One afternoon not long ago, Nico called me from the bus stop. I was at the dentist with Scout.
“MOM! YOU NEED TO COME HERE RIGHT NOW! I NEED HELP!”
“Honey, I’m at the dentist with your sister. What’s wrong?” I tried to swallow the panic. Was he hurt? Being kidnapped? Had he cracked his phone?
“No, Mom, you have to come right now! There’s this turtle….wait….I just need to….okay, I’m tucking some of its insides under the shell….MOM. I need to save it.”
Twelve-year-old Nico cannot stand to see an animal suffer. (Note: his younger sister doesn’t count as an animal.) It slays him. Two years ago, while walking Buddy the Wonder Dog, I shooed away a neighborhood dog who was following us away from his home. Nico literally has never forgiven me for “hurting that dog’s feelings.”
“Nico,” I said, “I can’t come right this minute. I’ll be there as soon as I’m done here. Why don’t you leave the turtle there and I’ll help you when I get home?” I was picturing a giant snapping turtle capable of biting off fingers.
“No, I – wait. Okay. Mom? I gotta go.” And he hung up on me.
A little while later, I pulled into my driveway. The injured turtle, about the size of a cantaloupe, was resting on a beach towel spread over a patch of grass, and Nico was tending to it. He had assembled an array of tools and supplies: carrots, apple slices, a steak knife, a nail file, and duct tape.
The prognosis was Not Good. A car had evidently run over the little guy, and a giant zig zag crack ran the length of its shell. Several of its organs seemed to be spilling out. Its mouth opened and closed slowly. It made futile attempts to crawl.
“Honey. I don’t think this turtle is -”
“MOM! Don’t say that! We need to take him to the vet! Please, Mom, we have to help him! Get back in the car! We have to!” A handful of neighborhood children had gathered around to watch, and they looked at me expectantly.
Okay, I should have taken the turtle to the vet so a professional could put it out of its misery. I see that now. But – okay, I also see how this makes me sound – how much would that cost me? This reptile was doomed and it wasn’t my fault. Gawd, there is always so much drama at my house. “I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Let’s put the turtle in the outdoor shower. I’ll run some water over it, and it’ll be safe. Maybe it just needs some rest.” I swear, I think I lie to my children every single day.
Nico looked at me balefully. Then he gently used the knife to again tuck the turtle’s organs back under the shell. Surgery complete, he cut up some pieces of duct tape and adhered them to the turtle’s back to hold the shell together. It was the worst case of accidental animal abuse I had ever seen. When he was done, I carried the turtle to the backyard and placed it in the outdoor shower. I ran some water over it because turtles are supposed to look wet.
The next morning, Nico ran outside to check on it. When he returned, his big brown eyes looked a little watery. “He didn’t make it, Mom,” he said. I hugged him, and told him how important it is that he showed an injured animal some kindness during its last hours of life. He hugged me back, and finished getting ready for school. As he left for the bus stop, he turned to me and said, “Mom, you better not throw him away. I mean it. You need to bury it. And mark it. I will be looking for the burial mark, Mom. Do NOT throw it in the trash.”
I didn’t bury the turtle that day, nor did I bury it the next day. After three days, it began to smell, so I put it in a box, wrapped it in an old towel, and placed it carefully in the trash. Nico never asked about where it went.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about grief. The two-year anniversary of my father’s death passed, and then I attended a memorial service for a friend’s husband, and then another one for my BFF’s sister. In addition, the Las Vegas shooting, the Puerto Rico devastation, and now the New York terrorist attack have landed on our mental plates like healthy doses of hemlock. All of it makes me a little bit sick.
Isn’t that exactly what grief is? A bit of a sickness? None of these awful events made me gnash my teeth or throw my body prostrate on the ground. I didn’t cry so hard that I burst the blood vessels in my eyes, nor did I stop eating. To be fair, though, I actually never stop eating. But I felt sick. Not all the time, and not debilitatingly so, but still.
After my dad died, I harbored some guilt because I wasn’t crying all the time. I didn’t venture out slowly, my eyes swollen, red splotches on my face. People won’t think I loved him that much, I thought. Grief is different for everyone, but for most of us, I think, it’s not like a bullet that stops us cold. It’s more like an ache that permeates our states of being, a nagging little discomfort that rests in the back of our brains. It changes who we are. Most often, though, it doesn’t keep us from waking up, making coffee, and diving back into the world. It’s just that – well, sometimes, that little ache reminds us of what we used to have.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I would not have descend into your own dream. “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
Surely it is a beautiful and terrible world for my Nico. His life is filled with so much beautiful love now – but he perennially grieves over the terrible, inevitable consequences of adoption.
Yet each day he laughs and smiles and hugs me tight. He strokes his dog’s head, and whispers in his ears. And he makes room in his enormous heart for a poor little turtle left alone and dying in the street. There was no hope for Nico’s little turtle. It was doomed from the minute Nico stepped off the bus. I think even Nico might have known that. But how can I surrender to the ravages of grief when a boy with such heart handles his grief with such grace and forgiveness?
I wish I had buried that turtle. I wish I had left a marker there. It might have helped to remind me of the beautiful goodness that can dull the sharp, achy edges of grief.