The other night, I lay in bed trying to go to sleep. It was August and the bedroom in our apartment was the typical ten degrees hotter than the rest of the apartment. While I tossed and turned in the bed, my wife sat in bed next to me reading the newspaper and making it harder for me to sleep. It wasn’t the lamp or her rustling of the pages that kept me awake as much as her reading me a headline every four minutes.
“Honey, did you read about what the health departments have been finding when they test the sanitation levels of public pools?”
“No,” I whispered, pretending to sound too tired to talk. She didn’t elaborate but I was already wide awake and thinking about the countless public pools we’d taken the kids to in the last few months. Then, for some reason, my mind wandered to a food handler class I’d taken a few years ago. I didn’t recall any facts but I did recall some of the anecdotes the facilitator shared with us.
“How many of you eat sushi?” he asked. Several people raised their hands. “I love it. But you have to make sure to eat it at a reputable restaurant. My sister got some bad sushi once and a few days later complained that her throat had a weird tickle. When she went to the doctor, he reached down her throat with a pair of tweezers to pull out five worms, about two-inches long each.”
As I lay baking in bed, rubbing my throat, and thinking about the moral of the food class – that anything can make you sick – my wife said, “Oh my gosh, Honey, did you see this article about the mother gorilla that won’t give up her dead baby?”
“Excuse me?” I said. “What was that?”
“This mother gorilla gave birth to a stillborn baby. She’s been carrying the dead baby on her back for days. The zoo is trying to remove it but she won’t let them.”
“What do you mean she won’t ‘let them?’”
“She won’t allow her handlers to get anywhere near her or the baby. She lashes out at them when they approach.” She read on as if searching for a certain piece of information. “What they need to do is give her a cat?”
“That’s what they do with mother gorillas when they lose a baby. They give her a cat. It’s so she’ll transfer her grief by caring for the cat. Seriously, I think I’m going to cry.”
“You don’t know why she won’t let them take the corpse. When did you become an authority on grieving monkeys?”
She wiped her eyes and shot me a dirty look. “A monkey is different from a gorilla. This is not a monkey. It’s a gorilla and that’s how gorillas show their sadness. She’s grieving the loss of her baby. Haven’t you ever heard of Koko?”
“Koko, the gorilla. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you who Koko is. She worked through her grief when her handlers gave her a kitten to raise.” Evidently she was upset with me for what she considered my insensitivity on the issue. I knew it’s my job to be a good listener. But gorillas? Really? Admittedly, I had questioned the credibility of her knowledge of sad gorillas, but she was clearly overreacting. I didn’t want to be defensive, but I wasn’t about to be labeled insensitive over something like this.
“So she just carries the carcass around like a backpack?” I asked.
“Yes. She has to. That’s how she says goodbye.”
“It’s not disgusting. It’s sweet. I’m going to clip this and save it.”
She got out of bed and came back with some scissors. I had my next argument ready to go. Actually, you’re going to stuff it in the pit you call your nightstand along with a bunch of unread books, stationary, and other random crap you’re never going to use or throw away. Deflecting the argument from her supposed knowledge about primates to her lack of organizational skills would have been a low blow. And besides, she knew she’d already won the fight. I was not only insensitive, but I was also wrong. Any further statements would have made me look worse.
I rolled over and tried to go to sleep but I couldn’t stop shifting. Maybe it was the stifling heat in the bedroom, the fact that it was late, or the imaginary worms crawling around in my throat. As I reread the script to the conversation in my mind, I wondered why it bothered me so much. What do I care if she’s right or not? Ultimately, I fell asleep sometime after I admitted to myself that what upset me was that I was wrong.
A few days later, I watched as my wife showed the clip to her best friend, Brandi, who took one look at the picture and immediately said, “Oh no. Don’t tell me that baby is dead. That’s so sad. It reminds me of Koko. They should get her a cat.”