What at first glance was a somber photo of two beings clutching one another had now become a devastating portrayal of their final embrace. Leafing through old National Geographic magazines, deciding which would interest my autistic son, I stumbled upon a photograph of Lucy, a twenty-one-year-old chimpanzee and her caretaker Janis Carter, huddling together in a clearing in Gambia. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d say I was looking at one creature, not two. Lucy balled herself up so that she fit like a child in Janis’s arms. Resting her head on Janis’s breast, Lucy squatted, sacrificing comfort for connection.
Part primate, part woman, this living form sent out a hand here, a drooping neck there, folded knees. But which parts belonged to which being required thought. For a time, I mistook Lucy’s fingers for those of a human. Felt-like and still, they arced gracefully over her eyes, as if placing them anywhere else would diminish the bond between the two. Her fingers shielded Lucy from the rest of the world, from anything that wasn’t Janis. It was only when I realized they were covered in fur and long as ribs of celery that they transformed back to the fingers of a chimp. If Lucy could climb into Janis’ womb, I sensed she would.
My son Matthew is now the same age as Lucy was in that picture. Twenty-one. I can’t imagine Matthew hugging me the way Lucy does Janis. Yet, it is he who I think of when I examine this photograph. The way in which Lucy’s fur on her left knee has worn thin leaving a bald spot distresses me. She appears threadbare, like a stuffed animal a child discarded into a toy chest in the attic.
If you met Matthew, he might confuse you. He’s an odd combination of child and man. His breath no longer smells like cookies when he awakens. Hair grows under his arms and on his chest. His cheeks are scratchy. His fingernails have become square shaped. When he utters sound his voice is deep like a man’s and that’s unexpected because he doesn’t say anything intelligible. Yet it would be inaccurate to say he doesn’t talk. His words are sounds, some of them made up. For instance, Mamaloo, his word for moon. It contains the word “Mama” which is comforting, like looking at the moon is comforting to him.
The magazine reported that Lucy was born into a colony of carnival chimps and at two days old was ripped away from her mother. Her owner sold her to Dr. Maurice Temerlin, a researcher at the Institute of Primate Studies in Oklahoma, and his wife Jane. They raised her as if she were their human daughter.
The Temerlins brought in a psychology professor to teach Lucy sign language. Not having words for every thought, Lucy would make up approximations. She called watermelon “candy drink,” and chimps “black bugs.”
Matthew still likes to play with toys on a bookshelf in his bedroom, but not in the way you might think, not for the purpose in which they were intended. Take the wooden ball toy. He likes to place his head very close to the balls as they roll down the track, and sense a slightly perceptible interruption of air on his cheek that thrills him. He likes to observe the balls, first red, then blue, out of the corner of his eye – not straight on. He doesn’t like to be overwhelmed.
Similarly, he likes to turn on a keyboard in his bedroom. It contains four tunes that play in a continuous loop. He presses the keyboard up to his ear, not just for the sound, but for the feeling of music running through his body, right into his bloodstream. He can live in that world for a very long time. A keyboard is a toy even an adult could have, which is what he is. But the ball toy is for a toddler.
Lucy could be tender, as when Jane fell ill and Lucy stayed close and held her hand. But by the time she reached sexual maturity, she was ripping the house to shreds. The Temerlins rigged up the house with bars, and made Lucy a padded room. Nothing worked. Exhausted, the Temerlins sent Lucy to live in the research laboratory at the University of Oklahoma.
Janis Carter worked part-time cleaning cages at the lab as a graduate student. One of the few people who could handle Lucy outside her cage, Janis became her first friend beyond the confines of her human family.
Matthew, now twenty-two, is still prone to tantrums. One day his father and I were discussing whether it would snow. Matthew interrupted our conversation by using his invented hand signal for snow. He fluttered the fingers on his left hand in a downward motion and made the sound “Ehhhhhh?”
“I don’t know whether it will snow or not,” I answered.
Again the hand signal for snow and “EHHHHHHH?” Followed by his hand slapping the sofa.
“I’m sorry sweetheart. I can’t predict the weather.”
His face red now, he kicked the chair, toppling it over. He grabbed my shirt and I yelled, “STOP IT.” Incensed, he expelled mucous from his nose and growled in a man’s voice, “AAAAAAH, AAAAAH.” There was no use in negotiating. So, I waited in silence for a full twenty minutes while my grown son howled. Had I known then about the Temerlins sending Lucy away, I may have thought about them.
