The polar bear stayed underwater all day. After all, it was too hot for him most of the time. Polar bears don’t usually live in New York City. A full-time resident of the Central Park Zoo. The locals affectionately knew him as that "psychotic" bear. It wasn't a disparaging term. It described him. He wasn't mean or angry. He looked like an actor out of central casting hired to play a part. The part of a white 400 pound polar in captivity. He was long and sleek with bulky thighs. His skin falling loosely around his skeleton, as if he zipped a costume from the back tucking the end of the fabric into his neck and out of sight.
All-day long, he pushed off one wall and glided, arms outreaching ahead to the far wall. It was so graceful. Probably only traveling 50 feet to the opposite wall in less than 8 seconds. Once he reached the other side he used his entire body, in a classic Michael Phelps flip-turn to propel himself back from where he had just come. Using his enormous thighs, he squatted horizontally and pushed off the wall with all his might. He shot like a torpedo straightening his lanky legs to go back to the wall he had just left. Each of his white shortish hairs, detectable, suspended in the water showing fluid movement. Like a dog who leans out of a car window with his hair blowing back in the wind, each strand visible. Hair gliding through time and space, with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. Killing time gliding from one end of his cage to the other.
After all, it was a cage. It may not have looked like a typical cage. No bars. Ridiculously thick plexiglass hung in a huge picture window on a chiseled stone ledge. That's where the bystanders watched him go to and fro. To and fro. All-day long, back and forth.
There was also a viewing platform from up above. Only the tourists stood there. The locals knew you could never see all of him from that angle. Never get the full force of his daily routine. My daughter and I would arrive early and stay late, watching his rhythm. Mesmerized by his movement. Getting lost in his story we didn't even know.
Who are his parents? What does he eat? my six-year-old wanted to know. And so I told her.
Gus was a royal bear. From the tip of Antarctica, the place where the world and the polar icecaps begin. And there began the polar bears.
He was born to a Mama bear, the fiercest of creatures, protecting their young. Protecting them from what? my innocent daughter wanted to know. I wanted to say from broken hearts and predators. From all things that hurt young children and shadow their adulthood, but that truth was too real. Too raw. What came out of my mouth was “the Mama bear must keep the baby safe and warm. The mama must keep his tummy full. And most importantly the Mama must make sure he gets enough hugs to feel loved’.
Mama, why are hugs the most important? Those big green eyes were wide open looking up at me. Well, bear hugs are the best hugs. They hold you tight you and keep you warm, with big arms that make you feel safe and never want to let go. My daughter clung to each word as I described the most perfect hug. We practiced giving bear hugs. A mother’s hug is full of love and protection and care.
Where is Gus’s mama now Mama? That simple question, stinging like an angry bee who had found the most perfect of targets. Do I tell her the truth now? My voice cracked. I continued the story.
Gus was having a fabulous day. He ate some fish for breakfast as bears do, and was playing and swimming in the ocean. His mother was watching from the shoreline. Watching over him as he frolicked. Then a big wave came. Gus wasn’t strong enough to fight the wave and it carried him far out into the ocean. His Mama swam right out to him, but the wave was too fast and too strong and she couldn’t reach Gus in time to bring him back to the shore. Sometimes, when we look away for one moment we lose something we love. Now Gus was an excellent swimmer, so he swam and swam and swam. Just when he was getting tired, a big fishing boat appeared and pulled Gus to safety. Since bears don’t talk, Gus couldn’t explain where he was from and how to find his Mama. The fisherman brought him to the zoo, where Gus would make new friends and have a new home.
What happened to his Mama? She searched for Gus, every day. A day never went by that she didn’t search for him. And when he didn’t turn up, she prayed that he would be taken care of and find his way in the world. The zookeepers took very good care of Gus. Gus knew he had to be strong and be able to fight against the big wave, next time it came. That’s why Gus swims, back and forth, back and forth, to get strong and find his way back to his Mama.
Does Gus miss his Mama, Mama? “Every day”, I choked. “Everyday”.
Gus left us in 2013, the same year my daughter left for College. There are no more polar bears in the Central Park Zoo. Just an empty cage and the memory of a bear gliding through the water lost in his own rhythm. My daughter is now far away figuring out how to stay strong against the waves. And me, lost in my own rhythm as I go to and fro.
Ilene Susan Marcus (ism) is an emerging writer telling everyday stories that shine a light on the choices we live. As a workplace guru, she is the author of Managing Annoying People and the Aligned Workplace blog (www.alignedworkplace.com). A native New Yorker, Ilene has perfected her pastrami recipe. She lives in Western MA with her 78 Chevy Cheyenne and huge golden doodle. She never tires of seeing the cows in the road. As a writer, her goal is to change the way you think about something so that you smile just a bit more.