Turtle World

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.


We’re all livin’…Kumbaya

One of the first major differences one notices when moving from a bustling city to the quaint and quiet country is the increase of critter sightings. All kinds of critters, big and small, become part of the backdrop to daily chores and travels.

As I’m typing this, I’m still struggling with two rosebush thorns buried deep in the side of my right index finger after a dangerous rescue mission.

Last week, on one of those heated afternoons where the sun microwaves the standing water off the cement and up through the sky, I noticed our two dogs, Thing One and Thing Two, frantically digging, pawing, and fussing at the underside of our rosebush that’s closest to the road.   Being dangerously near the spot where I found that poor half-eaten Mickey Mouse a few weeks ago, I approached cautiously with my trimming shears and a boot. The dogs fussed and whined, “Look mom, do you see it? Look what we found! What is it? Get it!!”

It took me a while to figure out what they smelled because I wasn’t sure what I was looking for besides my fear that it could be a diseased rodent (yes, they’re cute, but their unpredictable behavior and sharp teeth would make any mom nervous.)

Pushing aside thorned-limbs here and there while swatting away the bees that I disturbed and using the back of my gardening glove to wipe the sweat from my brow, I finally realized that a dinner-plate sized turtle had somehow wedged itself way up in the branches of this bush. His legs, head, and tail were bunched up in his shell, but I could see his little nostrils and the glint of his glossy, black eyes peeking back at me.

I have no idea how this clearly determined and adventurous turtle must have gotten this far into the oversized bush, because I ended up having to chop away somewhere between a third and a half of the entire plant just to reach him. I chopped branch after branch after branch (still following the advice to trim at the knuckles) and finally made a clearing large enough to squeeze in and grab the shelled-fella. The dogs were ecstatic. I retrieved what they thought must have become their new toy. They bounced like Tigger and woofed and wagged, but I only gave them a sniff before telling them to be nice.

The reptile enthusiast in me wanted to keep the turtle. When I was 10 years old, my dad and I were on a drive down a long country highway when we happened upon a small tortoise crossing the road. I screamed for him to pull over, so we did, and that little guy became my pet who lived in our backyard for the next 11 years. Every winter, he would hibernate, and every February, he would emerge and yawn for an hour and urinate for just as long. I loved that tortoise. Sheldon was his name.  Alas, he ran away when I was off at college. My tortoise ran away.

But here’s the strange thing. As much as I wanted to keep this turtle for what I believe was mostly nostalgic-sake, this country life has taught me how much all these little critters need each other to exist properly. There’s a much more clearly illustrated circle of life out here.

For example, a few days before this turtle rescue mission, I took Little Foot around the corner to the lake to watch the clouds, the ripples, and the reflections. As we approached the shore (and forgive me for graphic descriptions here), we passed a very large, bloated, white-bellied deer, hooves up and neck kinked out to the side in the field next to the lake-access point. I’m not sure how this poor girl ended up here – I didn’t see any sign of attack. But there she was. Her fur still shiny and body perfectly in-tact. I couldn’t be certain, but she still looked warm. Even the flies hadn’t found her yet. I made sure to keep Little Foot’s attention on the water – not that I think he’d understand death yet, but why take the chance?

Two days later, all three of us – King Ranch, Little Foot and I – all walked down to the lake again and all that was left of this poor girl was bare bone. BARE BONE. Not even all of them. I’m flabbergasted with how quickly the food chain cleared her away. Sad. But also amazed.

Our status is dwarfed out here. Humans, I mean. I don’t feel like we reign supreme like we like to think we do elsewhere. As sad as it was to see such an elegant creature succumb to death and ultimately scavengers completely decomposing her, I can’t help but appreciate how many other animals and their families must have been fed. I would do anything necessary to feed my child – so don’t they have the same right?

Even though this living-along-side of nature instead of over it makes me feel smaller, it gives me purpose. I feel like I’m a part of something here – some sort of centuries-old order of man vs beast. It’s instinctual. It’s primal. It’s much more than convenience and scheduling.

It causes me to more deeply consider my own mortality. This is something that happened when I became a parent. It hit me dramatically one night when I put Toy Story on to watch with Little Foot. I so distinctly remembered enjoying this movie as a child while my parents watched us watch it. I had no idea then that I would one day be seeing Woody and Buzz battle it out with my own child. Yet, there I was, Little Foot in my lap, his eyes fixated on the screen while I rested my nose on the top of his head that still has that toast-like, new-born baby smell.  It was overwhelming – a circle of life moment. I cried. It was a precious moment in parenthood. A very temporary, blink-of-an-eye moment. There will be a day all too soon when Little Foot is off to hang out with his friends, not daring to sit and watch cartoons with me.

I imagine it was a blink-of-an-eye moment that was the last of that belly-up deer. A blink-of-an-eye moment that the turtle got stuck in the bush (as fast as a turtle can blink an eye, of course.) And it forces an appreciation of each of these moments. These moments that now days we can’t seem to get through quickly enough. I hear so often that “I can’t wait until Friday” or “Geeze is it five o’clock yet?” It makes me sad that the human race has turned into a ‘getting through the day’ species. All of these days add up and are gone before we realize it. Then it’s over. Like the deer…recognizable one day…a pile of some bones the next. A whole creature: gone.

Whatever you may or may not believe happens to us when we exhale our last breath is beside the point. What matters is that each of these moments we experience…well…they’ll never come back. So soak them all in. We’re all a part of something much bigger and complex than we could ever comprehend. So don’t try to. Instead, just soak in the surroundings. Give the little guy a hand. Marvel in the beauty that are these moments.

I let the turtle go. I imagine that he has returned home having experienced adventure – that his friends are noting how different he is now that he’s returned more worldly and wise. A great adventure. That’s all this life really is – a great adventure. Big or small, we all have opportunities to do something good – to live fully and with purpose. Most importantly, we have the opportunity to all be in this together.