Today was Juniper's second birthday, and because her mother left for work before she had even woken up, I was prepared to let this be the kind of day where anything Juniper demanded, Juniper would get. I would ask her what she wanted to do, and we would do it. If she wanted to eat her birthday cake for breakfast, she would eat cake. This was my first mistake.

After wiping the chocolate frosting from her lips and forehead, I asked her what she wanted to do, and she answered, "go to zoo; see animals?" We go to the zoo almost every week, and it's one of three possible responses she could have given to that query. I actually prefer the zoo to the other two possibilities--- the playgroup where little white boys beat on her and the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit where stuffed creatures urinate against a stuffed-animal shantytown (Juniper calls it "Babies Pee-pee!"---I'm sure this is what the artist was going for)---so we went to the zoo.

When we arrived, we quickly realized we were the only people there. I'm serious: there was not another soul at the zoo who was not either getting paid to be there or volunteering their time. I felt like a slave escorting a deified two-year-old Persian queen throughout her own private menagerie on the outskirts of ancient Persepolis. It was as though I'd I rented the entire zoo just for her birthday. Despite temperatures hovering around 17 degrees, it was pretty magical. As with so many things in Detroit, there is a certain post-apocalyptic joy to being the only ones. Juniper watched a zookeeper cram tiny fish down the gullets of penguins, then wandered around the penguinarium by herself like an emperor penguin: staccato steps with becoated arms flapping at her side. We wandered alone through the butterfly house, and another zookeeper allowed her feed mealworms directly to a bold Asian bluebird in the free-flight aviary. Almost all of the animals were out and easy to see in the snow. When the lion roared I told her he was wishing her a happy birthday. When the zebras ran up to where we were standing, I told her they wanted to see the birthday girl. When I told her the polar bear wanted to eat some of her birthday cake, she shouted, "no share birthday cake polar bear!"

The Detroit zoo is an old one. It is landscaped with a grand, quarter-mile-long concourse between the gate and all the worthwhile animals. In warm weather it is pleasant enough to stroll past the fountains and statuary, but even in warm weather that distance means that when your Joey pitches a fit in the kangaroo habitat, you've got a long walk back to your minivan, mate. Today, inside the giraffe house, Juniper decided to throw the worst tantrum I have ever seen from her. I sneaked a look at my cell phone. We had been at the zoo for nearly three hours, and we were at the furthest point possible from the car. She sat on the ground and kicked her feet. She wanted me to hold her. When I held her she wanted her mama. When I told her that her mama was at work, she screamed. Outside, her screaming roused a flock of flamingos huddled together for warmth. The chimpanzees wailed with her from inside the monkey house. Bison and antelope and wolverines ran for cover. The tigers cowered and howled with fear. Juniper's screaming reached a certain pitch optimal for agitating every wild animal for miles. Tonight, with a few hours between me and that tantrum, I can almost marvel at its scale. It was the closest I have ever come to experiencing something like what's described in the book of Revelations.

On one hand, I was glad we were the only patrons at the zoo, because there wasn't anybody there to judge my parenting. But eventually I did get a little scared. She had never screamed so relentlessly before. She had never seemed so immune to all my comforting. I suddenly imagined her appendix bursting inside her, or worse, some other, less-useless organ coming loose from its tubes, splashing blood and bile across her viscera, a source of pain that would cause her to emit such bloodcurdling screams that no animal in any kingdom is available for a convenient simile here: there they all were, with me, aghast at the display, frightened off to hide in their holes from the cold and the din surging from my daughter. None dared compete with a two-year old child.

I ran with her. I held her in my arms like a firefighter bursting from a building collapsing in flames behind him, only less manly (but that's a given: plus, I was singing Happy Birthday). Eventually we found ourselves at the otter house, a building with radiated heat coming from a long sheath of metal slung across the ceiling. She screamed as I unbundled her, setting her layers like matryoshki halves next to us, my tiny 23-lb toddler emerging from her warm winter clothes to climb into my coat and rest her wet cheek against the skin of my neck, still sobbing, and I patted her back and sang her a song and I took off her socks and rubbed her cold, bare feet in my hands and she stopped. I stood and danced with her like I did two years ago when we first brought her home from the hospital, still learning how to show her she was safe with us, that we were warmth and that her silent breathing on our chest was all we wanted from the world. I sat back down and rocked her and wondered what the mystery was. All the cold? All that cake? The fear that a polar bear would eat the rest of it before she could? I felt her breathing on my chest and I knew she wasn't in pain. I felt her fingers fumble with the zipper of my coat, and she swung her head back and she looked up at me and shouted "Name!" This is what she does when she doesn't know the word for something. "Zipper," I said, and she repeated it. "Where'd otter go?" she asked, and I pointed to the creature who had been sleeping in a hollow log this whole time. "Otter wake up!" she exclaimed, and then whimpered a bit while I put her clothes back on her.

She was two now. She showed me with her fingers once they slipped through the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She was just letting me know.

Original comment stream here