May 20, 2013

Of cheetah spots and heroes

My Baby J,
Yesterday evening, I can say without a doubt in my mind, was a life-changer for you. For as long as I can remember, you have wanted to meet Dr. Laurie Marker, and last night, you finally were able to do so. For years, we have been checking every issue of "Cheetah Strides" and the website hoping that Dr. Marker's travels would bring her close enough to where you could go see her--and finally...FINALLY...she landed right in Houston.

You looked so beautiful last night. You don't like to dress up; you're not a fancy kid. But last night, with your thick hair wrapped into a low, side-swept bun and organza flowers in your hair, you looked gorgeous. Your leopard-print feather earrings, and cheetah-spotted sandals were a nice touch. :)

On the way to the country club, you were finally spoke up and said, "I just don't know what to say to her, mommy."
"She's a normal person, Jen. Just talk to her like you would a normal person."
"But she's NOT a normal person!! She's DOCTOR LAURIE MARKER!!"
And our ride continued in silence.

When we pulled into the country club, you were visibly excited. We walked to the front, and were greeted by a cart-boy who asked, "Are you here for the VIP event?" I nodded yes, and he mentioned how cool it was and how he hoped to catch a glimpse of the cheetahs. Of course, Jen, you took that as your cue to begin talking about Dr. Marker, and how you couldn't wait to meet her! That young man so nice--he listened to you as you went on and on about saving cheetahs--with a smile on his face. You held my hand as we entered the clubhouse and I practically had to hold you down to the ground as we came upon the first welcome sign.

We walked into the reception area, and were greeted by a lovely young woman named Kaitlin. She was tall, blonde (had her hair in a ponytail), and was wearing a cheetah-print skirt. A REAL cheetah-print skirt--not a leopard-print skirt, as you pointed out. You immediately became charmed with her. Turns out that Kaitlin volunteered at the Cheetah Conservation Fund a few years ago, and is now a PhD student at Texas A&M studying cheetahs. Being kind, she began chatting with you, and then, upon realizing that you could hold your own, REALLY began talking to you. Jen, she was so very impressed with you. She gave you her business card and told you to email her whenever you wanted, and she would be happy to talk about cheetahs with you. Then, we met another young woman named Imogene. She is at West Texas A&M and is working on her PhD studying bobcats. She invited you to come up to Amarillo anytime, and she would take you in the field with her! Baby, these young woman were overly impressed with you and your knowledge about the conservation efforts for big cats. I actually just sat back and watched you. And honestly, I tried not to cry. And then...the big moment...

You were standing next to me, just beaming, and I said, "Jen...look who it is..." You turned, and saw the back of Dr. Marker as she was hugging someone. You grabbed my arm in a death grip, and started to cry. You led me out of that room so fast! We had to sit around the corner, as you whimpered, "Mommy, mommy, I can't do this!! I can't breathe, mommy! That's my hero!!" with tears running down your face. I had to sit there and fan your face with our copy of "Cheetah Strides," and just kept saying, "'s okay, it's okay...just breathe!!" After about 3 minutes, you finally regained composure and walked back around the corner. As you did, Dr. Marker saw you. A huge smile spread across her face, and she walked right up to you, and embraced you in a big bear hug. She looked at you and said, "Jenna, it is SO good to finally meet you!" Again, I tried not to cry. I apologized to Dr. Marker for your tears and told her, "She's so overwhelmed with finally getting to meet you! She's waited so long for this to happen!" And Dr. Marker said, "Oh, me, too!" and hugged you again. THEN, then...she introduced you to several of her friends as, "This is Jenna, my very special 'cheetah friend'!" and my God, I thought your face would explode. She wrapped her arm around you, and invited you, an 11-year old, into her conversations with the other adults at the reception. She spoke to you as if you were a working conservationist, and it was fabulous. As she flitted around and talked to other people, you were going right around speaking to other adults about cheetah conservation, and every time, they'd look at me with this look in their eyes, and i'd just smile and shrug my shoulders. I don't know how many times I heard, "She is amazing!" "What an awesome young lady!" and more times than I can count, "THAT is the future of cheetah conservation!" Again...I am SO PROUD, Jenna!
After everyone chatted for a while, we walked outside where the Houston Zoo had brought their two cheetahs. Unfortunately, due to the rules and regulations of the U.S., we could not touch them. You were okay with that, since you've actually touched cheetahs before. We sat in view of the cheetahs, and you listened intently as Dr. Marker began her speech. At one point, she was talking about the numbers of cheetahs left in this world, and how it's such hard work to save them, and educate people about the CCF's efforts. She said, "I am who the CCF is NOW...and this young lady [and she pointed to YOU] is the CCF's future. It's going to be children like this that educate the next generation--and it's going to be children like this that educate the world about cheetahs." Your smile lit up the evening sky. At another point, she was talking about volunteering at CCF, and she said, "All of the young students that we get at CCF become 'my kids'. Here's one of my kids right here [and she walked over to Kaitlyn] and here's another of my kids right here [and she pointed to you]." Again, more smiles. But the highlight of the speech was when Dr. Marker was discussing a future without cheetahs, and she specifically called you out and said, "Jenna, can you imagine a world without cheetahs? What would you do?" and you answered, "No, I can't imagine that! I would be so sad--cheetahs are my life, and i'm going to do everything I can to save them!" This time, a huge smile--from Dr. Marker.

By the end of this speech, many of the group were walking to the front to get pictures with the cheetahs. You asked if you could go talk to some of the people. Of course, I said, "Sure," and let you go. I sat in my chair with a glass of wine, and watched you carry on conversations with three of your new PhD-student friends. You guys literally sat there and talked about cheetahs for 15 solid minutes. 

We eventually moved inside to grab something to munch on, and after you fixed your plate, you asked, "May I go outside? I need to tell Dr. Marker something..." You walked through the doors, and I sat at the table--totally out of MY element, but watching you in yours. A few moments later, you walked back in, and struck up a conversation with a lion/tiger conservationist at our table. Whom promptly teared up and said, "I'm sorry I'm so emotional, but it is SO NICE to see a child so knowledgeable and with so much passion about this! It gives me hope for the future!" Agreed.

As the night began to wrap up, Dr. Marker came back inside and said, "Could I get one last picture with my dear friends?" a few people (those that have worked at the CCF, and two of her best friends walked up) and Dr. Marker looked around, and said, "Jenna! Get up here!" HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR LIFE.

Dr. Marker hugged you goodbye, gave me her business card, and told you that she was SO proud of you, and that the sooner you can get to Namibia, the better.

All the way home, from the moonlight shining through the sunroof, I was blessed with the biggest smile I have EVER seen on your face.

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