And the Turtle Shall Spin

I vowed to try to add some meaning to Memorial Day. To my generation, the holiday is a welcome day off from work to celebrate the start of summer. My father and his lady friend, however, “decorate graves.” They remember war veterans and extend the sentiment, per the Day of the Dead, visiting cemeteries to pay tribute to all those who have left Earth. I live far from my hometown and the graves of my family. Try as I would, I simply couldn’t locate the graves of my son’s friend (who died in a car accident on the night of their senior prom) and that of my husband’s close friend. I knew approximately where we’d laid the boy’s body to rest, but the cemetery is huge! I could have wandered it for half a day and not found the grave. My husband’s friend was buried in a remote country plot we also couldn’t locate. Foiled. In came Plan B: attend the local Ho-Chunk (formerly called Winnebago) Pow Wow. Their culture holds warriors in high regard, and hey — drums always do a soul good.

So my husband and I headed for a short drive west. Between a marshy area and a lake, a turtle had overturned on the highway. It lay on the back of its shell, spinning with every passing semi and car. My heart wrenched hard. There was too much traffic to stop and move the poor creature. I watched in the rearview mirror as it spun back and forth in the middle of the highway, waiting for its impending, terrifying death. I vowed to make an attempt to move that turtle if it survived the return trip.

The Pow Wow was wonderful. The Ho Chunk have held firmly to their culture. They introduced the groups of dancers who were competing that day, and they called out each branch of the military to dance as a tribute. The drums pounded straight through my heart.


On to Wednesday. My husband called me at work shortly after noon to let me know we would be going to Madison. Our sister-in-law had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in November, and if anyone’s fault was in their stars, it was her. Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer in the bones (my simple understanding, sorry). By the time she was diagnosed, her kidneys were compromised. She received treatment from a hospital that wasn’t equipped to treat the relatively rare illness–I so wish she’d have gone to a more sophisticated hospital in a big city! Her remaining kidney function was damaged beyond repair, leaving her on dialysis. The multiple myeloma advanced, and then shingles set in as well as pneumonia. Between the cancer and the treatments, she had no immune function left. Her body ended up fighting an antibiotic-resistant infection on that Wednesday. We arrived to support her and my husband’s brother just in time to follow in the doctors, who explained the hopeless situation to the gathered family. They made the decision to end life support, with her (Ruth’s) assent.

So the strong, smiley woman who was tough enough to fight forest fires was bravely dying. Of course she didn’t look like herself. The treatments had left her puffy and bruised. She’d had her head shaved in preparation for treatment. The family chose to continue oxygen as long as possible and continue painkillers until Ruth passed. But let’s be brutally real–death, in my two close experiences, sometimes arrives with flailing and groaning. I’m sure that’s not always the case, but my husband and I both told each other the same thing: “I don’t want to die like this.” As if we have a choice, but if we do…well, it’s in print now! (We also made another vow to each other. If we come down with an odd illness or cancer, it’s the Mayo Clinic or bust. We’ve seen miracles come out of that place. If you’re going to go broke on health care, you might as well get the best shot possible.)

Ruth’s family insisted on the woman’s dying requests. They produced a CD of music she wanted to hear. Her ultimate request was to die beside the lake where she lived, but that was five hours away. Could she be transported to her sister’s nearby property, which had a pond? No. The doctors said firmly that she wouldn’t survive the trip, so it would be pointless. Could she be moved from the trauma center room to one with a view? Some assistants tried, but Ruth kept squirming in the slick wheelchairlike device they used to move her. No again. After twenty minutes, the hospital arranged for all of us, including Ruth in her hospital bed, to go up to the helipad. We grabbed the music, crammed into an elevator, and came out of the top of the hospital to a view that took our breath away (yeah, all of us). The sky was blue, the moon was hanging in the perfect spot for Ruth to see, the hills rolled away green with summer, and one of Madison’s lakes sparkled below us. Ruth kept stretching her eyes open wide, and she hugged tight anyone who came close. She turned her gaze toward the moon several times. Other lessons: it pays to make your dying wishes known, and it pays to be a family member who insists on fulfilling them. This was a great act of love and humanness on behalf of Ruth’s family and by the hospital staff.

