For three days, I’ve watched a turtle become less and less a turtle and more and more a dark stain on the one road that leads out of town. I wished I had seen the turtle when it was alive: I would have pulled over to move it to the other side.
Once, when I was 10 years old, I sat in the passenger seat of my dad’s car as we drove along a similar country road—two lanes with woods and pastures on either side. I couldn’t tell you where we were headed or coming from, but I remember my dad suddenly slamming on the brakes of his car with a stick shift so that when reached his arm out across my chest instead of shifting gears, the car bucked violently and stalled.
I’d pinched my eyes shut during all of this and when I opened them, my dad was unbuckling his seat belt, looking behind us and in front of us. He turned quickly to me and said, “Stay here.”
I nodded and watched as he jogged with his khaki shorts around the front of the car and bent down although I couldn’t tell for what—the hood blocked my view. My heart thudded painfully. When he stood, my dad’s hands were cupped around something that he held up to his chest. He looked at it and then at me, grinning his sideways grin that everyone says I have, too.
When he sank back into the car, he reached his closed hands towards me and slowly opened them. It was a small box tortoise, retreated completely into it shell. Upon closer inspection, I could see the glint of little black, terrified eyes.
I smiled and looked at my dad who was grinning—lines reaching from the outside corners of his eyes. He said, “I had one just like this when I was a boy,” and handed the small, scared creature to me. It was much larger in my hands…and warm.
Every time I’ve passed this disappearing turtle on the road that leads out of town, I’ve thought of my dad. He would have saved the turtle, too. He has a soft spot for every kind of creature. I get text messages from him often containing pictures of animals. Sometimes it’s a peacock. Sometimes a dalmatian. He sends me elephants and monkeys and emus.
When passing the disappearing turtle, I think of my dad because he would grieve like I have been for days. He would be angry that someone hit it instead of stopping. He would blame society—that the world moves too fast and if people would just slow down for a minute, they could do better. He would take a long sip from his Shiner Bock and say something about how lucky the turtle is to be in a better place—that he’s even a bit envious that the turtle gets to be at peace now.
Then he’d change the subject. He’d talk about work for a while and he’d purposefully avoid politics. But then, after everyone had forgotten the turtle, he’d say, “I would have stopped and moved it to the other side.” His mind would be somewhere very far away.
There’s not another brain or another heart that’s ever been or will ever be quite like my dad’s. The world where he resides is a magical one. There, creatures have large, bugging eyes sometimes made of coins or bottle caps. Hands can talk and sometimes, people don’t have bodies and are instead, just heads with stubbly necks. In my dad’s world, Peter Sellers is the mayor and Basset Hounds are the mascot. Everything is slapstick, except when Jack Bauer is fighting crime.
I think of my dad when I pass the disappearing turtle because if it weren’t for him being him, I might not care so much about the new smudge on the road. I might have forgotten it or chalked it up to “the way of things.” Instead, I find myself furious with the speed of the world, too.
I think of my dad and I am so grateful for his world and that he’s brought my brothers and I into it. We are who we are because he is our dad. He’s fearless and thoughtful. He’s sensitive and very brave. He’s fiercely protective, funny and strange beyond the rules of this world. Because of him, that turtle will live forever.
I love you, dad. You’re the kind of hero that should be in comics: you and your Beagle sidekick saving the world one turtle at a time.