“Basically turtles are narcolepsy,” said Wyatt the other day.
“Wait… what?” I was pretty sure I had heard him correctly, but it was such an odd assertion that I felt the need to stall.
“Basically turtles are narcolepsy.”
“That’s what I thought you said.”
“Well, I mean most of them are.”
Huh. What was he trying to communicate here? Did he mean “narcoleptic”? Basically turtles are narcoleptic… That would make for a grammatically correct, albeit factually false, statement… Or was he saying that turtles are the embodiment of narcolepsy? That’s an interesting idea: turtles are narcolepsy. Would that mean that turtles are the physical manifestation of the disorder or that the experience of life as a turtle is akin to life with narcolepsy? Is that what it feels like for reptiles when their body temperature is low and they s-l-o-o-o-w w-a-a-a-y- d-o-o-o-w-n? Does it feel like an attack of inescapable sleep at an inopportune time? I hate that feeling. Once, as a freshman in college, I fell asleep while in a one-on-one meeting with my academic advisor. No matter what the subject matter was, that woman managed to bring the conversation around to the history of England. I believe we were meeting to talk about whether or not I should go pre-med when somehow in some way we found ourselves back to the Queens and Kings of England and I found my eyelids growing heavier and heavier. She had a very soothingly monotonous voice. The room was warm and quiet. Dust motes sparkled in the sunlight beaming through the window behind the sagging couch we were seated on. I tried shifting my position, nodding along vigorously, pinching my thigh surreptitiously. There was no use. My head drooped. I fell hopelessly into the tunnel of sleep for an instant and then, as drool escaped my slack lips, I awoke with a shot of adrenaline… which lasted a measly matter of seconds before my head began to nod again. Misery. (It really was not her fault I could not stay awake while she was talking but still I ended up ditching her, declaring Human Biology, and choosing a spritely medical anthropologist as my new academic advisor.)
Falling asleep while talking to someone is embarrassing, falling asleep while watching a movie is annoying (to whoever is trying to watch a movie with me… sorry, Aaron), but falling asleep while driving is absolutely terrifying. I’ve had to pull off the highway before and do jumping jacks on the side of the road. Blast the air conditioning in my face. Roll down the windows all the way. Sing along loudly to music. Slap my own face repeatedly. It is horrible. I have tried to explain this sensation to Aaron but he does not understand what it is like to fall asleep against your will. In the twelve years we have been together, he has never once fallen asleep during a movie and he never has trouble with alertness while driving, even on road trips when we drive through the night. For me, if I am carrying a large enough sleep deficit, I just have to stay out of the car and limit our activities to stuff within walking distance or accessible by public transit until I catch up. A friend once compared me to a shark: as long as I remain in perpetual motion, I am fine… but if I stop, I am doomed.
But how does Wyatt know about narcolepsy anyway? Are kids talking about sleep disorders at the lunch table these days? When kids are first learning to talk, each new word in their vocabulary is traceable. There is the emergence of first words—usually simple words used frequently inside the home, their sources obviously identifiable—and then there is the long, fun stage of rapid vocabulary-gathering where words and phrases might be picked up from other sources, such as babysitters, neighbors, daycare, books, and outings, but at that stage you are often still so enmeshed with each other that new words coming from outside sources are immediately detectable, each telling their own tale. For example, your toddler says, “Goodness gracious!” and you know that you don’t say that, but Grandma does, so there you go. Wyatt is in third grade. At this point, he spends enough time engaged in activities where I am not present—school, play dates, choir practice, reading books I have not— that I do not always know the source of his newest vocabulary. However, “narcolepsy” still seems an odd word for an 8-year-old to throw around.
My grandfather was narcoleptic. He had cataplectic attacks if he laughed too hard. Once when I was a baby, he was supposed to be watching me but my parents came in to find me crawling around on my own with him asleep under the piano. He loved babies and playing with me had made him laugh hard enough that he fell asleep right there. (I know this because they took a photo of him before waking him.) Once my mom gave him a cassette of Garrison Keillor stories, knowing that he would love the Lake Wobegon tales, and then he accused her of trying to kill him because he had listened to the tape while driving and could have laughed himself to sudden sleep. (In my memory, he only listened to serious opera music in the car—La Boheme was a favorite.) I am sure I have told Wyatt these stories before– he loves hearing these old family favorites as much as I love telling them– but as far as I could recall, I hadn’t mentioned Grandpo’s narcolepsy anytime recently.
Turtles are narcolepsy. What an odd idea. Any amount of rumination on turtles or tortoises brings to mind the turtle I smuggled home from a class trip when I was in middle school. Our eighth grade class had spent a week at an old-fashioned farmstead, doing chores, such as digging an outhouse, building a Native American sweat bath, and gathering kindling for making meals. It was awesome. I loved it. Toward the end of the trip, I found a box turtle in the woods and kept it in a 5-gallon bucket in our yurt for the rest of the week, bringing it offerings of insects and worms and bits of vegetable matter. Then I smuggled it home on the bus inside the belly pocked of my hooded sweatshirt. When I got home, I called my sisters into the kitchen and set the turtle on the table, declaring it a gift for my youngest sister who loved turtles.
