“It’s been a roller coaster,” he told me. In 2012 a third female,
Acacia, was cleared for breeding with Nkosi; like Jamani and
Olympia, she conceived quickly. But unlike those two, Acacia’s
birth was di;cult, more than twenty-four hours long, and the
keepers and zoo veterinarians decided to give her an emergency
cesarean. Though the surgery went well, and the infant was
healthy —“He was the prettiest, strongest one,” another keeper
told me — he died suddenly after being returned to her, and the
keepers, for the second time in two years, stood by helplessly
while a new mother came to terms with her loss. Later that year,
Nkosi, Jesue’s favorite, died suddenly of encephalitis.
I asked him what would happen to Acacia, who was also, by
all accounts, a good caretaker, frequently playing with Bomassa
and Apollo but staying clear, for the most part, of the infant-snatching, socially dominant Olympia. Soon the keepers expected
to welcome another silverback to the group, a role model for the
two young males. Would Acacia conceive again?
No, Jesue told me. It was too dangerous. They planned to move
Acacia to another zoo—her third—and hoped that she could
serve as an allomother, or motherly caregiver, or even a surrogate
in case another gorilla rejected her infant. That happened more
often than you’d think, he told me.
Long after the gorillas’ lunch, I stayed behind and watched,
paying particular attention to Acacia, who was lounging in a
pile of hay near the glass, eating the rich seeds, but who also
appeared to keep one eye on the dominant, reproductively
successful Olympia, foraging for the last of the celery and lettuce
tossed down at feeding time.
I didn’t recover from my baby fever, but I believe that I would
have, given enough time. Like Acacia, I would have fulfilled my
longings by caring for the children of others; I would have enjoyed
independence, freedom, time; I would have taken long naps, kept
my girlish figure. Instead Richard and I took what to us were
extraordinary measures and conceived our daughter through in
vitro fertilization. It is the best choice I’ve ever made, though of
course this appraisal is filtered through the experience of success.
In the months after our daughter was born, emboldened
by our risktaking, Richard and I began an addition to our one-bedroom house. I often met our contractors in the driveway with
Beatrice wrapped in one of the slings that creates the magical,
chest-to-chest closeness gorillas have, and though they could
only see the top of her head they solicitously o=ered praise: she
was so beautiful, so sweet.
“Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world,”
began Mr. Cheek, the mason we hired to build our foundation.
He pointed at Beatrice, sleeping against my chest, as if she were
the imagined only baby. “Wherever that baby was, we’d put down
our things and go see it. If that baby was in California, we’d all
go to California.”
A father and grandfather, he knew nothing of our long wait for
Beatrice; that was not his point. He knew something bigger, more
profound: each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the
world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure-
mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers,
who will each want a peek, and will each have some impact.
In my sleep-deprived haze, I pictured myself, Richard, and Bea
in a kind of enclosure on a cli= above the Pacific, with a queue of
curious well-wishers snaking all the way to the desert. Given how
long it took us to have her, the many people involved in the process,
the image felt strangely fitting. I now have a number of friends
who have had babies through some form of medical intervention,
through intrauterine insemination and IVF and medicated cycles,
with the help of donor eggs or sperm or embryos, pills or injectable
drugs. It’s common for people in our circle to call our children
miracles, to see our experiences as singular and exclusive, to
think about how close we came to not having them. But this is
true of every baby, every romantic pairing, every relationship on
Earth — we are all terrifyingly beholden to risk and fear and luck,
to longings that arrive as expected or, for some of us, emerge from
some deep, surprising well we didn’t know we had.
Mr. Cheek repeated himself, as if to test my agreement.
“You’re probably right,” I told him. “I’d go.” A
For Alfredo Espino
I watched a goldfinch
Disappear into a tree
Through a hole no bigger
Than my open mouth.
From the hollow
Began her crooning.
That’s what poetry is
I thought —
Not the tree,
But the hidden song.
Not the yellow bird,
But the instinct to climb
Inside the darkness
— Benjamin Gucciardi