By Bethany Beams
Pearl was the only child who had her own code at the zoo building where I worked. Whoever saw her first was required to push the alert button on their walkie-talkie and send the message “Code Pearl” crackling over the radio system. Hearing those two words meant we were in for another crazy day.
Pearl always wore a short-sleeved purple dress with (what else?) fake pearls on her chest. Always. The beauty of her perfect complexion—the color of a riverbed—was forever overshadowed by the frown on her face.
Pearl’s grandmother perpetually wore an oversized, threadbare white T-shirt with a large picture of Tweety Bird on the front and brightly colored stretch pants. Grandmother, as we all came to call her, gingerly lurched through the halls of our building, her age evident in her face and hunchbacked posture. I never saw her when she was not in pursuit of Pearl, who had undoubtedly run away again.
Grandmother’s shrill cawing drowned out even crowds of children, while Pearl maintained a stone-cold silence. The staff constantly kept one eye on the animals and one eye on Pearl in the vain hope that she wouldn’t take off again before Grandmother got to her.
Pearl was either in motion or a complete statue; Grandmother just painfully ambled in circles, yelling at Pearl to either stop there or come here. This tradition changed only if someone got out an animal for Pearl to pet.
Whenever this happened, instantly mesmerized, Pearl shoved all others aside to take complete control of the situation. She stared lovingly at a twitchy-nosed hamster or a calm white rat. Then she reached out a hand before pulling back. We always assured her to go ahead, but gently. The “gently” was never spoken soon enough. Pearl had already tried to snatch the animal and take it with her on her next escapade around the building. We hauled the rodent just out of reach, chiding her again to be gentle. Pearl shot laser looks out of those previously serene eyes and took off again, Grandmother relentlessly limping after her.
We called special meetings to discuss what to do about Pearl. Completely annoyed, most of us wanted to get some sort of zoo restraining order on her and Grandmother and try to get them out of our hair. Out of a staff of twenty or so, only one of us had ever actually heard Pearl communicate with anything but soft grunts. I doubted she could speak at all. But Margaret spoke up, saying she’d had a great conversation with Pearl just the other day. You can imagine the disbelieving glances and the unspoken thoughts that crossed our minds. And then Margaret recommended that we just try to love Pearl.
You could have heard a pin drop.
We were all ashamed that this had not occurred to us before. We were so deep into damage control that we’d never stopped to consider the cause of the damage.
We learned that Pearl’s mother worked full-time in the city and dropped off her daughter and Grandmother at the zoo every morning in lieu of paying a babysitter. She gave them money to take a taxi home every night. The purple dress was one of seven identical purple dresses, bought for the express purpose of being able to identify Pearl when she ran away.
The purple dress and the escape attempts remained the same, as did the T-shirt-covered crooked spine and wounded walk, but we changed. We started to love and to learn.
Two weeks after we decided to try simply loving, I had my first and only conversation with Pearl. It was very one-sided, consisting almost entirely of me talking about why the hamster I had was my favorite hamster out of all of them. I must have talked for ten minutes about this hamster. All the while I made sure to keep moving it where she could only pet him. At the end of my hamster soliloquy, I asked Pearl what she thought. She looked up at me and said, “I like him too.”
And that was it. Four words. But she looked at me.
All it took for Pearl to see us was for us to see Pearl as a person to love, not a project to fix.
By the end of the summer, Pearl still ran and Grandmother still chased her. But we didn’t need to use “Code Pearl” anymore. We just remembered to love.
Love changes us and then changes the world.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12 ESV)
Bethany Beams is a certified doula who can’t get enough of storytelling, which she pursues through website design, photography, and freelance editing. Her many loves include her husband and son, napping, libraries, ice cream, singing, snow leopards, Bagel Bites, 75° weather, and lists. She blogs very occasionally at bethanybeams.com.
Photograph © Mike Pham, used with permission