“A real turtle shell!” she exclaimed. And then the turtle popped his head out of his shell and she was rendered speechless. We named him Quincy because in studies of American History at school the previous year, I had found our country’s sixth president’s middle name to be the most exciting thing about him, forget his brave opposition of slavery or the Treaty of Ghent, “Quincy” is what stuck with me. I encouraged my sister to bestow this cool name upon her new pet.
Quincy stayed with us for a while. We let him hunt for insects in the yard in the warm months. It was fun to watch him catch them. He traveled surprisingly far distances in his plodding pace. When we lost track of him, our dog, Skipper, helped sniff him out and soon we learned his usual hiding places. In the winter months, we fed him bits of raw hamburger meat frozen in little balls and pieces of lettuce. Sometimes he lived in the wading pool, sometimes a big green wheelbarrow, and sometimes an aquarium.
Then there came that fateful day that I decided to take Quincy out to explore the other side of the yard, the side close to the small woods that separated our yard from our neighbor’s. I put Quincy down to hunt for bugs and then set to work teaching Skipper how to roll over. He was not getting it. He acted like I was punishing him every time I rolled him. I was getting frustrated. It started drizzling, but I kept commanding Skipper to roll over and then physically making him do it (note: this is not the best way to teach a dog to roll over on command). Then it began to rain harder and thunder clapped, sending the dog and me running back into the house. I do not know how long it was before I remembered that Quincy was out there. I do remember that it was still raining when I set out to find him. I hunted through the woods and the grass, turning over muddy rocks and looking under wet leaves, trying to get Skipper to “Find Quincy, boy! Find Quincy!” but he was wary of me after all that rolling. I finally gave up and had to tell my sisters what had happened. They were both justifiably ticked off (I think they may have forgiven me at this point, but I am not positive about that).
I searched around for days until I found another turtle to give to my youngest sister. It was not as comely as Quincy—dull mud-colored shell with no markings or sheen—and he was not as sociable either. My sister named him “Mr. Ugly” and he bit her several times. I think she let him go, although I have this awful sinking feeling of guilt that perhaps I accidentally released him the same way I did Quincy…
There are other turtle stories that come to mind, for example the time I went to bathe in the creek during a trimester spent in Kenya with the National Outdoor Leadership School my junior year of college. Those three months were a once in a lifetime experience and even though now it was nearly half my life ago, I still think about it all the time. We had no access to indoor plumbing. Most of the other college kids in my group did not worry about it, building up a layer of “permadirt” on their necks. I never minded getting dirty and dusty during the day, but I always liked to start and end the day with at least a clean face. When we had a down day, I tried to bathe—either by heating a pot of water on the fire and sponging off or by finding a secluded place on a creek to take a dip. One day I went down to the creek by myself to wash up, hanging my kanga (a piece of printed fabric worn as a dress or skirt) on a branch to create a screen. I was splashing myself off in the calf-deep water when I happened to look over and see my shirt and underwear moving away on its own. In an instant I could see that the “rock” I had put my clothes down on was actually a large tortoise that was now leaving. That was pretty cool. My sons love hearing that story.
More turtle stories: the time my cousin swam after a sea turtle. The time my college roommate bought two tiny turtles and named them Mr. and Mrs. Matisse. The time I was working as a veterinary technician and I accidentally released a large tortoise from his enclosure. And there was the time—
“Why are you just standing there… looking at me?”
“Oh! Sorry… I was lost in thought.”
“Yes, again. Sorry. So… what were you saying?”
“I said, basically turtles are narcolepsy.”
Then just like that, I remembered: lately Duncan has been pretending to fall asleep in order to escape scolding when he does something he knows is wrong. For example, he will kick Wyatt under the table or throw Milo’s toy on the ground and then tip his head back and close his eyes and fake snore. This irks Wyatt to no end: “Duncan’s lying! He’s lying! He’s not really asleep, Mommy, he’s faking it!” he will shout. Wyatt’s reactions are so virulent that I usually end up scolding him instead of Duncan. Finally after enough of this, I ended up saying to Wyatt, “Stop telling me Duncan is faking. You are preventing me from parenting. You do not need to tell me he’s not really asleep. I understand what is happening. Nobody falls asleep just like that. Well, unless they have narcolepsy.” And then we ended up talking about narcolepsy, including me telling them about the narcoleptic beagles at Stanford.
“Right. About that, Wyatt: I think maybe you mean ‘narcoleptic’?”
“Narcolepsy is the disorder. People have narcolepsy-“
“Well, right. And some beagles. And those people—and beagles—who have narcolepsy are narcoleptic.”
“Okay, so, I meant, basically turtles are narcoleptic. Get it? Because they just slow down and stop in the middle of stuff? It’s a joke.”
I stared at him. And then we both cracked up. Once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. Even retelling the story to Aaron later that night after the kids were asleep it took me several tries before I could get past, “Basically turtles…” without losing it.
“Mommy,” said Wyatt.
“Are you an oddball?”
“I know, honey.”