Thursday, October 17, 2013

R.I.P. Wendy

Shortly after Jeff and I got married, he brought home a little turtle named Chester. I didn't know this was going to happen. I came into my apartment one day and found a tank full of water sitting on the half-wall between my kitchen and living room. Inside the tank swam a tiny little cooter the size of a silver dollar. Next to the tank crouched Jack the Cat, contemplating the demise of the turtle. I secretly hoped Jack would find a way to exact his plan because turtles are stinky and slimy and no one consulted me before setting one RIGHT. IN. MY. FIRST. KITCHEN.

(I'm over it, though. No, really. I am. Through this and similar experiences during the first... let's see... ten or so years of our marriage, I believe I effectively communicated that I prefer pet adoption to be a joint decision, even if it would live in a contained aquarium and never bother anybody and I would barely even know it existed. I do not like surprise pets. Or pet surprises, yea verily.)

Anyway, it took a while for me to adjust to life with Chester. He'd dart across the aquarium and bang his shell against the glass and I'd jump sky high. Or I'd see him out of the corner of my eye and think there was an intruder. Or Jack would suddenly leap against the glass and try to dig through it, and my popcorn would erupt all over the couch and the floor.

A few months later, it was decided that Chester was probably lonely. So in came a red-eared slider. I named him Wilson because the cooter was already named Chester, and Chester and Wilson are two of my very favorite children's book characters.

Chester and Wilson,
Wilson and Chester,
That's the way it was.

We noticed right away that Chester was a bit of a bully. He liked to pin Wilson to the bottom of the aquarium and try to peck his eyes out.

A year or so later, we discovered that Wilson wasn't a he, but a she. What to do, what to do? I really liked the name combo of Chester and Wilson, so I decided Wilson's first name could be Rita. Rita Wilson. And we could call her by her last name. Wilson.

Suddenly, Chester wasn't just a bully. He was a mean, bad, oppressive, domineering turtle abuser. A couple of years later, we learned that Chester was trying to court Wilson by waving his claws in her face. I think this information was meant to put us at ease, but it didn't. Chester was a turtle molester!! Poor Wilson!!

Whenever my female friends or family came over, they yelled at Chester. "You leave her alone!" they'd scold at the aquarium, wagging their finger. "She doesn't want you, Chester!" they'd holler across the room from the card table. "No!" they'd say sharply while hitting the glass of the tank. "Stick up for yourself, Wilson!" they'd admonish passionately.

One day, in a stroke of problem-solving genius, my sister went online and researched turtle mating habits. She discovered that the male turtle swims above the female turtle, waves his long claws in front of her eyes, and strokes her face. If the female turtle is receptive, she will sink to the bottom of the river, and they'll mate.

Whenever Chester did the flashy thing with his claws in front of Wilson's eyes, she sank right to the bottom. We human girls thought she was just giving up and giving in. But in turtle language, she'd actually been saying all that time, "Oooo... mama like..."

Unfortunately, she never actually became a mama because cooters and red-eared sliders can't mate. Especially not in an aquarium. In a house full of loud children. In plain sight. In the living room. With indignant human females tapping on the glass and yelling every few seconds.

So Chester stopped being labeled a molesting bully, and my girls quickly developed sympathetic compassion for the star-crossed turtles who would never truly be together as one. (If you know what I mean.)

Then the day came when James, who'd grown old enough to reason about things like gender and turtle names, announced that Wilson was a terrible name for the red-eared slider. He dubbed her Wendy.

Chester and Wendy spent the next several years entertaining our guests, forgetting to be fed regularly, and fighting over whose turn it was to sunbathe on the floating dock. They moved from house to house with us, watching us walk back and forth and live our lives. They stayed with us through the crumbling of our bad marriage and its transformation into our grace marriage. They watched as we discovered that James has autism and Jonathan needed two surgeries to fix birth defects. They waited patiently while I learned reptile maintenance after Jeff moved to Washington for his new job. And they have very much enjoyed living in Washington with us, where they've ruled the entertainment room and kept score for many a foosball game.

Last week, James ran down the stairs and gasped, "Chester's dead!"

I didn't believe him. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Maybe he's just sleeping."

"No, he's dead," James said.

"Okay, I'll go check," I replied to quell the hysteria quickly rising within two sick children home from school. Mostly the Jonathan portion of the two sick children.

I went up the stairs to the entertainment room and peered into the turtle tank. Wendy peered back at me, like, "What." Chester hovered on the bottom of the tank in the corner, unmoving. Crap. Maybe he was dead.

I tapped the tank. No response from Chester, beady stare from Wendy. I tried to shake the tank. It didn't budge. Being full of gallons of water and secured on its shelf and all. I contemplated reaching my hand into the water and poking Chester to see if he'd move. Bile rose into my throat and I changed my mind quickly. I don't touch turtles. Or their slimy, salmonella-filled water. Finally, I spotted a flyswatter nearby. I poked the metal end into the water and tapped the side of Chester's shell.

He woke up. And glared at me. And whacked the flyswatter handle.

