Remembering a panda cub we barely knew

John Kelly
Columnist September 23, 2012

by John Kelly

Walk through any old graveyard and you’ll read a history of heartache engraved upon the tombstones. We all die, of course, but seeing a child’s name there is a reminder that some deaths hurt more than others.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I remember encountering one cemetery where a 19th-century family’s grave marker recounted a particularly sad litany: child after child, taken before they reached the age of 12. Engraved on the lichen-encrusted stone were their names and dates. With that minimal information, it was possible to imagine the grief that must have enveloped the household.

There was surely sadness after the first child’s death, but it was likely a sadness untouched by surprise, for a century ago children lived their first years on a precipice. Try again, the couple would have thought, only to find a familiar end to the fresh start. The third child lived beyond the age at which his siblings had died and so must have been a reason for hope. There were a fourth and a fifth, too, neither of whom outlived the parents whose names were listed atop that doomed brood.

I thought of that woeful monolith Sunday when I heard about the death of Mei Xiang’s nameless cub. The first news release from the National Zoo was spare in its details — “No outward sign of trauma; no outward sign of infection” — but was no less heartbreaking for that.

One detail was especially sorrowful: It was Mei Xiang’s “distress vocalization” that prompted keepers to check on the newborn. She knew something was wrong.

A panda is not a human. A cub is not a baby. There’s only so sad we should allow ourselves to be. But still, that’s pretty sad.

The older I get, the more I’m struck by the pitiless coin that is human life. On one side is our amazing resilience. The body can take a lot before the soul leaves it. Just ask any emergency room doctor. On the other side is the equally true fact that life is amazingly fragile, able to be snuffed out as quickly as a candle in a draft.

It’s that second quality that the loss of “our” panda cub reminds me of.

Can you “love” a panda cub you’ve never met? No, I don’t think you can, really.

But there are plenty of people around you can love — you do love. Tell them that.

Sail on

I wrote a few weeks ago about losing family heirlooms. Takoma Park’s Susan Collings wishes she still had the ship’s log from the Voyageur, the 32-foot sailboat her father, Francis, owned. It would help her remember a trip she took with him in the Chesapeake Bay in the mid-1970s.

“I was only close to my father when in a car or on his boat,” Susan wrote. “When not in motion he tended to be his most aloof, but when he was trapped in a small space with you he was delightful company, interested in the history of the bay and adventurous in a real, not wishful (like I was) sense.”

The log was more of a journal, with Susan’s father noting in his spiky and spidery handwriting the weather, where the boat had been each day and a bit of history.

“I remember motoring in to Tilghman Island on a sweltering evening as the sun was setting,” Susan wrote. “We moored for the night at an abandoned oyster packing factory, a huge barn that smelled pungently of fish and was overrun with kittens dining on oyster residue. I was in my early teens, and even then fascinated by the old, abandoned and decrepit places that show up all over the Eastern Shore.

“I wrote in the journal about the kittens, the chinks in the wood that the sunlight showed through in the morning, the reek of fish and oyster shells and dirt.”

They sailed to Hoopers Island, arriving in a blinding storm. When the sun came out, they ventured to a general store that was like something from the early 1900s.

Wrote Susan: “It had barrels of pickles, dry goods, calico cloth, an ornate gold cash register that dinged and a few locals of the average age of 80 sitting around chatting. . . . I wrote a colorful account of this store in the journal which my father, in a moment of rare praise, said was wonderful.”

The log book was lost in the late 1970s when the boat was taken from the water and cleaned in Annapolis. Susan’s father died in 1996.

“If anyone has the journal, or has found it, it would be like getting a piece of my father back, the best piece, of an adventure we shared, and my start as a writer.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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