It was the fall of 2016. The nights were growing longer and the air was getting crisp as the earth turned away from the sun and looked into the light of the moon. I sat amongst a group of women in the living room of my brother’s home in Minnesota.
In a few short hours I would be taking my youngest child to Children’s Hospital in Saint Paul for yet another procedure. In his three short years on this earth, Cruz had endured more than his fair share of challenges and there were no indications that his struggles would end anytime soon.
Perhaps it was my mother’s intuition that told me this child would struggle before he had even been birthed into the world. Or maybe it was the voice of God whispering into my ear saying this child would need to be strong. When I held him in my arms and looked into his eyes for the first time, I knew. I knew that life would not be easy for him and I cried.
In the hours after his birth I sensed something very special about him. I felt his strength. It was not strength in the physical sense; it was more esoteric in nature. The strength of a soul that had lived through many winters and had been scorched in the flames of the sun before being born to me. God knew that life on this earth would not be easy for him so He blessed him with a divine shield of protection that he would carry with him his entire life.
As I sat amongst this group of women in my brother’s home, we rose our voices in prayer and song and prayed that God would protect my little boy the following morning and always. The circle of women grew quiet as we closed our eyes and offered our prayers as the spirit lead us.
When the Amens were spoken we shared the thoughts and images that surfaced in the darkness. One woman said that she saw me with my son on the top of a mountain, a sign of victory perhaps. Another said she felt the hand of God reaching from Heaven to hold us both. And finally, one said that she saw a turtle.
We paused for a minute as she chose her words.
“A turtle,” she said, “carries his protection wherever he goes. It is a part of him and it is who he is. I think that Cruz is like a turtle because he is always protected and I know he will be protected when you take him to the hospital tomorrow. Just look for the turtles, and you will know.”
I did look for those turtles. I found them in the hallways of many hospitals, in the windows of clinics and in the beginnings and endings of my prayers. They became my blessed assurance that God was always there to protect us in the storm.
Little did I know how fierce the storm would be.
Shortly after my son was born, I also became very ill and was diagnosed with Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1. As the disease progressed and my muscles weakened, I could no longer do the things I had always done. In a short period of time, seizures and strokes made leaving my home unaccompanied no longer an option. I retreated into my home as if a turtle retreating into his shell.
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, I began writing stories. Pages and pages of stories about the people in my life – I wrote the story of Karma, a little baby girl born into a meth house. After meeting her once, her parents just gave her to us and asked us to take care of her because they didn’t want their baby living on the street. I wrote the story of my dad who broke his neck in an accident and became paralyzed from the neck down. His grit and tenacity, however, had not broken his spirit and he went on to be a leader in the disability rights movement. I wrote the story of my brother, Quynh, who was born into the war torn country of Cambodia. Through a twist of fate he came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. With no record of his birth and without even knowing his name, my parents adopted him and gave him a forever home.
My life had been very rich as I met and cared for many children as a foster parent. I had memories in my mind that flowed through my fingertips as I relived the experiences I had and the lessons I learned that created who I am. The stories became a snap shot in time as I looked back at the events of my life. A photo journal, if you will, that filled my laptop one story at a time.
And then one day Alex popped into my mind. I didn’t know Alex, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Alex wasn’t even a person but more of an amalgamation of many children I had known or cared for in my lifetime. That day, as my youngest two children played at the beach, I wrote the story of Alex in my mind. That night, after tucking the boys into their beds at out cabin, I found several pieces of paper and a pen and I wrote the first story of Alex. As the sun rose and my children made their way into the kitchen, I stuffed the story of Alex away into a corner in my cabin and didn’t look at it again for months.
One night, I pulled it out and read it to a friend and she said that this story should not be left to gather dust in my cabin so I typed it and saved it in my laptop. On a different night, in lieu of reading a bedtime story from his shelf, I asked my eight year old if I could read him a story that I had written. When I finished, he told me that he wanted me to make it into a book, so I said I would.
Then he said he wanted to make it into a series for all of his friends to read and I said we should. Together, we created characters and story lines and I found that in the process of creating these fictional characters, I was actually reinventing myself. My body would no longer allow me to care for children in the flesh as I once did, but I could create them on paper and write their stories while rewriting my own.
That night, Turtle Shell Books was born – a series of books with children who reflect the diversity of the world; Characters encountering real challenges and learning how to overcome them written for children who can see themselves in the pages of the books. Children like Alex who will learn how to conquer the fear and confusion of sexual abuse. Hailey will discover that she still has a tender heart buried inside her after being removed from her mother and placed into foster care. Emilie knows that although some people see her as wheelchair bound, her opportunities are actually boundless especially when she has the support of her community of friends including Alex and Hailey. I grew to love these children and I knew it was time to bring them to life.
And now, I would like to introduce you to Alex in the first book of the Turtle Shell Books series, Sad, Scared, Confused.