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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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Sleeps With Fishes

Here's another peek at my manuscript, D-I-Y Spells DIE, and Other Domestic Epiphanies. Artwork by my firstborn.

Wanda died two days after we brought her home. Or maybe it was one day. It took me a while to be certain, since she was nestled among the stems of an aquatic plant which prevented her from floating belly-up to the surface of the goldfish bowl. I was pretty sure it wasn’t normal for her to be pointed head-down for so long, but her tail and fins would waft gently in the current of the air filter, and I thought it was possible she was resting, or just disoriented.

The morning of Day Three, I reached in and gave the leaves a little shake. Wanda promptly fell upwards and assumed the definitive position. I called my husband at work with the sad news.

His preference for disposal of the remains was a private flushing at home. Less said, the better, was his philosophy as far as the children were concerned.

“Let’s not make a big production of this,” he suggested, in the rich blended tone of foresight and futility that comes only with years of marriage.

“What are you talking about?” I said, with feeling. “Of course, we’re having a ceremony. We have to have a funeral—this is how children learn to deal with death. This,” I declared with hyperbole, “is why you have small pets.” Moved by my own case, I began to sing the chorus from “The Circle of Life,” but he had already hung-up.

Men don’t know how to deal with their grief, I thought sadly, scooping Wanda into a plastic baggie and stashing her temporarily in the vegetable crisper. They’d rather just flush and deny.

I was determined it would be different for my boys. When they padded downstairs I gave it to them straight: Wanda hadn’t made it; she had died. They were mildly curious. Where was she now, they wanted to know, inspecting the goldfish bowl. I explained that while her body was lying in state in the refrigerator, her spirit was surely swimming with God.

Several days later, after Saturday morning cartoons, I announced it was time for the funeral. Someone would have to dig a hole. My six-year-old was enthusiastic about this part, excavating a large hole in the lawn beneath our lovely Japanese maple. He also helped me bind two popsicle sticks together with kitchen twine for a cross,

“Wanda,” I read aloud, inscribing the grave marker with a permanent felt-tip pen, “2005.”

I capped the pen. “Now it’s time to get Wanda.”

At this point, my six-year-old lost muster, and looking askance, said he’d rather go back inside and watch television, thank you. I praised his abilities as a sexton and let him go. His four-year-old brother, who during the digging and construction phase had been gathering dandelions for a memorial spray, followed me raptly to the refrigerator to see what would happen next.

The deceased was holding up rather well, considering. I lifted the baggie out, and we observed her in silence for a moment, before proceeding on our way to the front yard as pallbearers.

Under the canopy of red maple leaves, I unzipped the bag and poured Wanda into her final resting place. My son helped shovel dirt over the grave with a small garden trowel, and laid his bouquet of yellow flowers at the base of the cross. I turned to the prayer I had chosen from the board book edition of A Child’s Book of Prayers.

“Dear Father, please hear and bless thy beasts and singing birds,” I read. “And guard with special tenderness small things that have no words. Amen.”

I closed the prayer book and smiled serenely at my son, lesson accomplished. I was not prepared to see his fathomless blue eyes brimming with tears. His small shoulders sagged as he collapsed against my leg, sobbing.

“Oh, sweetheart,” I exclaimed, falling to my knees to comfort him. I was horrified. What kind of sick, morbid sadist was I, anyway? How many years of therapy would it take to recover from a mother who interrupts Saturday morning cartoons to make you carry your cold, dead pet to the front yard and shovel dirt onto it? My husband was right—I carry things too far.

As usual, I had at arrived at one extreme by way of a non-stop flight from another. Earlier in my career as mother, I took pains to avoid a direct discussion of mortality with my kids. They had just arrived here, after all. Why spoil all the fun right away with the dark and terrible truth?

I thought it was better to let them down gently. Whenever possible, I evaded the subject.

“Mommy, where do chicken nuggets come from? ”

“The grocery store, darling. Ketchup?”

Or I euphemized. “That bird left his body here and went to fly in heaven,” I’d say, as we paused over a feathered corpse lying in the gutter.

My illusion that I could or should shield them from life’s big spoiler ended abruptly one night as I was tucking my eldest son in bed. I was telling him a story about his grandfather, who had passed away while he was still a toddler.

“Where is Poppy?” my son asked pointedly.

I smiled sadly. “He went to live with God, baby.”

My son propped his head up and looked at me with a kind, but resolute expression, like a psychotherapist about to get down to business. He touched my arm.

“Do you mean he’s dead, Mom?” he asked, gently.

See, in my Momnipotence, I forget sometimes that my kids came fully assembled. I don’t need to do anything to activate their humanity. They’ve got it. They get it. The script for life and death, grief and joy is written on their DNA. I fool myself into thinking I’m the auteur of their childhood, when in reality, I merely work in the props department.