Madison helipad (1)Madison helipad (2)

But Death plays by its own rules. There was an unspoken feeling that, “Okay, Ruth. This is what you wanted. Go ahead! Go! This is perfect!” She didn’t. The reality of shift change came in. Our fine hospital attendants had to go home, so we packed up and headed back down to the trauma center, inside and dim.

My husband and I decided to leave, as Ruth’s husband, sisters and brother were in attendance. We left for home. I received a message from Ruth’s sister before we were even out of Madison: “Ruth transitioned.” I like that word: transitioned.

But we’re not done yet! Thank you for reading this far, because JEEBUS am I full of words. Someone else did not transition that week.


My 25-year-old son called at 10 PM the next evening. Oh dear God, a late phone call is never good…At the invitation of a friend, he had been in a Crossfit competition in the Twin Cities the previous weekend. He has trained and run for years, but he doesn’t “do Crossfit.” Good thing, because I’ve read a lot of bad reports about it. Nothing wrong with cross-training, but the idea of pushing your muscles until they give out and the competitive, seemingly cultish nature of Crossfit makes it suitable only for Navy Seals. A little moderation is a good thing. But as for the competition — hell, he’s a young male, so he’s invincible, right? So he competed — run a sprint, do 100 pushups; run a sprint, do 100 pullups, etc. He beat his friend, proving that a person can prevail without Crossfit BUT…the big BUT…this is a formula for trouble. He said his arms were shaking violently as he drove home to Milwaukee. Over the week, he began to feel as though he’d been hit by a truck. Most importantly, his urine began to resemble cola…Very bad sign.

Three good things: He’d read about this condition. He paid attention to his body. I didn’t say the usual thing when he called, which is “wait and see how you feel in the morning.” That morning might never have come. I told him I didn’t understand what was going on, but it can’t be good. Get thee to an emergency room.

It turns out my son had rhabdomyolysis, a condition that happens when you push your muscles like this, with many repetitions and without working up to it gradually. It’s particularly common when people compete and push themselves harder than usual. The muscles basically fall apart, littering the bloodstream with debris that the kidneys can’t filter out in heavy concentrations. The highest level of “debris” (myoglobin, I believe) this hospital had seen prior to my son was 1000. He came in with a reading over 140,000–on the verge of kidney involvement. People have died of kidney failure at far lower levels than this. (He was required to have a reading between 200 and 300 to be released.)

After an eight-day hospital stay (with a bill that so far resembles my salary), he is home. He was inflicted only with endless IVs, frequent pee trips (his kidneys performed valiantly!), and a lot of awful TV (he survived on Nat Geo and is now an expert on Border Wars). He will have no lasting damage–simply a whole lot of caution right now. He is my miracle child, and I am thanking God with great joy for sparing his life.

I can’t get that turtle out of my head. Are we all just waiting, spinning on our backs?


~ by rebuildingholly on June 20, 2015.

2 Responses to “And the Turtle Shall Spin”

  1. I am a turtle saver, seems there aren’t hardly any out there, so I feel your pain. I have managed to save 3 out of 5 this spring, Many, many were crushed. They can’t fly and they won’t bite (if you don’t let them), it’s something we should all try to do.
    Turtles aside, we just learned that our 22 year old, niece’s daughter just died of an overdose. Life is full of twists, thank God your son is okay. A quote that serves us well – “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift.”

    • It’s always good to hear from you, Karen! I’ve saved several turtles in the past, but I knew I’d be risking my life to save this one. Funny, though–I didn’t see any remains on the way back. Maybe the turtle survived…How tragic about your niece’s daughter! The quote is appropriate, though. We, the living, have to cherish each day as a gift.

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