At long last, Lisa Wolfe had an hour of uninterrupted work time. Then her 3-year-old son came to her in tears because his turtle died. What's a mother to do?
It's a sunny Thursday morning and I'm on a tear. An agent has expressed interest in a story I'm completing, and so I want to complete it. I want to complete it for the usual reasons—I'm a writer and want to publish as much as I can—and for an unusual one: We recently moved to Hong Kong at the behest of my husband and his bosses, and guess who spent the months packing, moving, and resettling everyone in Hong Kong? Not my husband or his bosses. The role fell to the person it has traditionally fallen to: the wife. This wife. And I didn't like it one bit. I didn't like how easily everyone assumed I would drop whatever I was doing to support this endeavor (which of course I did, but that's beside the point). I didn't like how after filling out inventory forms, insurance forms, new school applications, and customer-service questionnaires ("How can we make this easier for you in the future?" By not asking me to fill out these blasted questionnaires!), there was hardly time to write a word of my own. I hadn't gone to Barnard to end up as some global June Cleaver.
I turn on my computer with great exhilaration and sit down in its bluish gray glow. Someone will probably discover one day that this glow is toxic, but for now it feels awfully tonic. I sip my coffee. I read what I've written so far. I contemplate what might come next. It's hard to know with me what is inspiration and what is caffeine, but a sentence pops into my head. I write it down. I like it. I get very excited. A good sentence is like good foreplay to me, and all I can think of is more. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. Aidan bursts through the door.
Here you need an explanation of why my 3-year-old isn't at school. Aidan isn't at school because part of the fun of moving to Hong Kong was discovering upon our arrival that every spot in every nursery school was filled until the following term. So he's at home. What I'd like to know is, where is the babysitter I hired to watch him so I can work?
I'm about to get very angry, but then I see my son. He's at the age when his eyes take up three quarters of his face, so when they're mournful it's pretty dramatic.
"Mummy...Mummy...it's terrible...Zebra...is sleeping. A lot."
Zebra is a turtle. When Aidan realized he was not going to break me down to the point of agreeing to get a real zebra in the house, he mercifully decided to name his turtle Zebra instead. Zebra lives with Grandma Sharon (my older son's turtle, named after my mother) in a round plastic turtle home, with little plastic palm trees and a red plastic bridge.
Aidan takes my hand and leads me to him now. "Look!" he cries pointing, knowing as well as I do that this isn't sleep. Never the most active pet to begin with, Zebra now feels like a gunky round rock.
I am triply sad. Sad for the turtle, who was a sweet turtle. Sad for Aidan, who loved him. And sad for me, who for the first time in these chaotic, selfless months showed hope of getting decent work done!
I take a moment to run the situation through in my head. This is no mere case of banged body part or spilled paint cup, where you can kiss it or clean it and get guiltlessly back to work. It's my 3-year-old's first encounter with death. Though the timing sucks, I must respond like a sympathetic parent. Five minutes—okay, ten—to acknowledge his pain, introduce the concept of death, plan to get another turtle. Yes! That's it! Plan to get another turtle. This afternoon around four, when my older son, Nico, is back from school and my brain cells are fried anyway, we will walk over to Mrs. Chang's Pet Shop on Repulse Bay Road and pick out another turtle. Perfect! A not utterly ruthless plan to get back to work in ten minutes.
I sit on the floor beside the plastic turtle home and pull Aidan onto my lap. His body curls stickily into me like larva in a cocoon. His soft blond curls tickle my chin. I am a sucker for these curls. The rest of us in the family have coarse, dark hair, and it's pretty safe to assume that one day in the not-too-distant future Aidan will have it, too. But for the moment, he's blessed with this stuff—so bright it's virtually yellow, so soft that I could melt. But I mustn't melt. At least not now. I'm trying to be a professional. There will be time for sentimentality later, when we go to get a new turtle and my brain cells are fried anyway.
"Do you know what happened to Zebra?" I ask.
Aidan burrows his face deeper into my chest. I can feel the wetness of his tears soak through my T-shirt.
"He died," I say. "I'm so sorry he died. But it happens. Pets die and we feel very sad."
"But I loved him."
"And he loved you. You gave him a beautiful life."
"I gave him dried shrimp."
"You did. The pet-store lady said he'd be fine with dried worms, but you knew he liked shrimp, so you gave him dried shrimp."
"Why did he die?"
"Because creatures die," I say, hoping to God he doesn't make the connection between this creature and human ones—at least not now, when I am trying to get back to work in ten minutes. It's one thing to go back to work if my son is contemplating the death of a turtle; quite another if he's contemplating his death or my own.
"But I didn't want him to die!"
Phew. This still seems to be about the turtle.
"Of course you didn't want him to die. I didn't want him to either. Do you know what we do when a pet dies?"
I can feel the wetness shake "No" against my chest.
"We bury it."
No sooner do the words come out of my mouth than I regret them. This is Hong Kong and there is no earth for miles.
"We bury it?" Aidan asks, perking up, of course, because kids are guaranteed to get excited about anything you regret having said.
"I don't know."
"The beach! Can we bury him on the beach?"
Hong Kong has many beaches, and one is just a short walk away. So on one hand, this is not a bad idea. On the other hand, the current temperature is 90 degrees, the humidity even higher, and what a decomposing turtle might do to sunbathers I don't want to be responsible for.
"Please, please..." Aidan insists. "Let's bury him on the beach."
