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  • Marilyn Saltzman

Making choices – and memories

How could I celebrate my grandkids’ birthdays in ways that were meaningful? My friend Fran had shared that she gave her grandchildren a “yes” day on their birthdays – they chose their activities and the grandparents went along.  I loved the idea of making memories by taking the kids on adventures without trying to control their choices.

Taking a cue from Fran, I told Selam and Dian, “You can choose to go anywhere in Colorado for your ninth birthday, just you and me.”

Dian, who turned nine last week, selected a weekend adventure in Colorado Springs. After our first stop at Cave of the Winds, he decided on a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I found a highly rated one on Trip Advisor, and plugged the address into my cell phone. My GPS took us on and off the interstate, then through a myriad of turns in a treeless suburban neighborhood of large, newly built homes.

“Where is this place?” I muttered, stopping short to make a sharp right turn as directed by Google maps. My frustration and worry about being hopelessly lost were clear.

“I’m right back here if you need me,” Dian said from his booster seat, offering moral support. Words to live by for the weekend, I thought. I’ll let him take the lead, and I’ll be right behind him if he needs me.

Saturday morning, we ate an early buffet breakfast at our hotel and headed off for our long-anticipated visit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

As we entered the giraffe house, overwhelmed by the smell, Dian pinched his nose and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

I followed as he ran from the building and headed up the steep hill toward the Australian exhibit. It was a chilly morning, and there were few visitors and even fewer animals in sight.

“I’m bored,” Dian whined.

Was this long-anticipated adventure going to be a bust? I said nothing and waited for his next move. Opening the gate, we entered the grassy exhibit where the animals roamed free. A young wallaby jumped toward us and stopped in front of Dian, who stood stock still. The animal sniffed Dian’s sneakers and then gently moved his nose up Dian’s jeans. My grandson and I were enthralled, boredom overcome.

After taking a few photos, Dian headed up the hill to the indoor snake house. “The snakes are my favorite,” he declared.

“I didn’t know that,” I said, a bit short of breath as I trailed up the steep hill behind my now eager grandson.

After snapping photos of the cobra, the rattlesnake and the huge yellow python, Dian moved outside to the swimming otters. He giggled, holding my iPhone close to the glass to take videos, while a family of three performed somersaults under water.

“I’m hungry,” Dian declared after a few minutes of photography. He had eaten a huge breakfast of pancakes, yogurt and eggs just a couple of hours earlier, yet he headed with determination into the restaurant. He eyed a huge slice of pizza. I said nothing and purchased it. This is his day. He gets to make the decisions. If it’s too much food, hopefully he’ll learn to choose better next time.

While he consumed the entire slice, I reviewed the list of zoo events. “Would you like to go see the orangutans? There’s a show in 15 minutes.”

Dian agreed, and we walked hand-in-hand to the primate house. The zookeepers brought out a black plastic water-filled tub topped by frothy bubbles. Four-year-old Ember and her mom, Hadiah, two playful orangutans, jumped on the edge of the huge tub and began splashing and grabbing handfuls of soapy water, creating beards of bubbles on their hairy faces. Hadiah paid no heed as Ember lathered a carpet of sticky bubbles across the floor of the cage, then slithered up the ropes, leaving behind a residue of soapy foam.  Rather than intervene, she let her daughter play freely. A good lesson for me, I thought.

“I’m ready to go now,” Dian said after several minutes of watching the two frolicking primates. Once again, he led the way as we wandered past the gorillas staring through the plate glass window. Though I wanted to stop, Dian kept moving along, refusing to pose for a photo. It was another opportunity to cede control as I dutifully followed. When Dian tired of the exhibits, I patiently went along as he marched up and down the aisles of the gift shop seeking just the right souvenir.

Later that afternoon, we attended a magic show. The audience was small – just eight other kids and four parents joined the two of us. By chance, Dian was the only male child.

“I really need a boy to help with this trick,” the magician said, eyeing Dian.

“No. I don’t want to,” Dian declared.

“Want to help with this one?” the magician asked a few minutes later as he took a long white rope from his suitcase. Dian shyly sat back in his chair, vigorously shaking his head “no.”

Several more times during the hour-long show, the entertainer coaxed Dian to participate. I was tempted to join in the efforts of persuasion. Instead, I made the mindful choice to let Dian take control. I silently repeated my mantra, it’s his day. Dian enjoyed the rest of the show without ever leaving his seat.

My grandson chose several other adventures to fill out the weekend – two trips to the hotel pool and hot tub, dinner delivered to our room from a local greasy spoon, a hike in Garden of the Gods and a visit to the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park.

It was a priceless birthday trip where I got new insights into Dian’s personality and supported his decisions. And it was an opportunity to enhance my Mussar (Jewish ethics) practice of mindfully ceding control while letting him know I was “right back here if you need me.”

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