Friday, April 20, 2012

Goodbye to a family friend

The heart of this story begins about a year ago, not long after my parents bought four goldfish plus a tank for the boys. We were changing the water in the tank one day, a mildly complicated procedure that takes place in the boys' bathroom.

We were nearly finished, and I was ready to transfer the fish from a metal mixing bowl back into their tank. Matthew asked if he could do it. Since he's a responsible young man, I allowed it. Using a net, he scooped a fish from the bowl, but he scooped too hard. When he lifted the net, his adrenaline surged, and he flipped the fish, end over end, about five feet in the air. It landed with a thud on the tile floor of the bathroom.

I quickly scooped him up in two hands and dropped him into the tank.

Things didn't look good. The fish twitched occasionally but mostly floated in the tank. He drifted through the water, nearly upside down, with one fin lightly moving. If not for Matthew, I would have ended the fish's life right there. I assumed he was dead or dying, and there was nothing we could do about it. But Matthew as so distraught, I couldn't dare flush him down the toilet right then and there. I told Matthew we'd wait and see, but I had absolutely no hope. I expected to find the fish floating dead the next morning.

Amazingly, we found the fish swimming the next morning, and over the next couple of days, he recovered. He was clearly damaged – his body swelled in the center, and that broken fin never really worked again. You could easily recognize the fish. He looked like he had swallowed a marble. Matthew called him the short, fat one. But he lived.

He lived for the past year, in close quarters with his three friends, swimming awkwardly, but swimming. When I watched him, I knew he was struggling – struggling more than a tiny goldfish should. But he lived.

Yesterday morning, I was in the shower when Matthew came into the bathroom. "Daddy," he said. "That fat fish is acting funny. He's swimming to the top and then floating down."

"That's what he does, Matthew," I told him. "He always swims kind of funny."

Matthew left, I got out of the shower, got dressed and went through the day. I completely forgot about the fish, and we never checked on him. It wasn't until bedtime, when I was tucking in the boys (Jenn was at work), that I thought about the fish. I looked in the tank and there he was, floating upside down, no life at all.

Matthew saw me looking. "What's he doing" he asked. "Nothing," I said. "He died."

Matthew was quiet, then he started asking questions. "What happened to him? Are you sure? Which one is it?"

We talked, and I told him I had to take the fish out of the tank. "Is that okay?" I asked him. "Do you want to watch?" I told him I was going to flush the fish down the toilet. He seemed remarkably okay with that, so I got the fish net and scooped up our short, fat, broken friend. But as soon as the fish was taken from the water, things changed.

Matthew rolled over on his bed and began sobbing, tears pouring into his pillow. I sat down next to him, the dead fish dripping water onto the rug and began rubbing his back. I knew I couldn't flush this fish; he needed a proper burial. So I stayed there on the bed and talked to Matthew.

"You know what I do when someone dies?" I said.


"I think about all the good things," I said.

"Like what?" he said between sniffles.

"Like about how this fish was a survivor. He was a fighter. How we thought he was dead, and he fought and he fought and he fought, and he lived. He worked harder than the other fish to swim. He worked harder than the other fish to eat. But he lived. He was a fighter."

"Is that the fish that fell on the floor?" he asked.

"Yes, it was," I said.

"How did that happen?" he asked.

I couldn't believe the question. It was like he had distanced himself from the event. "Well, it happened when we were moving him back into the tank. It was a mistake," I told him, without reminding him that he was holding the net when it happened. That news unleashed a new torrent of tears, his head again buried in the pillow.

Listening to his brother weep, young Colin climbed up on the bed and wrapped his arms around Matthew's head. From the other bed, Josh began trying to console Matthew, in words oddly familiar.

"You know what I do when animals die?" Josh asked.

"What?" he said, face still buried in the pillow.

"I think about good animals, and how good they are, and the good things they do." Josh said.

"Like what animals?" Matthew sobbed.

"Like fish that fight," Josh said. "And dogs that are good. And rabbits ..." The speech unraveled a little bit, but Josh's heart was in the right place. He was being sweet.

By now, Colin had stopped hugging Matthew and was mostly stepping on his head, so I pulled him off his brother and told Matthew I'd be back in a few minutes to check on him. I put the fish in a tupperware container, put Colin to bed and went back to the boys' room. Both were asleep.

At breakfast this morning, I told Matthew I was going to bury the fish. I asked if he wanted to help. He said no, but he asked where I was going to bury him. "I'm not sure," I said.

"Will you bury him deep and put a circle of stones on top?" he asked.

So that's what I did. In a hidden corner of our yard, under a circle of small stones, lies the toughest goldfish I've ever seen. Matthew seems okay and appears to be moving on. He asked if Grandma and Grandpa would buy him a new goldfish. I expect they will. But he won't be like this fish. This fish was one tough son of a bitch. May he rest in peace.

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