The Three Little Orangutans

The three little orangutans had been together since infancy, and as juveniles they’d shared a space too small for them. The arrangement had worked all right so far, but now the zoo had additional space available. Two of the orangs were about to move into apartments adjoining the one where they’d grown up. They would have plenty of room in their new digs, room to spread out and swing around by their long arms and do whatever it is maturing orangutans do.

There was just one problem. They wouldn’t go.

My visiting elementary school class watched in fascination as the young primates wrapped their long, strong arms around each other and refused to be parted. A keeper grabbed one orang, pried him loose from the grip of his companions, and hustled him through the door. Before the door could be shut, the other two came trailing after. When the keeper tried to put those two back in the first room, the third returned with them.

I don’t know what the zoo staff ever did about the orangs, but the memory of their camaraderie, their determination to stay together, remained with me through adulthood.

Greg and I weren’t overburdened with money or space when our kids were young, and for a while the three of them shared a bedroom smaller than the first orangutan enclosure. Anna slept on an improvised trundle, an extra baby mattress that slipped under Emilie’s crib during the day. Daniel, though tall for his age at four or five, managed with a toddler bed.

It was hard to get everyone to sleep at once and keep them all asleep. Daniel was old enough to appreciate a good night’s rest and be annoyed by his sisters’ nocturnal baby chatter. It was also hard to maintain anything resembling neatness. I kept their toy collections as streamlined as possible; children who visited us were sometimes surprised to look over all the possessions and realize that this, indeed, was it.

Shortly after Daniel’s seventh birthday, we moved to a relatively enormous house of 1600 square feet. We rejoiced in the kids’ large bedrooms; with all this space, they wouldn’t have to be constantly in each other’s face anymore.

As it turned out, not much changed. The kids were always together. Even when they got on each other’s nerves, they just couldn’t do without each other. Whenever one of them got particularly annoying, I’d tell the offending party to leave the others alone; but the others wouldn’t leave that one alone. Within minutes they’d be together again, tumbling around in a bundle of confusion, kinetic energy, and noise.

We homeschooled from the beginning, so the kids were typically together all day every day. Texts and binders jostled for space on our dining room table, overlapping, just like their lives. They were each other’s constant companions, playing elaborate games with stuffed animals, Legos, action figures, and cardboard boxes.

Their sense of solidarity astounded me. They were always quick to share good news with each other and to assume that a treat for one meant a treat for all. If one kid happened to be in the kitchen when I was shredding cheese for a recipe, and I told him he could have a handful, he’d take off before even claiming his portion, announcing to the others, “We can have cheese!” (Yes, this was ample cause for excitement at our house. We lived frugally.)

I think this strong sibling unity is one reason my girls grew up so physically capable. If one of them was too scared to perform some daredevil feat like jumping off the top of the jungle gym into the shallow waters of the stock tank below or riding a bike down a slope so long and steep that just looking at it gave me vertigo, the others would mock that one until she gave in. No one ever got hurt this way; I speculate that they all developed a healthy sense of what their bodies could do, which actually protected them against injury.

When Emilie was around six, she had a bout of impetigo. If you’ve never experienced this bacterial skin infection, I hope you never do. The treatment involves the painful scrubbing of tender raw tissues, the sheer horror of which has been known to drive many a strong man out of his house for the duration of his child’s anguish. Daniel and Anna weren’t bothered by the cries of their little sister; they were used to being told to suck it up. They even made some rather callous jokes about leprosy. But when they learned that the contagious illness would prevent Emilie from attending our church’s annual Baptism and Barbecue—which promised to be a particularly epic event that year, as it was being held at an absolute wonderland of a private swimming pool complete with slides and trapezes—the joking stopped and they wept in unashamed compassion. Anna was eight; Daniel was ten.

A few years ago our family moved away from the area where we’d lived since Greg and I were in college. We left a lot of friends behind, and making new ones hasn’t exactly been the work of a moment. Sometimes it seemed we had just each other. And that’s not a bad place to be. I want us to be each other’s best friends, to support and rely on each other. The family is a core of permanence in a shifting world. We cling to each other with uncompromising tenacity.

But suppose you took the quality of commitment normally reserved for family and selectively applied it to a larger group, in a way that would expand the kinship without diluting it. Then you would have a clan—a group of households forming a basic tribal unit. Is such a thing even possible in modern American culture? I think it is. I pray it is.

A group of us had a gala occasion Friday night. It was a delightful concatenation of special events: a homecoming, a birthday, a reunion. Some of the kids had been away at college; my own boy is still away at Fort Benning. The evening’s energy level was pretty high. Lots of sugar and coffee were consumed. Somebody tazed a pumpkin, and somebody else smashed it with a sword. Two and half months’ worth of stories were hastily retold. Teenage boys were picked up and hoisted to the ceiling. The dog ate a package of Twizzlers.

My girls and I were the last to go, and our leave-taking was a thing not easily accomplished. The kids would physically grip each other and not let go, or at least not for long. They’d hug goodbye but not depart, then hug goodbye all over. I would manage to get one daughter pried loose, and while I was working on the other, the first would reattach herself to the group at a different spot. The easiest thing would have been to load the whole group into the Suburban and take all six home with me.

Finally they gathered into a group hug, and I just stood and watched. The two boys each had a wing span in excess of six feet, effectively binding the group into a tight circle of humanity. They were like the three orangutans, only six this time.

I’ve lived long enough to have a lot of regrets. I see now that for most of my life I’ve taken friendship for granted. I’ve enjoyed it and been casually grateful for it, but I haven’t always valued it to the point of fighting for it. I’ve been too quick to let inconvenience or pride or fear come between. My children are wiser than I was at their age.

Hold on, little orangutans. Don’t let go.

2 comments on “The Three Little Orangutans

  1. […] and mystifying. Why have I had seventeen views from the Republic of Korea in 2014? Why is the post I wrote comparing my children to orangutans so enduringly popular? Why the sudden spike in interest on my extremely lengthy posts about […]

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