And yet in the mornings Matthew and I sit in folding chairs right up against the front door of the house waiting for his “mentor” to take him to his day program. Every day Matthew signs, “I love you.”
Everyday I respond, “You made my whole day.” Then I kiss his hand that still forms the “I love you” sign. In a sing song voice, because he loves melodies, I continue, “Do you know how much I love you? More than there are stars in the sky. More than there are grains of sand on the beach.”
He inhales and smiles. Not at me, but at the outside world: at flakes of snow, or the day moon, or a flock of blue jays alighting on the Japanese Maple in our front yard.
When I was Janis’s age, I wore my brown hair long and parted in the middle as she did. Her high waisted jeans matched a pair I owned in high school. Even her simple red t-shirt resembles one I donned over my bathing suit at the seashore. I was completely ignorant of the fact that I would one day give birth to a disabled child.
If a seer had said after you marry your husband and get pregnant, you will give birth to a son with a serious disability, I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I can’t imagine deciding not to marry my husband. Nor could I imagine aborting a planned pregnancy. Though I had an amniocentesis, the results were normal. Even if the doctors could have told me Matthew’s diagnosis it wouldn’t have mattered. He is the only known one in the world with his genetic syndrome. Yet I want to say to Janis with great authority, “You can still walk away. Don’t do it. Don’t work in that lab and get attached to Lucy. You will be crushed.”
I examine Janis’s every gesture for clues of her true feelings toward Lucy. Janis’s fingers do not grab Lucy’s fur. Instead, they fan loosely into the air, as if to touch Lucy would be to recognize the gravity of her condition. Was she frightened of becoming too attached? Did a part of her feel sick that Lucy’s very existence depended on her?
Lucy’s time at the research lab at the University of Oklahoma was meant to be temporary. Therefore, the Temerlins investigated zoos, other research labs and retirement facilities as places Lucy might live, but they were dissatisfied with all of them. They decided Lucy should be released into the jungles of Africa. Though Janis had no experience returning captive animals to the wild, she agreed to accompany the Temerlins to Senegal for what she thought would be a three-week acclimation period. The Temerlins went home but Janis never left.
Instead of welcoming freedom, Lucy clung to Janis. She lost hair and refused to eat. She came down with skin infections. She stopped going into heat. Using sign language, she told Janis she wanted to go home. Frustrated, Janis ate ants and figs to model what was available in the natural world, but Lucy would not follow her example.
Running out of ideas, Janis worked out a solution that involved taking Lucy to a remote Island in Gambia. There Lucy would join other chimps raised in captivity who were being released into the wild. After a year of living on the island, the other chimps lost interest in Janis. Lucy, on the other hand, would not leave Janis’s side. One evening Lucy and Janis fell asleep together. When Janis awoke Lucy was holding her hand and finally agreed to eat. Not much later Janis decamped from the island leaving Lucy behind.
The more I scrutinize the photograph, the more details I notice. Lucy wasn’t merely embracing her last human friend; she was clinging to her. I think she was aware of the devastating separation that was coming. The way Lucy compressed herself into the smallest possible space signaled she knew she was at the end of her line. It must have been disconcerting for Janis to cradle an animal so strong yet so weak. Lucy was a shadow of her former self.
The fact that Lucy holds Janis so tightly tells me she harbors one last bit of hope. If she knew she wouldn’t survive, Lucy would be limp in Janis’s arms. If Lucy could talk, I think she would say If you let me go, I will die.
In the photo Lucy’s head nestles near Janis’s armpit, inhaling her human female scent. Janis coils her right arm around Lucy, barely reaching her ribs, like a sister comforting a sibling. Lucy’s lips rest on Janis’s black plastic watch, a relic of the human world she once inhabited. Did Janis recognize how emaciated Lucy had become? Her stance is unsustainable. Did she feel Lucy’s shoulder and knee bones protruding underneath the surface of her fur? Did she inhale a sourness emanating from Lucy and think this is what heartbreak would smell like if it had a smell? Lucy’s frame is crumpled, but she is not crying. She’s beyond crying. In the way she crouches, she can’t be comfortable. If Janis weren’t there she’d fall over.
