Five years after my brother Reid’s death, the image of a turtle could still reduce me to tears at the least expected moments. Turtles were his favorite animal; turtle decorations graced the walls of his room, and stuffed turtles became his bedside companions in the twilight days as he battled the illness that would take his life. Like a turtle, he was steadfast and brave as he gently bore the burden that came with his birth.
Doctors didn't expect him to live more than a few hours when he was born at 23 weeks gestation, weighing only one pound, ten ounces. Then he survived and continued to survive. He survived blindness, cerebral palsy, and multiple surgeries for 23 years. He overcame numerous challenges, astonishing teachers, doctors, and nurses. I had every reason to think he was going to recover that week in July when pneumonia hospitalized him. Instead the numbers on his vital signs monitor slowly and relentlessly dropped, and I watched in surreal horror as he slipped away.
Grief descended like a black cloud in the year that followed. I didn't realize that tear ducts could bruise until Reid died. I routinely awoke with a battered face mornings after wrestling through helpless hot tears to make sense of it all. The years don't make the pain hurt any less, but, like a turtle’s shell, the burden of grief brings strength and perseverance. Still, some reminders and triggers exposed the pain as raw as raw as the day it happened. That's why in 2014, just five years after his death, when given the opportunity to visit RCE on a vision trip with my church, I feared the memories that would lurk at every turn.
Romania won my heart from the moment the sun rose that first day. Beauty lay everywhere; in the mosaic-covered church we attended that first morning, the architecture of the houses and most of all in the kind and warm hearts of our host families. Even as I tried to soak in this wondrous new country, surrounded by 13 teammates and dear friends, I prepared for the emotional landmines that awaited me when we arrived at the school.
No amount of bracing myself could ease the blow of touring the school that first morning. Some of the children reminded me of Reid, and the classrooms themselves rekindled memories of visits to his school as a child. I struggled to smile, wanting so much show appreciation for the wonderful work the staff were doing for these precious children, but the tears could not be kept at bay. I longed for any kind of escape so I could get away from everyone and fall apart. Then we came to a classroom where one student, Sorin, sat intently drawing with markers, surrounded by his artwork.
"He draws animals," his teacher said. "His favorite animals to draw are the fierce animals with big teeth." She held up picture after picture of lions, bears, and dinosaurs, but then she paused. "Except this one." She turned the paper over to reveal a gently smiling turtle. I had to catch my breath. A turtle?
A turtle. All the way in Romania, in the moment I needed it most, here was a beautiful reminder of Reid’s life. While that moment could have meant my emotional undoing, I only felt pure joy and hope. A gift from heaven had come from the most unlikely messenger.
Click here to watch a short film about the artist behind the turtle.