Saturday, May 20, 2006

A passing in the Bradstein household

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
--John Donne
Some people, sweet and attractive, strong and healthy, happen to die young. They are masters in disguise teaching us about impermanence.
--H.H. Dalai Lama

Yesterday, our beautiful, vivacious companion, she of the brilliant eyes and resplendent carpace, Mama's turtle, passed away.

On a bright and clear day around seven years ago, Mama and I made our way to Denver from our home in the mountains to find a companion for my turtle, who I've had since the summer after 6th grade--26 years now. Mama also wanted a pet of her own, and we found a lively girl with a beautiful shell who captured Mama's heart. This little girl was an ornate box turtle, as is my old boy, but unlike him, she was none too fond of socializing with us, retreating into and closing her shell when we picked her up and tried to talk to her. When we let her loose around the pet store, however, she showed her fierce spirit, sprinting--yes, turtles do that--down the aisles, seeking an escape route.

Back home, we put our two terrapins together with the one that we'd gotten Buddy, Mama's best friend, who was our roommate at the time. They all shared a large pen in the garage, with multiple basking lamps, plants, heated rocks, baths, and burrows to explore and enjoy. It was a luxurious life. In the brief summer, we would take her out to the flower bed beside our room, where we had planted sunflowers that shot up past our picture window over the roof of our house, so we could only see their fat, seed-heavy heads from outside the house.

We would flood the bed to both water the sunflowers and drive all the bugs out of the dirt. Mama's little girl would chase every insect down, swallowing most in one bite, often going after the next victim while still swallowing the previous one. She was a merciless hunter who never tired of the chase.

Accommodations have been a bit more constrained for our two carpace-bound companions since we moved here--there's no affording a garage here in the DC area for us--but they've done all right together. Although, for short periods we moved my old boy out when he was persistently hassling Mama's girl for mating privileges, which to the best of our knowledge, she never granted. She was always of her own mind.

That's why it came to us as a surprise when she laid her first eggs three years ago. We had missed the laying of them, and they weren't viable by the time we discovered them. Curious, we did some reading and found that it appears that she could have laid these without having mated, or she could have fertilized them before laying with sperm that she had stored from a previous mating. Store sperm? Turtles' will to survive and procreate never ceases to amaze me. We passed it off as a strange fluke until it happened again last year. She laid them in the water dish that time, and by the time we found them in the morning they were certainly not viable.

This year, Mama had been doing more reading about it, in anticipation of another clutch of eggs, and she had become more concerned about the risk of her little girl becoming eggbound. Call it a mother's intuition, because that's what appears to have happened this year when she attempted to lay eggs again, resulting in her death. We both feel terrible because we feel like we might have been able to do something if only we had known, and we feel terrible for not keeping closer tabs on them, although even if we had, we might not have seen any warning signs.

I feel especially bad because Mama has been banned from terrapin contact during pregnancy to avoid contracting any of the nasties, particularly salmonella, that they can carry, so it was really on me to spot this and do something about it. Let me tell you, it's not a confidence booster for an expectant father to discover that he can't even provide adequate care for a turtle just a few weeks before his son is born.

On the flip side, my old boy is still around (knocking on wood as I type), so I must either be doing something right, or have been blessed with good ol' fashioned dumb luck when I got him. My vote is for dumb luck.

Whether we chalk it up to bad luck or bad animal husbandry doesn't matter. After all these years with the beautiful little girl as a companion wherever we go--we even took them to Grandma's for Christmas one year; I'm sure that the loved going somewhere even colder to celebrate--losing her is hard to take. While it seems a small thing, a pet turtle's death, that it came so unexpectedly was part of what made it hard to take. After all, she was younger than my old boy, so we figured that she would be with us for many years to come, especially given her robust health and her year-round liveliness.

And perhaps it's just our pregnancy hormones that are amplifying our feelings, or it could be that it's especially hard to take, knowing that she died in what was, for her, childbirth when we are facing the birth of our own child so soon. There is also the truth that Donne wrote about, that the death of any one of us diminishes each of us because we are all part of the whole. I found that her death reminded me of the mortality of everyone around me and that my sadness seemed to reach out from the present like a clasping shadow to grasp and bring back to my present self all of the deaths that have crossed my heart before. So perhaps it's the shades of deaths past that are making my thoughts dwell on this one so long.

I don't want to make it sound as though we are laying immobile in bed, wailing our days away, but her passing has certainly colored our perceptions of the past day, and it's still hard to talk about; we have yet to tell our parents about it, although I'll be calling my mom to tell her tomorrow. Happy Sunday. After all, Mama's resplendent reptile was a steady companion for many years, who depended on us for sustenance and shelter, and who we could not save. At a time when we're asking many questions, the Dalai Lama's words are a good reminder of both the wisdom of the unknown and the difficulty of impermanence. As each day passes, and we can see this with greater perpsective, it will become easier to talk about.

At the end of they day yesterday, we took her down to the river that we often walk along with Barky, who also came with us. Mama selected a serene spot next to a small waterfall, with a view into the silent, glassy pool below it that reflects the soft grass, the trees, and the sky above. We dug a deep burrow, just as Mama's beautiful little girl would have for herself, returning her to the earth from which she had been born.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
--Psalm 23:2

We love her, and we shall miss her. And when we think of her passing, we shall remember how deeply we cherish life.


  1. Anonymous2:58 PM

    Some people find it hard to understand us pet types when we lose one of our friends, who really is part of our family. Cilla and I are sad at your loss.
    We have the dead album on now with those 2 dancing hard shells on the cover.

    Counting stars by candlelight
    Some are dim but one is bright
    The spiral light on Venus
    Rising first and shining best
    Oh, from the north-west corner
    Of a brand new crescent moon
    Where crickets and cicadas sing
    A rare and different tune
    Terrapin Station
    In the shadow of the moon
    Terrapin Station
    And I know we'll be there soon

  2. Very sad news.

    As I was driving through Alabama (Alabama? somewhere, anyhow), I whizzed past a funny rock on the road that I realized only a fraction of a second later was shaped exactly like a turtle.

    It was already too late to stop. Or I could have offered a new friend to help you through the dark night of your souls.

    Glad to hear the other habitue of the heat lamp is still alive and crawling. I'd hate to have to come up with another use for a hot rock.

  3. Hey guys - I'm sorry that I'm a bit belated on this one. I didn't get to much blog reading at all since last week...

    I'm so sorry for your loss. I know how much the death of a pet can hurt. When I moved to DC, I transported my goldfish with me in the car. One of them was SIX YEARS OLD if you can believe that. I rushed upstairs to add cool water to their tank as soon as we arrived from our 7 hour drive and the chemicals in the DC water killed them within hours. I was devastated. My thoughts are with you!

  4. Anonymous8:37 PM

    It doesn't matter if our friends are furry, have legs or gills, weigh 1 pound or 50, their passing is always hard to take. I am sorry for your loss, even after all this time. I was a pet grief counselor and people who lose animals don't always get the respect they deserve while they are trying to grieve. It's not "just an animal" and I hope you were given the respect and consideration you deserved during this time.

    It was a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.