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  • Writer's pictureElena K.

A Turtle's Story - Lily

In loving memory of Lily, the little swimmer, my first pet, my turtle.

"She traveled to Greek islands; she went on long car rides; she greeted tons of people; she had sleepovers with my friends; she walked endless hours on my arms..."

Lily, the red-eared slider, was the most traveled turtle in Greece.

Lily 13 years old. In the first picture, she is chilling in her container. When I bought her, my palm was a gigantic space for her; she was tiny. Last year, she outgrew my palm. In the second picture, she is getting ready for her shell bath (her shell looks white on top because we had put calcium for her shell inside the water, and that causes it temporarily to look like that). Unfortunately, I couldn't find any pictures of baby Lily. But I made a drawing below of what she looked like as a baby.

She was actually smaller than what my drawing turned out to look like, much, much smaller. I'm a terrible artist...

This blog is her story, a turtle's story... I know that you might think it was just a turtle, but if you keep reading, you might change your mind.

When I was a young child, I asked my parents for a pet. At the time, we lived in a small apartment, and my mom didn't want to get us a dog or a cat because there wasn't enough space for the animal of that size to be happy, nor did we have the means to care for it.

Well, I wasn't going to give up easily, being as I was a stubborn child, I kept asking for a pet; I knew that I would love any animal no matter its size.

One day, I passed by a pet store and saw some baby turtles swimming.

And it happened.

In the fall of 2006, at the age of 10, I welcomed two baby turtles, Lily and Topi. Lily was named after my favorite cartoon featuring a baby named Lily, and Topi means "ball" in Greek (because he looked like a little ball).

I watched Lily and Topi swim and immediately fell in love with them.

Red-eared sliders are strong swimmers, but they also enjoy resting on rocks, logs, or other surfaces above the water.

So I would take them out of the water and let them walk on my arms.

In the spring of 2005, Lily and Topi fell sick with an eye disease. They didn't make it...

Devastated from their loss; I started researching about red-eared sliders disease prevention and successful treatment.

I read that to care for a red-eared slider is much more complex than you might think.

That summer, my family and I went to Peloponnese for our vacations. Our hotel had a morning daycare where parents could drop off their babies, ages two or younger. Having been passionate about children all my life, I asked if I could volunteer.

And I did.

At the daycare, on a Wednesday morning, a young couple came to drop off their baby. They were German tourists, and I immediately stepped in to help as I speak some German. The baby's name was Lily...

To keep this short, over the course of the two weeks that my family and the German tourists vacationed, Lily and I spent our mornings playing. She was 18 months and had gorgeous, big blue eyes. I still remember her like it was yesterday.

And before I realized it, our vacations ended, and Lily and I parted forever (or at least that's what I thought). I saw Lily again by chance, but that's another story for another blog.

In the fall of 2006, having lost all my "Lilys" I felt empty.

I was finally ready to try this again - get another turtle.

So I welcomed two more baby turtles. Lily and Topi number 2 joined our family that fall. And of course, Lily was named in honor of the baby I had met in the hotel ( I wasn't watching the cartoon anymore).

This time, I was prepared to prevent anything from happening to them. In addition to the required stuff, I bought vitamins for their shell, their water and made sure they got adequate sun exposure.

When the same eye sickness hit them in the winter of 2006, I fought it. I struggled to keep their head out and clean their eyes with the medicine. It was hard to touch their delicate necks, almost impossible, but both Lily and Topi, who fought me at first, ended up staying still for me to clean their eyes.

And I saved them!

Our journey of survival had just begun. I fed Lily and Topi every morning and watched them grow slowly.

Sometimes, I would put my finger inside their tank and pretend that it was a shrimp. Lily and Topi would race around it, trying to catch it. In the end, I would allow them to catch it, and they would always let go. It was fun and a great way for them to get their daily workout.

As they grew older, they also started playing with each other. Or... at least that's what I thought...

In the spring of 2007, Lily injured Topi, and he didn't make it.

At first, I was mad at her, but then I read that red-eared sliders can get aggressive if they get territorial. Lily, instead of sharing with Topi, ended up attacking him... But I couldn't hold it against her. After all, she was a turtle.

So from here, Lily and I lived life together inseparable.

She visited Lesvos, a Greek island, for the first time on this transporter below. Kids on the boat would always gather around to say hello.

She went on many more boat trips, road trips, summer houses... I never went anywhere without her.

...until she grew so big that she didn't fit in the transporter anymore and I couldn't find a bigger size.

That's when my friends jumped in, offering to keep her whenever my family and I were gone. If you are one of those friends, thank you again for stepping in to help.

And as the years passed, Lily outgrew two more of the containers we had at home. She couldn't fit on the turtle slide anymore, couldn't fit under the plastic bridge, couldn't find enough space to swim. I went back to the pet store and bought her the biggest turtle tank I could find. And there, she kept growing.

We bought her rocks to climb and sunbathe and fake plants to hide under (since she loved sleeping under those plastic bridges).

She grew more shy as she aged and preferred me to whistle at her and not pick her up. When I tried playing with her the "eat my finger" game, she bit me. Hehe. That's when I realized she was getting old. So I gave her her space and only whistled to communicate with her.

Every time I passed by her spot, I glanced at her.

I was finally waiting to graduate this May and go home to be her primary caregiver again. During my time as a college student, my mom took care of her; I saw her on every university break, though, Christmas and summer. There were seven months of us left apart, seven months until May 2021.

I thought her and I would age together...

On the 16th of October, Lily passed away while I was sick in the US (not covid related). My parents chose not to tell me over the phone.

A week ago, I arrived in Greece for the holidays and as I ran to greet her, my mom stopped me.

I read her face...

I fought against her, hoping it's not true.

"But they are supposed to outlive us..." I said.

My mom told me her heart stopped. That one day, she just didn't wake up to eat.

According to her vet, pet turtles don't live past 5 years. Lily lived 14. She was called an "exception."

Lily left us peacefully when her heart stopped; she is resting peacefully in our garden inside a flower pot. In the spring, I will plant an olive oil, a resilient tree she can rest under forever. A tree that will stay with me just like Lily would.

A beautiful ceramic turtle that my mom painted for me in her memory sits on my desk... Some days it's hard to look at it. The truth is losing someone hurts no matter who it was. I keep wondering, was there something I could have done to prevent this? Even if there was, now it's too late.

Despite all the sadness, when you lose someone, you still get to keep one thing forever: your memories.

And I have plenty of memories with Lily.

Maybe after reading this, you still think: it was just a turtle... I get it. It was just a turtle to you, but to me, she was more.

I love you, Lily. The house is a little emptier without you.


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