When I was eight years old, our family dog died. He was a black labrador named Black Dog who had been my father’s best friend long before he met and married my mother. In those days, dogs were not always walked on leads. Black Dog, who must have been 12 or 13 at the time, liked to roam the streets and go on runs with my father. One day, my father came home after his run but Black Dog was not with him. At some point on their route, my father guessed, Black Dog fell behind, staggered into the bush, collapsed and died. It was a week before my father found his body, in the bush a few kilometres from our house.
That’s the story as I remember it. I also remember crying for days afterwards. For years, every time we passed the bushy rise on the south-bound freeway near our house, I looked out the car window and remembered him.
Despite having grown up with dogs, I have so far managed to avoid getting one for my own children. It’s a lot of work and it will fall to me, I tell them. I know, like every other parent, that although they will delight in their new best friend, the full responsibility of caring, cleaning, walking and training will be mine.
So, when a friend offered to pass on her grown-up son’s 16-year-old pet turtle, I leapt at the opportunity. “The cheapest, most low-maintenance pet you’ll ever have,” my friend’s husband said.
We took delivery of Jeffery, along with his metre-long tank, and a few fishy friends, in the middle of pandemic lockdowns. It was a flying visit, and afterwards my friend’s husband sent me a long email with everything I needed to know about short-necked Murray River turtles. Jeffery ate bloodworms and water plants, and he could live in captivity up to the age of 75. He needed time out of the tank, in the sun, to combat bacteria. And his tank needed to be lit, heated, topped up and regularly cleaned. My friends’ son, Andreas, got Jeffery when Andreas was six and Jeffery was penny-sized, just a few months old. I felt a great responsibility to care for him and pass him on to the next generation.
Jeffery proved a curmudgeonly companion. He begged for food whenever I opened the refrigerator, craning his neck and paddling hard against the glass. He gulped down what I gave him and paddled again. I learnt that turtles are great overeaters and will eat to the point of vomiting, then beg for more. He ate most of his water plants and the feeder fish within a few weeks. I found myself at the pet shop, replenishing his supplies, more often than I cared to. Then I read that he could also eat the leftover carrot and cucumber sticks from my kids’ lunchboxes. Finally, Jeffery and I had ourselves a deal. He was a living, breathing, begging compost bin.
Tragically, less than a year after he came to live with us, Jeffery escaped. He had been sunning himself in the garden, but somehow found the strength, despite being no bigger than a handspan, to tip out of the wheelbarrow I’d put him in. My children and I searched the garden but I knew it was hopeless.
Part of me also knew that Jeffery would be having the time of his life. The lovely words of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, about a lonely old man and his apartment full of tortoises, came to mind. Gorge! Guzzle! Stuff! Gulp! Put on fat, tortoise, put on fat. Eat, eat, enjoy your freedom Jeffery, eat, eat, eat!
But the next morning I found him on the road outside our house, run over by a passing car. His body was still limp, which meant I only just missed him. My heart sank when I spotted the shallow green dome of his shell against the bitumen and I steeled myself as I went to tell my children. We buried him in a sunny spot near our back door and marked his grave with small mossy rocks.
The grief my boys felt was overwhelming – they cried hot streams of tears. Then they stopped. After that, they didn’t want to talk about Jeffery. It upset them too much, they said. I took a deep breath and messaged my friend. She responded with warmth and kindness. I felt as if I had let everyone down – my friend, her husband, their son, my children, Jeffery, and the next generation of children who should have cared for him until his death many years hence.
I remembered our old labrador. It was such pure love I felt for him that my outpouring of grief was equally genuine and unreserved. So different from the complicated griefs I felt as a teenager and then again as a young adult – the anguish over the death of my grandmother at the end of a long illness and the heartbreaking end of my first relationship.
Already in their short lives, my boys have experienced more grief and loss than should be necessary. Friends and family have moved away, gone overseas and, in some cases, exited our lives forever.
About the time Jeffery died, my relationship with a man who had become a father-figure to my boys ended. I watched their grief play out in different ways. One cried himself to sleep each night for weeks, then bounced back, good as new – my shiny, happy boy. The other was circumspect at first, but the seam of suffering ran much deeper. He didn’t want to go to school and tussled with teachers and friends. It took me a while to realise what was happening.
For all the books on managing childhood loss, my boys seem to have found most comfort in the twin memoirs of Roald Dahl – Boy: Tales of Childhood and Going Solo, about Dahl’s time flying with the Royal Air Force during World War II. For a man who enjoyed so much fame and wealth in later life, Dahl’s private life was full of torment. His sister died when he was three, his father a few weeks later. Dahl’s daughter Olivia died when she was seven, and his only son, Theo, and wife, Patricia Neal, both suffered serious illnesses.
What my boys seem drawn to in Dahl’s memoirs, beyond the Tiger Moths and green mamba snakes, is the rich texture of life he paints. Grief and loss are normal, he seems to say. Sure, we all want a happy ending, but no one comes through unscarred. Not Matilda, who is abandoned by her horrible parents. Not Charlie, whose life is shaped by poverty. Not poor old Mr Hoppy, who gets the girl in the end but has to put up with an apartment full of tortoises to do it. Not even Dahl himself.
Recently, my children became quite indignant about news that censors had taken a red pen to Dahl’s politically incorrect language. What they say, quite insightfully, and I agree, is that the people in Dahl’s stories will always be hurting and in pain. Augustus Gloop will always be the ostracised kid, no matter whether he’s described as “enormously fat” or just “enormous”. Dahl will always be a boy who grew up without a father. No sensitivity edit can alter that.
As parents we so much want to rewrite, edit, delete and red-pen the pain in our children’s lives. Rewind the moment the turtle escaped. Sketch the father-figure back in. Bring the beloved family member back from overseas. Ultimately, we know we can’t. We just hug them fiercely and hope the world will be kind.
What Roald Dahl’s stories whisper to my children is a comforting message – you are not alone in your grief and it will all work out in the end. It’s a message we could all do well to hear. And if not, well then, there are always animals to love. Or chocolate.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Turtle love".
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