The universe has found it necessary to remind me of this early and often. I remember fixating on my first newborn’s tiny ears, whorled like the inside of a conch, pearly pink and golden. Tracing them lightly with my finger, I would marvel in silence over their intricacy. Like everything else about him, they were miraculous to me. And humbling. I can’t draw an ear, much less take credit for making one.

As I knelt in the dirt around Wanda’s grave, my weeping child clasped to my chest, I felt that sense of wonder and humility. My son knew his part. Not in my little production, but in the theatre of life. His mourning was both authentic and appropriate, and all that was required of me was to honor it.

“Let’s have some juice,” I suggested, brushing his sandy brown hair from his eyes. We walked up the steps to the front porch and sat at the boys’ little table. I brought out the whole jug of orange juice and two plastic tumblers. I thought we could both use a drink.

“To Wanda,” I said, raising my glass.

To life, I thought. The bitter and the sweet.

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Blogger Jenny said...

Hey, Kyran!

I'm here via an awesome comment you made yesterday over at Friday Playdate. Hoped to find more of your unique style and clever wit. You definitely did not disappoint.

The "life's big spoiler" metaphor? LOVED. IT.

Bookmarking you and will be back often.

P.S. Not that you asked, but regarding ad-placement on your blog, I say "Go for it." Make some cash for doing what you're already doing. Why not?

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dana said...


I love your words and find solace in your truth. Thank you for brightening my days.

Great things are headed your way...I will be wishing it for you!

12:11 PM  
Blogger Erika said...

This is hilarious and reminds me of the pet cemetaries that all our gardens became in my childhood. I don't think I ever watched my father bury any of our guinea pigs, cats, or dogs over the years. I had no stomach or rather, heart for it. We didn't have funerals as such but we did pay our respects through recounting fond memories.

Now as an adult, Rob and I have buried two of our cats under the trees in the yard in the past year. It was difficult but the process also helped me feel some closure. When we explained this to our neice (10) and nephew (13) they suggested we should put grave stones in. I told them I would take this under advisement.

12:32 PM  
Blogger AliBlahBlah said...

Brilliantly written (as always!).

I remember being very young and my Mum telling me one morning that there'd been a 'death in the family'. After going through all our pets at the time, 'not Dandy, not Scruff' etc etc I thought I'd run out of options. Then it dawned on me. 'Not Daddy' I asked thinking, surely she wouldn't be so calm, so heartless. But no, it was a goldfish. My Dad lived to fight another day. I have never been so relieved that a goldfish died.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Kate The Great said...

I read your blog often and find inspiration from it. Well-written; we belong to the same clan, you and I.

I lurk. But I'm here, appreciating and savoring.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Maddie said...

"Your children are not your children; they are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself" --Kahlil Gibhran (sp?)

Lovely post. RIP, Wanda.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Jennifer/The Word Cellar said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of writing. I'm currently working on an essay and trying to figure out why it feels so flat. Reading other great writing is always a good tutorial and motivator.

11:18 PM  
Blogger KinnicChick said...

Well done. Lovely.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Gartenfische said...

Beautifully written. The title reminds me of an incident that happened when I was a kid. We had two little goldfish in a bowl sitting on a table near the kitchen. My sister was probably three or four at the time. Mom came into her room one afternoon to find the fish dead on her pillow. When she asked her about it, my sister said they needed a nap. All that swimming must have made them tired!

4:56 PM  
Blogger Beck said...

This was beautifully written - the only pet we had that has died, so far, has been a tank full of sea monkeys. They were deeply mourned by their stricken 7 year old owner.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Dee said...

Hi..I am new to your blog!!
This was a great I loved reading!! Reminded me of the time my dog died (on feb 14th). My mom and I buried him under the neem tree , said some prayers in sanskrit and let him rest.!!!

2:01 PM  
Blogger Jonivan said...

We had a little tiger oscar. His name was Bob. He made cute little faces at us thru his tank. Bob recieved a Vikings funeral without the fire in New York Harbor. He is missed.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Marie said...

Goldfish in the crisper! :) I so enjoy your stories! This one is typically funny and poignant. It's funny how children take their own lessons from life, not necessarily the ones we expect. I was somehow expecting the goldfish to become the first in a long line of buried fish.

I don't ever remember our parents burying any of our dead pets, other than our little dog at an advanced age. But as kids, we'd play church and bury any dead chipmunk or bird we'd find with all due pomp and ceremony. It was somehow making sense of funerals and what happens to you after you died, or at least what kind of meaningful response to make. A bang-up funeral for starters. Now my dad just writes hackneyed but heartfelt commemorative poems. That's another way to do it....

4:04 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

This is just beautifully written and expressed. I'm proud to have you on my blogroll.

Why AREN'T you teaching me to knit?

2:16 PM  
Blogger The bean-mom said...

"The script for life and death, grief and joy is written on their DNA."

I love that line.

Just recently stumbled on your blog. Just wanted to let you know that I loved that line, and love this post.

1:05 PM  

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