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Every year since my youngest son was born, we’ve made the trip to our local children’s zoo. In the early years, they primarily featured farm animals and were more of a petting zoo with a couple of local wild animals in cages. Through the years, they’ve added some other, more exotic animals, and the trip became a tradition, complete with carousel ride on a fantastic historic carousel at the end of the journey, and then ice cream at McDonald’s on the way home. This last bit evolved as a way to pry them off the carousel and cool ourselves down after a sweaty afternoon plodding around the pavement pathways.

Each year, I’ve taken a picture of the kids in front of the zoo sign. In the first picture, our youngest son was in the stroller, only a few months old. This may have been his favorite year. No tired feet for him. Now my two oldest are off doing other things, far too big for the children’s zoo, and, sure enough, my youngest son is thinking this was his last trip, also. The goats; cows; bunnies; elusive gray wolf who is advertised, but never really seen; the African tortoises who are always engaged in some type of wrestling, and two lazy wallabies are just not enough to hold his attention any longer.

As we walked through the zoo, I was saddened to think of another phase of life ending–the young childhood of our baby boy. The signs have been coming for many months now, but each one hits me with renewed melancholy. The last ten years have been the busiest of my life and I can’t help thinking that I should have slowed down and enjoyed the ride a bit more now that this particular bit of the ride is over.

Two moments brightened my morose reflections. First, our youngest daughter had a blast, even though we saw very little. She ran from exhibit to exhibit and played on the playground equipment and didn’t seem to miss animals whom my son and I had been visiting for over a decade. So next year she and I will make the trek, the beginning of a new phase of life where she is the only “child” in the house. Second, when we came to the carousel, we had to wait as the last ride ended. My son, sitting next to me on the bench, too cool for excitement about a children’s zoo, said, “I wish we’d bought more than one ride ticket. I forgot how many cool horses there are.”

Aha! This morning he’d thought he was “too big” to even ride the carousel and here he was, wanting to ride over and over so he could ride each cool horse.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m struck with intense regret that I did not buy him more tickets so he could ride all those horses because maybe he had that urge because he knew it was his last trip and, by riding each of the horses he’d ridden as a child, he would be able to say goodbye.

Or, maybe, those horses will lure him back one more time next summer.

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