The boys just keep growing. A couple of months ago, Kristen mentioned that they weighed in at the doctor’s office. Tyler was 34 pounds, Bryce 38. That’s heft. He ain’t heavy, he’s my grandson. OK, they’re getting heavier.

They ride our sagging shoulders when Daddy and I take them to Brookfield Zoo. Dylan is in better shape, so he gets Bryce. Even so, I’m pretty sure Tyler has gained weight since his doctor’s visit.

They love the view. “It’s so beautiful up here. I can see everything,” Tyler rhapsodizes. “Beautiful” is one of his favorite words, which I love. 

Their vocabulary keeps growing, too, though pronunciation lags a little. Bryce recently asked his mom about a “tomato warning” he saw on TV one stormy day. “That’s a door bell” turned out to be “that’s adorable.” In April, he informed me that the Easter Bunny fills baskets with candy using a “vader belt.” Conveyor, that is, not Darth.

Sitting in the forest preserve parking lot near the zoo, waiting for Dad to arrive, you can’t imagine how many times two 4-year-olds can ask some version of the question, “Why isn’t Daddy here yet?” in a half-hour. Finally Bryce ups the ante.

“Why don’t we go to the zoo and Daddy can meet us there?” 

I tell them we need to go in one car to use my membership. “We’d have to pay a lot more money if we went in separate cars,” I explain, patiently.

 “What does ‘separate’ mean?” Bryce never lets anything slide by.

I keep using words that are too big for them. Not intentionally, it just happens. But it shows they’re intrigued by words — and that they’re paying attention.

The other day, Bryce made a reference to “olden days.” We’re still trying to figure out how a 4-year-old came up with that one. 

When Dad finally arrives and my impatient passengers finish grilling him, we drive to the zoo entrance and Bryce asks, philosophically, not grousing, “Why is the zoo so much fun when it’s just animals?” Good question, which I could probably answer, but I’d have to resort to big words (and mention that a lot of my friends have a conscientious objection to zoos).

We usually start our visits with a ride on the vintage, restored carousel — Bryce always rides the elephant and Tyler the baboon — but on our most recent trip, they wanted to get down to business and up on our shoulders. They love giraffes. Maybe they identify, being suddenly elevated above their fellow kids. They love the monkey house and the penguins, the seals and the dolphins slicing through the water past the viewing glass. They love polar bears, tigers and lions — especially the lion when it roars, which seems to happen late in the day.

Day’s end, by the way, is a good time to go to the zoo. When you have a membership, it doesn’t matter if you only have a couple of hours, or even one hour, for a visit. Last fall we came several weeks in a row at 4 p.m. We still saw a lot (the boys were lighter then), and the lion roared. We heard him before we saw him, which is more impressive. 

But two weeks ago we came in the morning to avoid the heat. After we made our rounds, they wanted to try out one of the playgrounds, so we headed in that direction, the boys now on foot. When Tyler spotted the structure in the distance, he went into this amazing jig, pointing and hopping and skipping, then took off like a shot. I wish I had it on film. His entire body was a full-out expression of delight. Kids are wholly integrated. They don’t live up in their heads like adults.

When they’re happy, as they were at the picnic table afterward, eating their hot dog and watching the double-humped Bactrian camel nearby, their expressive faces, entirely un-self-conscious, form a canvass of contentment. 

“We didn’t eat lunch at the zoo until a long time!” Tyler exclaims, still somewhat inexact with his prepositions, his Cubs cap as cockeyed as it can get and still hold onto his head, looking more Rockwellian than Rockwell could possibly devise. Perfect in its imperfection.

They’re not always happy, of course. They can dissolve into a deep pit of heartbreak, at the drop of that hat, or when an unconscionable, unforgivable sin is committed, like dipping my spoon into their strawberry Icees because otherwise they’d never finish it. Four-year-olds are a testament to the mercurial extremes of being human — and the fragility of a nap-less temperament.

But emotional microbursts don’t faze me the way they did when I was parenting. I don’t take it personally. Grandparents don’t have anything to prove. We just wonder why they’re wasting all that energy when it won’t do them a bit of good. The only thing I try to control is the decibel level so it doesn’t cause hearing loss in the adults nearby. 

Eventually, they ask for their reconciliation hug. After unleashing all that energy, it must feel great when they stop. 

Even in meltdown mode, they’re wonderful to be with, but the moments of happiness stand out. We don’t make them happy, of course. We can’t take credit for it. We merely try to create the conditions that allow them to be their best selves, and one consequence of that is happiness. And when they’re happy, they enter the realm of beauty and invite us in. They embody delight and remind us what it looks like, unfettered, in the open air.

And I realize, I didn’t see such happiness until a long time.

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