Thankfully, I have a brainstorm: Ziploc bag! If we stick Zebra in a Ziploc bag first, then I can dig him up later without sending innocents to the hospital.
We stick Zebra in a Ziploc bag. Then we lay him to rest in a bucket in the laundry room, where I tell Aidan he will remain until later in the day.
"But I want to bury him now," Aidan pleads.
"So would I like to bury him now," I say in my best firm-but-loving-and-wouldn't-Penelope-Leach-be-proud parenting voice. "But we can't always do what we want when we want. I have to work. So you're going to play, I'm going to work, and we're going to bury Zebra later in the day."
I kiss Aidan goodbye, turn around, and dash to my office, as if to a secret lover whom I've had to leave in the lurch. I slide back onto my chair as if onto his lap. I close my eyes. I try to remember where we were. Aidan bursts through the door.
"What!" I cry. "What?"
"I don't like him being in a plastic bag."
"You don't like him being in a plastic bag."
"No. I don't."
Here, I remember my prenatal breathing. Those long deep breaths may have been useless during labor, but they sure do come in handy years down the road when you want to whack your kids but know that you can't. "Why don't you go to the terrace and pick some flowers we can put on the grave?"
"Because I don't like him being in a plastic bag."
Okay. I give up. I don't know what to do. On one hand, I want to write. I really want to write. I want to write because I love it—the searching for words, the tapping them out, the truly near-sexual thrill of a sentence coming out right—and because it's important. It's important to work. Important to make money. Important to honor the promise I made to my mother, my grandmother, my professors at Barnard, and myself to be a new kind of woman. A woman who was a good mother, yes, but who also had a life of her own, who did not cave so utterly and wimpily into the callings of her hormones. On the other hand, look at those eyes! That face. Those little crimson lips quivering down at the edges. Does nature do it on purpose, since they are too little to advocate for themselves? Give them these big gooey features to advocate for them? I give up. I give in. I surrender my work and go to my son. Not because I decide to, but because I can't not.
"Come," I say softly, shutting my computer. "Come here."
Aidan, who has been standing hesitantly at the door, rushes over, looking so suddenly well that I wonder whether I might get away with turning my computer back on. "Do you think we should bury Zebra now?" I ask instead.
"I'll go get the flowers!" Aidan cries, running out the door.
We make an unlikely sight on the hot, chaotic street—me and my little son carrying flowers, a shovel, and a turtle named Zebra in a Ziploc bag. An ancient street-sweeper with a round straw hat looks up at us and smiles.
Aidan scours the beach for a good burial spot. He settles on an elevated patch of sand at the base of a palm tree whose trunk strikes him as being striped like a zebra. I help him dig a hole. He lays the turtle down. He fills the hole with sand and arranges the flowers on top. Then he sits down in my lap.
At this point there's a long silence, which my chatty nature feels it should fill up. But I recall one of my favorite parenting lessons (illustrated with the story of little Johnny asking his parents where little Bobby comes from, his parents launching into a painstakingly sensitive explanation of sex, and Johnny replying, "Oh, that's funny, I thought he came from Chicago"), and I bite my tongue. This conversation will not be any bigger than Aidan wants it to be.
"He was a good pet," he finally says.
"And you were a good owner."
"I feel so sad."
"Of course you feel sad."
"That's normal. I know how you feel. When I was a little girl and my cat Shadow died, I felt very sad, too."
"Did you bury him?"
"In the garden. We had a garden."
"Did he go to cat heaven?"
"I think he did."
"Will Zebra go to turtle heaven?"
"I think he will." "But why do pets die?" Aidan pleads, big clear tears like raindrops splashing down his face.
"I wish they didn't. I wish the things we love could live forever. But creatures die. That's how life goes. Animals are born, they grow, they live, and they die."
"I wish they didn't, too."
Phew. This still seems to be about the turtle.
Another silence. Another biting my tongue. Suddenly Aidan shrieks. "Did you see that?" he cries.
"That!" he yells, popping up to chase a poor little crab that runs for its life and into a hole.
I wonder whether this will upset him. But it doesn't. He turns to me with a grin. "Should we make a hole?" he asks.
And so we do: a hole so wide and deep that by the time we both step into it, we are soaked with sweat. Sand is sticking to us everywhere. I lie back, propped on my elbows, and Aidan does the same.
"Good hole," I say.
Aidan looks at me the way they do at this magnificently unstoppered age, emotion oozing from every orifice. He can't identify the emotion, of course, let alone articulate it, but it's one that I recognize as gratitude. Gratitude for helping him through this wretched event, an event that felt like it might overwhelm him but that turned out to be okay after all. Then he looks out at the sea.
"Do you think if we were dolphins we could swim to the other side?" he asks.
"I think if we were dolphins we could swim anywhere we wanted."
"Even to India?"
"Even to India."
"Even to America?"
"Even to America."
"Even to Antarctica?"
"I bet we could."
He laughs, as he generally does upon exposure to the word Antarctica, flopping his sandy head onto my lap. I run my hand through his hair. And I realize that whatever gratitude he may be feeling toward me is nothing compared to the gratitude I feel for him. Gratitude for giving me this moment on this day on this beach, when his curls were still blond and we talked about death, but mainly what we did was milk life. Because when I'm going the way of Zebra, I'm pretty sure it won't be anything I've written I take with me; it will be moments like this.