their own words to the medical records: Miracle.
It’s been over thirty years since that rainy season in Zaire. I’ve grown out of that tiny frame and into a body that has carried me through three more decades of life. I’ve seen the world, formed a career, made a home, said, “I do.” I’ve carried children inside of me and worn them outside of me. I am raising those children now, laughing when they pick up on my words and inappropriately used phrases.
But all these years later I can’t shake the reality that I am still—in some ways—trapped inside that small, ill, immunocompromised body. My immune system is still shot and has never fully recovered. It turns out that can happen when you get this disease as young as I did. So it’s led to a slew of others, to diseases and surgeries, to chronic pain, to frequent hospital trips for severe illness all through my childhood, high school, and college years, and even as recently as four weeks ago. I have almost no memories of being in a body that is not sick and in pain. Every time my disease gets out of hand again or I get another severe migraine or I ride, weak and shaky, to the emergency room because a virus has wrecked my body, I think, “Perfect.”
As in: “I was supposed to be at the home football game tonight to cheer on my kids in the high school marching band but now I’m sick. Perfect.” Or, “We had committed to host guests in our home this week and now I have a chronic migraine and can’t open my eyes or get out of bed for three days. Perfect.” Or, “I am so ill I just pooped the bed while throwing up into a bucket, but I’m too weak to get out of bed and ask my husband for help. Perfect.”
I keep thinking about how my parents used that word, how I use it, and how Zion has now caught onto the false advertising. I picture my mom and dad in the Congo and how they used that word to describe me and, now that I’m a parent myself, I can’t blame them. They were under the influence of one of the most powerful things out there—parental love.
I should know. The day I met Zion he was the size of a pigeon, had been born three months early, and had suffered catastrophic brain injuries. The first thing I said when the NICU nurse placed his frame in my arms was, “You’re perfect.” When I looked at him I didn’t see the grim prognosis given by the doctors or the machines attached to his body though cords and wires. I saw glory on display. I saw fighting, resilient light cutting through all that darkness, and I loved him as if my life depended on it. His brokenness didn’t get in the way of that big love. I couldn’t have loved him any more, even in perfect health.
Over the last eight years I have watched as my love has helped him thrive, made him strong, bolstered his resilience, and saved his life. I have watched as his love has done the exact same for me. And each time Zion rests his broken body on mine and tells me, “Love you, mama,” things are just as they should be. Perfect.