One afternoon back in the late ’70s, my husband Bill and I were resting on a little bench that used to be situated inside the Panda House at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Through the big window we were watching Hsing-Hsing — or maybe it was Ling-Ling (how does one check the sex of a giant fluffy panda?) — tear off long strips of bamboo and stuff them into his or her mouth. After a few minutes Ling-Ling — or maybe it was Hsing-Hsing — came down from the grassy area behind the panda shelter to join his or her mate in the glassed-in area, lowered his or her massive haunches and then gently foraged through the bamboo littering the area.
No one else was in the Panda House but us. Once the pandas left the grassy enclosure and came into the Panda House, they could not be seen from outside. We watched them for a few minutes, and then Bill said, “This is a magic moment. We are the only two people in the entire United States who are looking at giant pandas.”
He was right. No other zoo in this country at that time housed giant pandas. He was also right that it was a magic moment. We had done nothing to bring about this moment other than accidentally arriving in the Panda House when both pandas, but no other tourists, were present.
Was that how the first person to climb Mount Everest felt? Was that how the first woman to fly an airplane felt? Was that how President Obama felt when he became the first Black President of the United States, living in a White House not many miles from the Panda House where we felt magic that day? Still today I can relive that “eureka” feeling, a feeling of being special, being blessed with magic, a slice of time that could never be identically repeated.
After our visit to D.C. we drove back to our home in Ship Bottom, New Jersey, but from time to time reminded each other of that afternoon with our black-and-white friends from China. Then it happened again.
One dark autumn evening we were lying on a beach on Long Beach Island after casting our bait into the Atlantic. With our 12-foot poles stuck into cylindrical holders beside us, we nestled on a blanket and tried to identify the stars.
Tall sand dunes and beach grass separated us from houses on the island. We looked along the beach, into the distance to the left and to the right, and saw no evidence of anyone else on our stretch of beach. No small fires for roasting hot dogs and no flashlights used to light the way of dog owners taking their pets for a walk. Across the water we could see the lights of Manahawkin, but no one there could possibly see us on the beach.
I said, “We are the only people in the world fishing and lying on the sand on this stretch of beach.” A delicious sense of wellbeing filled me. This was another magic moment. But it didn’t last. Headlights from a pickup parked on the road leading to the shore shone over the beach and the moment was gone.
Over the years I’ve thought about the joy of those moments, the one in the Panda House and the aborted one on that clean island sand. I’ve remembered them with a sense of loss. Now that I’m older I know that those moments are never erased from our lives.
Years later, when my 6-year-old granddaughter visited us in Iowa, we went for a walk down our country road. After we had checked out the corn in the fields, the wild roses in the ditches and the antics of our dog, Baron, she said, “Grandma, this is really good. Walking with you is fun, but I’m sad too.”
I asked her why she was sad. Very seriously, she explained, “Because it will never be just like this again and today is perfect.”
I thought that was really cute, but it wasn’t until I was much older and wiser that I realized what she knew as a small child. Perfect moments will happen again and again, but each perfection will not be identical to any other perfect moment. Life is full of magic, but magic that never can be relived.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
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