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The Pandas at the National Zoo Became Part of My Family

In the summer of 2014, I was sitting at my desk when I received an email from my mom. “She was being so naughty today,” Mom wrote. “She was jumping off a platform onto Mommy’s head.” The “she” in this message, I knew, was referring to the giant panda Bao Bao, who had been born at the National Zoo the summer before and who had been the subject of our emails, text messages, and adoration for nearly a year.

At the time, I was 28 years old, building a career in Washington, D.C. My mom was 58 and nearing the end of a second career in labor advocacy in Oklahoma. Her first had been to raise me and my brother. But an abnormal chest X-ray was a harbinger of tragedy for our family. Three years later, she would undergo a lung transplant. She died from complications just two years after that.

But back then, sitting at desks half a country apart, we each kept the Smithsonian Giant Panda Cam on our computer screens and sent commentary back and forth throughout the workday. “Poor Bao Bao! Still can’t get her butt up in the air,” read one message my mom sent me. “Bao Bao is trying to eat bamboo!” read one I sent to her.

Pandas became our thing. We sent screenshots and videos. We used a set of panda-specific iMessage stickers in our texts. When my mom would call me, the photo that I had programmed to pop up on my phone was not of her but of Mei Xiang, the panda mom. When I called her, a photo of Bao Bao appeared on her phone. It was the kind of simple, ritualized communication that subtly deepens relationships over time. If we had nothing else in our lives to talk about, we at least had the pandas.

[Read: The aftermath of a mass slaughter at the zoo]

Later this month, the pandas will leave the National Zoo to return to China. The bears who became part of my family will now be half a world away.

In our messages, my mom regularly expressed concern for Mei Xiang, that she seemed exhausted and overwhelmed caring for a small creature by herself. But Mom also took delight in Bao Bao’s antics. The young cub would act like a human toddler, using her mom’s round body like a jungle gym. Then, as she grew, Bao Bao sought her own space by climbing up into trees in the panda enclosure, even when it was not clear how she would get down. As we went back and forth about the pandas, I saw motherhood through my mother’s eyes for the first time, how rewarding and depleting it was, how ungrateful and unaware a child could be. I saw how her concern for Mei Xiang reflected the concerns she’d had for herself as a young mother, the thousands of times she’d put her children’s needs before her own.

My brother was with us when we finally visited the National Zoo and saw Bao Bao in person. The cub sat on a rock right in front of the viewing window, and we were able to see this furry celebrity ourselves. I remember feeling like hours of watching her grow up gave us some kind of kinship with her. My mom called her “our baby”—and she was.

For us, Bao Bao and Mei Xiang served as stand-ins, a pair on whom we could project things that we either did not have the words to say or that we found too hard to say at the time. I see how much work it is to be a good parent. Thank you for everything you gave up for us.

In 2017, Bao Bao was sent to China as part of the agreement that allowed pandas to live outside the country. Any panda born outside China had to be returned before they reached 4 years old. My mom and I were sad but also happy to see “our” panda grown up and heading out into her adult life. I took solace that Mei Xiang was still nearby. Tian Tian, the sire of Mei Xiang’s cubs, also remained at the National Zoo. More panda cubs followed, first Bei Bei (and a twin that did not survive) in 2015, and then, miraculously, Xiao Qi Ji in 2020, during the pandemic. I followed each cub faithfully, but never had the same connection I had felt with Mei Xiang and Bao Bao.

After my mom died, the task of sorting through her stuff fell mostly to my father and me. Along with the material objects of her life—the scarves, recipe cards, and Book of Common Prayer—much of what I have of hers is digital messages, many of them about the birth and growth of a giant panda, and all the work that went into raising her.

On the first anniversary of my mom’s death, I commemorated her with a tattoo of Mei Xiang on my leg. The panda is happily crunching on bamboo, as she had in the days after Bao Bao had been transferred to her own enclosure, the work of motherhood completed. There she is, enjoying a time of bliss and rest—what I wanted for my mother.

It’s hard to explain how much the pandas have touched me. They’ve left an indelible mark on my life, my heart, my skin.

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