Wendy stared.

Then she winked conspiratorially. I'm pretty sure she was laughing on the inside.

I tripped back down the stairs and announced cheerfully to the boys that Chester had just been sleeping.


All was well. And me 'n' Wendy were tight, winkin' at each other 'n' stuff. Prankin' Chester together.

This morning, we accidentally left our door unlatched when we left the house. Upon our return, we discovered a space just wide enough for Gracie the Cat to slip through. She's not allowed in the house right now because she leaves us scented surprises when she's indoors. "Uh oh," James said, "I bet Gracie's in the house." She was. When he went inside, he found her descending the stairs, looking insolently at him. "I'll check and see if she left us any surprises," he offered after he put her back outside. Better him than me, yo. Like I said, I don't like pet surprises.

A few minutes later, I heard James blurt, "OH, GROSS!!!!!"

I frowned, thinking he'd found a surprise from Gracie.

But instead, he came down the stairs and declared, "Wendy's dead."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Maybe she's just sleeping. Remember? Chester was just sleeping."

"No," James insisted, "she's dead. Trust me. I know dead when I see it."

(Right. Like last time...)

"Okay," I sighed boredly. "I'll go take a look." But I took my time. I put some groceries away, got myself some water, started to make my lunch, etc. I thought I'd let Wendy sleep a few more minutes.

James paced and fidgeted. "Mom, aren't you going to do something?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll go see if she's asleep or dead."

"Mom. She's dead. Her eyes are totally orange."

Orange eyes? Weird.

James was so agitated that I stopped what I was doing and trudged up the stairs. He did not follow. "I ain't goin' back up there," he said.

As soon as the turtle tank came into view, I knew James was right. Wendy was dead. I knew because all of her appendages were twice their normal size. Her neck was swollen near to bursting, her arms and legs were engorged, her shell was turning an unnatural shade of green, and she indeed had completely orange eyes. Or rather, something orange bulging out of her eye sockets. Yep. Dead as a doornail. And not at the claws of Gracie, mind you. It takes a little while to swell up like that.

Chester hovered as far away from her corpse as he could, in the far corner of the tank. He stared at me, like, "Dude."

I went back downstairs and called Jeff. "Wendy's dead," I said newsily.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh..." Jeff said as if he were remembering something he'd forgotten. I'm not sure what. Maybe to feed the turtles. (Just kidding. We think she got sick.)

"So... do I move Chester?" I asked, praying he'd say no.

"Yeah... Yes. If you leave Chester in there, he'll eat Wendy." I think I threw up a little in my mouth right then. Good thing I hadn't finished making my lunch yet.

Jeff told me to get a clean rubbermaid tote and put some water in it for Chester, which I did. That was the easy part. Then I donned rubber gloves, grabbed a plastic grocery sack and marched up the stairs with my nostrils flared, determined to get the disgusting deed over with as quickly as possible. Chester had moved to the back corner of the tank, and he was facing the wrong direction, so I was going to have to pick him up with the palm of my hand facing his head, which was scary because he sometimes bites. Plus, I had to plunge my entire hand into a tank full of rotting turtle corpse!!! Sooooooooo grossssss!!!!

I put my gloved hand inside the grocery sack and reached the sack around the biggest part of Chester's hard shell. It was bigger than the last time I held him (like, five or so years ago) and my hand wasn't quite big enough to get a good grip on him. But he started thrashing right away, so I held on tight, lifted him out away from the ominous corpse, and sort of folded the rest of the grocery sack around him. He immediately put several large holes in it while I sprinted back down the stairs to the water-filled tote waiting in the dining room. We made it to the tote just before he could claw his way completely through the flimsy barrier and tear me limb from limb. I dumped him in unceremoniously, folded my rubber gloves in on themselves with the shredded grocery sack inside, threw the whole business in the trash, and headed straight for the shower.

It was VERY. VERY. YUCKY. Not as yucky as it's going to be for Jeff when he gets home from work and has to remove the corpse itself. And bury it and stuff. Yuck times a bazillion.

James and I tried to do school after that, but he had a hard time concentrating. "I just can't think straight with a dead body upstairs," he said, all creeped out.

When Jonathan came home from school, I sat him down on our bench in the front yard and broke the news to him gently. He got a tiny, twitchy half-grin and said, "Oh. I guess I should maybe be more upset, but... it's not like losing Jack."

Indeed not. Jack was way less slimy. And more interactive. And a cat. Not a turtle. And not Jonathan's turtle. Come to think of it, I guess Wendy was basically my turtle, actually. I mean, if we're divvying up reptiles, Chester is Jeff's, Hacker the bearded dragon is James's, and Benny the box turtle is Jonathan's. So I guess Wendy was mine.

That's probably why she gave me a special wink the last time I saw her alive. It must have been a wink goodbye.

Rest in peace, Wendy.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. ~Job 1:21

P.S. No, we are not replacing Wendy. In fact, I am very much looking forward to the day when the number of tanked reptiles in our home has descended all the way to zero. Maybe I should let the cat back in after all...