Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam
Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Crocodile Tears

Steven was a challenging newborn.

He wasn't a colicky baby, he was easy-going and happy.

But under the instructions of his pediatrician I was feeding him 10 times a day, in a sometimes fruitless attempt to get enough of my pumped breast milk into him to keep him going.

I went from almost never watching television to being a middle-of-the-night TV junkie.

In the wee hours of the morning in September 1994, I flicked on the TV and started flipping the channels for something to watch while I went through the arduous process of trying to coax some nutrition into my newborn baby boy.

I stopped when I got to Discovery. I held Steven in my arms while I half-watched a guy in khaki shorts and shirt with an Australian accent walk along a drainage ditch talking about crocodiles in the water. About a minute into his speech, he suddenly jumped into the murky water, clothes, shoes, and all.

My mouth dropped open and I almost dropped Steven. While I was trying to figure out if I'd really seen what I thought I saw, the guy's head popped up and he hopped out of the water, baby crocodile in his hand.

I wasn't half-watching anymore. Steve had my full attention, and we were hooked. Doug and I anticipated each new episode and watched faithfully with the kids. Steve Irwin kept me company on many a late night with newborn Steven in my arms.

Steven, starting from before he was two, was fascinated with dinosaurs and reptiles. When he was two years old, my parents went to Florida and came home with photos from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Gatorland in Orlando.

The photos were developed and bound into a flip book, which two-year old Steven pored over again and again.

He learned the names of all the different species. He could tell you all the differences between an alligator and a crocodile by the structure of their jaw, the placement of their teeth, their snout, and where they lived.

He had many toy alligators. One of the requirements he had for a toy alligator was that it have a mouth that could be opened, so that it could devour its prey and so he could tie a top-jaw rope on it. He has a stuffed alligator named Smiley that he still sleeps with, that never left his side in Memphis except for those times when his blood counts were too low to allow him to have stuffed animals.

When Steven was five and Sean was three, we went to Orlando for two weeks with my parents. Only four days out of those two weeks were spent at Disneyworld, the remainder of our time was spent at the Kennedy Space Center and visiting the two alligator farms in my parents' photo albums.

When we watched the alligator show at Gatorland, at the end of the show they announced that people could come forward and for $10 they could have their photo taken on the back of an alligator. Steven got up and ran to the beginning of the line even before the words were out of the man's mouth. It never even occurred to him to ask permission, he knew that opportunity was for him.

Steve Irwin was responsible for sparking Steven's interest in crocodilians originally, but he continued his quest for knowledge by poring over adult books with photos for hours at a time.

I was driving one day with Steven in the car when Doug was out of town. One of our pets is a California King Snake and it was time to feed it.

We were driving to a pet store to buy a mouse to feed to the snake. It was a task I usually leave to Doug, but Doug wasn't home to do it.

Steven was trying to understand why it bothered me to feed the mouse to the snake. He watched Discovery and other animal shows constantly, he was well aware of the relationship between predator and prey.

He informed me matter-of-factly that sometimes even God made mistakes. He told me that mice and other rodents were mistakes, and that God made snakes to keep the rodent population in check.

He went up the food chain and speculated that alligators were mistakes also, partly because there no predators to keep them in check. I asked him why God couldn't make another animal that would prey on alligators and Steven told me it was because anything that preyed on alligators would be too dangerous to humans, too much like dinosaurs.

In November 2003, a little over nine years after my introduction to Steve Irwin, we were home from Memphis, having completed radiation and trying to prepare ourselves for Steven's upcoming stem cell transplants.

During that six weeks at home, Make-A-Wish came to visit and interview Steven about what sort of wish he might like.

There was no hesitation-- Steven asked to travel to visit the Australia Zoo and to meet Steve Irwin.

The Make-A-Wish people left to make inquiries to see if such a wish was possible. After a few weeks, they got back to me and said that they could put together a wish for him to go to Australia and visit the zoo, but that they'd inquired and found out that Steve Irwin didn't usually meet Wish Kids. They said that if he happened to be there on the day that Steven was there, he might meet with him, but that meeting wish kids wasn't something he usually did.

Steven was very disappointed, since meeting Steve Irwin in person was definitely a big component of his wish, but he rallied and came up with the idea for our awesome trip to visit the polar bears. Everything worked out.

Steven and the rest of us still enjoyed watching Steve Irwin on TV and Steven never spoke of his first wish that didn't work out, but I think we were all still a little disappointed.

When we heard of Steve Irwin's death on September 4, it seemed surreal, that someone who was so fearless and full of life, and who took so many risks would die in a freak accident that wasn't particularly risky to begin with.

We were out of town last week and I didn't see it, but a friend of mine told me she'd watched an interview with Terri Irwin and she'd spoken about Steve Irwin and the Make-A-Wish kids.

I tracked down a video of the interview, and this is what Terri Irwin said:

"He had absolutely no fear for his own mortality, but it would absolutely level him if someone else was sick, or injured, or if we lost someone else. It would level him. You know, Ray, he couldn't meet Make-A-Wish kids because he would cry for weeks. He would cry for weeks..."

I am thankful that Terri shared that. It's not something that Steven has ever spoken of, he's not one to dwell on life's disappointments.

I called Steven over and showed the video to him. He listened, then turned with tears in his eyes and said, "I understand now. That makes me feel a lot better."

Steve Irwin's passion and dedication to the preservation of wildlife has made an impact on our family that no other television personality has done.

Thank you, Steve Irwin. Thank you for bringing your passion and enthusiasm for wildlife into our home. Thank you for entertaining us with your wild antics.

Thank you for making a positive difference in the life of my little boy and countless others.

Rest in peace, Steve.

- Kathleen

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