I've talked a lot about the struggles of "coming out" atheist in a very religious family, especially from my mom.
My mom is one of my dearest friends. After surviving the tumult of my teen years, we grew seriously close. She's been an incredible source of support over the years.
Right up until I inadvertently came out as an atheist to her. I wrote about that back in September of 2014. Since then, she's had trouble even communicating with my directly on the subject, and it's been a source of serious pain for me. I found myself watching what I say, and in many ways, it felt like being a teenager again--not feeling like I could voice my opinions or thoughts without fear of upsetting someone.
But this past week, something shifted, and it was so small, you're probably going to think I'm blowing it entirely out of proportion, but I don't care. This past week, we talked about the turtle.
Alas! I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
When I was six years old, my dad got me a turtle. I was infatuated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I unflinchingly christened it Raphael after my favorite. Raphael, or Raph for short, was wonderful. He was friendly and I would take him out and play with him. I'd vitashell him. I'd help my dad clean his cage. I adored him.
Then we went away for the winter holidays to visit our family in West Virginia. My dad, thinking of saving money, decided to turn the heat off for over a week while we were gone. Raphael, sadly, died.
Dad felt guilty--perhaps understandably so. It wasn't long after Raph the First's untimely demise that I came home from first grade to another turtle.
I named him Raph too.
We were told that Raph would only survive about three to five years in captivity. Given our track record to that point, it's probably reasonable to say that my parents assumed it would be much shorter than that.
Raph the Second was as unlike Raph the First as possible. He was cranky. He bit. He wasn't up for being handled at all. I couldn't vitashell him by myself. My dad became the primary caretaker of Raph the Second. He fed him in the mornings and turned his heat lamp on. In the evenings, he turned the lamp off.
Raph the Second did not die after three years. He did not die after five. He lived and lived and lived. As I got older, Mom began to joke that Raph was practicing the Religion of Dad. He was a Dad-ist. Dad made the manna fall from the sky. Dad made the sun rise and fall.
And when Dad would leave--as my father sometimes did, for training and deployments--poor Raph would experience a crisis of faith. Dad would turn his back on his reptilian believer, leaving him to pray for the day that Dad would return and make the sun rise and fall again and allow food to fall from the heavens once more.
This was, of course, because my mother and I were terrible about taking care of the little bastard while Dad was away.
Over time, my mother came to resent the turtle. For one thing, he's an escape artist. He once escaped from his tank on a counter top and made his way towards the front door. We've found him in a myriad of other places over the years. There's also simply the matter of space--after the fiasco of Raph the First, my father was an incredibly fastidious turtle steward, and Raph the Second abides in a large, roomy tank, currently in my mother's kitchen. Right where she'd really like to put a baker's rack, now that you mention it...
I always said that I would take Raph when I moved out, but my first place post-parental abode was too small. There wasn't room for six of us, a dog, and a turtle in a huge tank. At this point, Raph the Second had exceeded his reputed lifespan by a significant amount--he was sixteen years old the year that I moved out.
Today, Raph is 22 years young and still crankily kicking. He shows no sign of slowing down. But things have changed. The home that we purchased last May is significantly larger, which means that there is room for Raph to come live with me. I'm not opposed--I love reptiles. I told Mom as we were preparing to close and move that I would need to refinish a sturdy dresser that could hold the tank, but that I figured I would be ready for Raph about two weeks after move in.
Well, two weeks came.
And they went. And then a month. Then two...then six. Now it's been almost a year, and just last week, I finally finished the dresser.
So the day that I finished it I called Mom and said, "Hey, guess what I did today! I finished the dresser!"
She squealed and we began joking back and forth about Raph and his Dad-Worship and I said, "I hope I don't give him a crisis of faith."
And Mom said, "I don't know. You might want to set him up with some of your atheist groups."
Her voice barely caught on the "atheist." I was momentarily stunned, but then I continued joking with her. We laughed. I'm not going to lie, though, that seemingly inconsequential moment brought a tear to my eye. It felt like a validation. Like acceptance. Like it's okay for me to be me, and my mom's going to love me regardless.
Next week, I'll definitely take the damn turtle off of her hands.