Dinosaurs

My five-year-old daughter is in denial. She can’t accept the fact that her current object of affection and admiration, the venerable dinosaur, is extinct. During a recent visit to the science museum, she gives full expression to her indignation. Looking up at the enormous replica of the triceratops, she places her hands squarely on her hips and shouts: “Wake UP!”

But isn’t that the magic of childhood curiosity? Being passionate about something that we adults have long since forgotten, or take for granted?

“No, the Tyrannosaurus Rex is from the Cretaceous period, Mom, not the Jurassic!” My daughter corrects me as I comment on the creature’s distinctive jaw. I am half-thinking about the Spielberg blockbuster from a decade ago. Seeing another parent chuckle from a few feet away, I am humbled not merely by the fact that my precocious child has just set me straight on my science facts, but more importantly, by the realization that with a few spontaneous remarks, she is putting my existence into perspective. Long before all the cars and buildings and cell phones, there were these big amazing animals that walked the earth. Their brains might have been pea-sized in comparison to their mighty bodies, but they managed to survive for quite a while.

Compared to our charges, we adults focus on less sublime matters. I worry about the plummeting stock market and my expanding waistline; meanwhile, energized by her kindergartner’s thirst for knowledge about the world, my child frets over the disappearance of the largest creatures ever to roam our planet. I watch her as she bounces across the room, and then darts from the exhibit about the long neck dinosaur to the museum’s vivid picture of a saber tooth cat, snarling back at her through the glass case.

I see the heartbreak in my daughter’s eyes every time I give her my “I’m the adult” look and remind her that no, the dinosaurs aren’t coming back. “They’ve been dead for a long time, Hanna.” As she crinkles up her nose in irritation, I realize how presumptuous I am. As long as there are eager minds to question and appreciate the grand mysteries of life, nothing about these mysteries will ever truly die.

Children teach us every day to see things for the first time, and to remember them as if they will never disappear, never become extinct. Breathing new life into creatures that have been physically dead for eons, my daughter gives me the gift of spiritual rebirth— and imagination. As we near the end of the exhibit, I look back at the towering models and catch myself smiling. Some day, light years from now, where will the models of the once-great humans be found?

(2001)

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