Throughout my healing journey — the cancer diagnosis and visits with three oncologists, the big-time scans and fears, the joys and reliefs, the waiting and preparation — I’ve been naming turtles. While this might be true metaphorically, it’s also truly happening beyond the world of symbol, sorrow, and surprise. I have a friend, Ben Reed, a professor at Washburn University, who has been tracking and studying ornate box turtles in southeast Kansas, and he’s given me the honor of naming each turtle. Because Ben is a turtle whisperer, he’s kept me busy.
It started when Ben dropped by one day with a beautiful large female he found, then numbered to track for his research. I told him she was surely worthy of a name made of letters, not just numbers, and he agreed. That was last summer, and this spring, he found Lucille again because of the transmitter he attached to her last year. He also re-found Samantha, Theodore, and the three-toed box turtle Rudolph. Lately, because of rain in biblical proportions, he’s found a bumper crop of new turtles for me to name.
I named Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla — a trio of goddesses — the day after my brand new ocular oncologist said there was a good-sized melanoma in my right eye. I was sad and exhausted that morning, and it helped to distract myself by thinking of turtle names for three strong, old wise women turtles, or maybe it wasn’t a distraction at all, but a way to take in the larger breathing and changing world.
In between phone calls with my regular oncologist’s office to set up scans and tests, I was further connected to this bigger world by naming Yoda although all turtles look like Yoda. Then again, many of these turtles also look like Gandalf (the Green), which I bestowed on a very old male, surely is the incarnation of the previous Gandalf. I mean, if he can keep go from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White in one lifetime, surely, he can come back as a turtle in another.
Just home one afternoon after a much-needed session with my therapist, I had more turtles to name: Leah, from the Old Testament, who Jacob had to marry to get to his much-desired Rachel. I always thought Leah had a bad rap, so why not let her be a vibrant turtle of intricate patterns? There were also two teenage turtles, both female, so I went with Amber and Topaz, assistants to the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I played one of them in the only play I was ever cast in (and not for a lack of auditioning through my childhood and teenage years), a small production held at a camp I attended when I was 11 years old.
The night before my PET scan, when I was pacing the deck talking with friends to calm myself from anxiety and a healthy dose of claustrophobia, I was interrupted by the need to name turtles: one very old, so I went with Saul, an old Jewish man from Brooklyn, Sparkle for a lively young female, and Ponderosa for a sunny young male. The next morning, buoyed by energy healing from my friend Ursula in Germany and a good dose of pharmaceuticals, plus a lot of slow breathing to relax myself. I also was lifted by the thought of naming more turtles, which was helpful since later that day, Ben texted me with a magical female I named Ursula.
After the MRI a week later, another big challenge for me involving a small tube, big prayers, Versed and fentanyl, I was so relieved to have gotten through that I was utterly delighted to name Orion after the constellation of the same name.
Later, before driving to the ocular oncologist with a fear storm in my digestive system because of how suddenly my eyesight diminished, I named Thor and Odin. Such mythological names helped me envision greater courage. Coming home that day, Ken and I were greatly relieved to discover that the tumor wasn’t growing, and my eyesight was being impinged instead by fluid build-up in my eye (made worse by, guess what?, stress!). As my eyes slowly undilated from Anime-sized pupils to more normal ones, I got to name a large and beautiful female Leslie Jones (from SNL fame) because badassery is also the name of the game now.
There’s also a pregnant Chrysanthemum and Clematis from a day the turtles from a day I was in a botanical mood,, and Sunshine who I named when a storm was bearing down, both around and within me. And let us know forget Goldy and Silverado, two western-style guys (at least how they looked to me) with yellow and golden touches.
All these turtles, even the ones who struggle, seem to have a beautiful grip on the life force. When Ben found a female turtle upside down in a just-burned field, so light because of near-starvation because of an invasion of bot flies, we both agreed she needed an especially strong name, so I suggested Herculia. He brought her to his lab, where she became a mascot for the Washburn biology department, everyone cheering her on after Ben removed multiple bot flies, parasitic jerks who has destroyed her back legs and possibly her digestive tract. He didn’t expect her to survive, but six weeks later, she’s still alive, and just yesterday, she finally ate something of substance, a worm, so maybe she’ll make it after all. While Ben will need to make some kind of wheel prostheses for her back legs, she may one day propel on her own.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a turtle biologist to see the parallels between us messy humans and these ancient and resilience beings, although I’m sure the turtles outrun us in patience and even grace. Come fall, they go underground to hibernate through the winter, then emerge into the mud, rain, and wind of messy and changeable spring, finding their footing through storms and droughts, trials and tenderness. However the weather and light shift, they persevere.
Turtles pre-date humans, and from what little I know, their ancestor proto-turtles may be as much as 220 million years old. Ben explains that many species “are virtually unchanged morphologically since the dinos, which is pretty incredible.”
Yes, incredible indeed, and so is simply holding a turtle, marveling at their ability to live below and among us, navigating water and land, earth and fire with a hard shell that tells their stories of age and art and inside that shell, a beating heart committed to life. Surely we are all, turtles all the way down, on our own healing journeys, so let us pause and name what gives us strength and sight.
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