I have embraced Matthew in a similar manner. What did I notice? The mole on the outer ring of his right ear. I always forget it is there until I see it again. It’s what I look at every morning when he tells me he loves me. I see it because he doesn’t face me when we talk. If there were photographs of Matthew and me hugging, I would have been the one who initiated it. He stands rigid and tolerates me. After a beat he pushes me away. That’s why he’s not Lucy in that picture. I am Lucy. I am holding him that last time, knowing it is our last good-bye.
Janis would periodically circle the island in a boat to keep tabs on Lucy. She forbade herself from going on the island so as not to risk Lucy having to re-acclimate to life without her. Then, after what she thought was a sufficiently long interval, Janis disembarked from her boat. Lucy and the other chimps walked toward her. Lucy grabbed Janis and wrapped her arm around her, holding her tightly. Someone in Janis’s boat snapped the picture that I saw in National Geographic. Afterwards, Lucy went with the other chimps into the jungle not turning back. That was the last time Janis would ever see Lucy alive.
The closest Matthew ever came to saying a final goodbye was when his grandmother “Raaa Raaa,” named for the sound her dog made, died. He walked right up to her casket and said “Raaa Raaa.” Then he reached for her face, but his father pushed his hand away. Finally, Matthew waved good-bye and was shuttled to his seat. Matthew understood his grandmother went somewhere, but I’m not sure he knew she was never coming back. In that way perhaps he is saved from the knowledge that death will one day separate us. That there may never again be two people like his parents who understand him so completely. Who strive to meet his needs even when he kicks and screams and spews mucous. When the fact of my death enters his consciousness, I won’t be there to comfort him.
Janis returned to the Island in Gambia periodically. On one such trip, a year after Janis stopped living there, she found Lucy’s skeleton by their old campsite. She had been decapitated and her hands had been hacked off. Scientists speculated that fishermen poached her.
What if I had never seen the picture? I could have easily not flipped to that particular page when sorting through the magazines. Likewise, that picture may never have existed. The person who took it may have done so as an afterthought. Yet I can’t help but conclude that it belongs inextricably to this world. I can’t imagine a time before it existed.
No image could better capture the longing and aching of one being for another. And the knowing separation that was to come. I want the world to know about Lucy’s pain. To see the terrible sadness palpable in her whole being. Not as some kind of message against animal cruelty, as noble as that cause may be. But for solace in knowing people, like me, are not alone. Perhaps pouring over such a photograph will prepare me for a day that is unimaginable: the day I must let go of another being who needs me.
Sometimes I envision a different scenario. A scenario in which Matthew dies before me. I visualize myself going into his bedroom one last time as I suppose the Temerlins must have done after returning from Africa. I might look at the smudges Matthew left on his bedroom window where he pressed his nose right up to the glass to look at the moon. Or I might touch his books that are curled at the edges from rough handling.
I’d look at his bed that he didn’t sleep in much. It was too straight; he liked to burrow and curl when he slept. He liked closed, squeezed in places. He wanted to be surrounded, and his bed was too open for him to feel snug. Once the lights went out he moved to a blue loveseat across the room from his bed. He liked to put his head under the pillow where people press their backs, and drape a leg over one of the arms. It smelled like him in a way that his bed did not. It smelled of saliva, shampoo, suntan lotion and dog. When he was surrounded by those smells, he could sleep.
I might look at the moon through his bedroom window and think about him and Lucy. I’d remember he invented the word Mamaloo. I’d think about Lucy looking at that same moon when she was alive in the jungles of Gambia. When she fell asleep next to Janis, holding her hand.
I envision it being a cold January night when the moon is almost full, and the smell of a coming snowfall is heavy in the air. A silvery luminescence would seep into the room. I’d turn the light off and the moonlight would streak across the loveseat where he once slept. The beam would not curve over the seat, now that it is empty of him. It would be straight and unbending. If I closed my eyes I could capture that moment—like a black and white photograph—showing everything that’s cruel and beautiful about the world.
Debra Fox is an adoption attorney and founder of Story Tributes, an enterprise that preserves the stories of people’s lives. She is a reader for Philadelphia Stories, as well as the mother of two sons: one profoundly autistic and the other a journalist. Much of her published work can be found at www.debramfox.com