on losing Balto

This time it was for real. The other day had been a warning, though we hoped that the danger had gone away. When I saw the turtle floating on the water, completely motionless, refusing to respond to any of my prodding, I thought for sure he was dead. But luckily, by the time Nacho got home from his Kung Fu class, the turtle had moved a little, and Nacho´s dad, knowledgeable in the ways of fish and turtles, confirmed that he was most likely just hibernating. His movements were very slow, and Daddy had said that, even though the turtle hadn’t exhibited the signs of hibernation so obviously before, this time it seemed to be the case. And so Nacho went off for the weekend with Daddy, relieved that Mommy had overreacted, and that his beloved turtle, Balto, was still very much alive. But this time it was different. Daddy had warned us that when turtles die, one of two things will happen – either they will sink to the bottom of the tank because they have released all of their oxygen, or that they would begin to float, tilting sideways. Balto was indeed tilting sideways, and nothing that I did would bring him back. I watched him for a long time before finally calling Nacho into his room. Though he asked all the right questions, he knew just by looking at him that Balto was dead. He held himself stoically by the window, as far away from the tank as he could be in his small room, and I could see that he was aching inside. I went over to him and knelt down beside him, putting my hand on his back (as if to steady him, though I was really steadying myself). Nacho said weakly “I must have done something” and I responded adamantly “Nacho, you didn’t do anything wrong!”

Nacho’s whole body began to shake as the tears, without warning, poured out. He tried so hard to breathe, to control the emotion, but it overtook him. He moved himself slowly, holding on to the posts of the bunk bed as though he would fall, and he sat on the soft mattress. I talked to him, speaking all of those meaningless words of wisdom we extract from the deepest places of ourselves when someone we love is in pain, and he sat there, sobbing. In a brief moment of calm, he looked straight at me, and asked “why does everything I like the most have to die?” I asked him “Nacho, what do you mean?” He lowered his head and as the sobs returned, he answered “first Uncle J, now Balto.” My heart broke then, for the thousandth time since J died only a month before, and for a moment, I could say nothing. Then, I took a deep breath, and told him what I really thought: “I don’t know.” I sat on the bed with him and together, in silence, we stared at the turtle tank, wondering what to do next.

We eventually got it together enough to realize that we needed to do something with Balto. So my youngest two helped me find a box in the garage, and we cut out the top so that we could lay Balto inside. Nacho found a couple of things that he thought were appropriate to bury with him – a Pokemon rock that had a picture of a turtle-like creature on it, and another action figure he thought appropriate. He figured that these were things he loved, and this way, Balto would take a little bit of Nacho with him to the next world. We lined the box with some cotton, and then gingerly took Balto out of the tank and placed him inside the box. In the meantime, Dave set to work on the garden, thinking that we could not have a proper funeral in a doggie-poop laden garden. He moved Lady’s doghouse, and prepared the ground underneath it to dig a hole just the right size for the Balto’s casket-box. When it was all ready, we went outside, and Nacho took care of the rest. He knew just what to do – he placed the box in the hole, and then asked Dave if he could cover it. So Dave gave him the shovel and Nacho slowly covered the box with dirt. After we were done, Dave and I took the younger ones inside, and we gave Nacho a minute to say goodbye. Somehow, this private ceremony gave Nacho the peace he needed and he was able to keep moving.

He told me some time later, “I miss Balto a lot, but I think I’m really okay.” In my own heart, I knew that at his tender 8 ½ years, he had a great deal more wisdom than many of us. Nacho hadn’t grieved outwardly for J until Balto died. As painful as it was to lose the turtle he’d had since his second birthday, and as unfair as it seemed to lose the coolest uncle in the world well before his time, Nacho somehow instinctively understood that losing both Balto and J was part of life. In my own grief for J, I have tried very hard to follow his lead. I am so proud.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

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