Goldfish: A Study On Life And Death

I’m often amazed how I can kid myself into thinking I have neatly folded up the pieces of my emotional laundry into my nicely coordinated baggage and stored it away – thinking I have properly dealt with it and don’t need to re-visit it anymore. Until, that is, something happens. And it doesn’t have to be something big. In fact, all it took to unravel me this time was the 4th goldfish death in 2 months.

A $.29 goldfish (or in this case $1.16, plus tax, worth of goldfish) undid years of therapy, grief work, and “everything is really good, thanks for asking.”

Part of potty training graduation reward and ramp up to preschool for my twin sons was the gift of an aquarium. We went to the pet shop, picked out a tank, gravel, plants, two fish, Rodney and Goldfish, and came home not realizing the amount of work these little suckers are. When I was 5 I remember just throwing a ping ping ball into a bowl at the local Fish Fry, coming home with a fish in a plastic bag and my mom putting him in a glass bowl with some tap water. We fed “Lucky” (and he was – he lived 7 years!) whenever we remembered and cleaned the bowl when it got too stinky or gross looking. Now, I had a lecture on temperature acclimation, PH balance of the water, ammonium levels, feeding, filters, food, water changes, slime coats, parasites, something called ICK, and lighting. Lighting. As if Rodney and Goldfish were going to be entertaining or doing heavy studying for their PhDs in the tank.

We acclimated; we slime coated; we fed “just a pinch and no more,” because even I remembered what happened to Otto in one of my favorite childhood books “A Fish Out of Water” (in that book, despite a warning, a little boy feeds and feeds his goldfish, Otto, until Otto grows so big he ends up in the community pool and the pet shop owner has to come and magically shrink him back to size).

And a few weeks into our aquarium adventure, Rodney started to get sick. And I panicked. And obsessed. I searched Google with a vengeance. I visited the pet store a dozen plus times, and I spent days trying to keep this $.29 fish alive. I spent close to $100 trying to keep him alive. Ammonia levels were too high in the tank so I did water changes. I checked the water quality hourly. I sat with the fish in that tank and talked to them and willed Rodney to stay alive. When he stopped eating, I boiled peas and fed them to Rodney on a bamboo skewer. I gave him salt baths. I did everything but take him to an emergency fish clinic and demand surgery. I was as exhausted as when my twins were newborns. I was staying up until 2 and 3 a.m. and then setting the alarm for every 40 minutes to check on Rodney and check the water and search the internet for something new that might save him.

And I couldn’t, of course. Because my son was obsessed with Rodney, and because I didn’t want to have to teach him this tough lesson yet, I pulled a replacement maneuver – going and purchasing an almost exact duplicate and explaining the markings were just a little different because Rodney was feeling so much better.

And Rodney v2 lasted another few weeks. His death was less painful in that we woke up one morning and he was gone. My son, with tears in his eyes, simply said, “Rodney dieded didn’t he? I guess he’s with Grandpa now.”

We had a lovely funeral, complete with eulogy, and 15 minutes later my son asked for a dollar so we could “go pick up a new Rodney.” The grief process is clearly different (and better, in my opinion) when you are three and a half.

And so it went for the following month and two more fish. Rodney v3 again only lasted a few weeks, and, sadly, Goldfish, who always seemed so strong and hearty and playful, started to show the signs of impending death. And, despite having gone through this three times prior, when he finally died, after a long, painful week where I again was trying everything possible to keep him alive, I lost it. Despite the jokes I had made about it on Facebook, despite the fact that Goldfish was “just” a $.29 fish, I felt like I had lost a family member. And, in a way, I had. These were the first pets our sons had that were all their own (we have a dog, but the reality is that she was the first baby in our family). I was crying in the shower. Crying in the car after preschool drop off. Grieving. Over fish.

A friend had mentioned that I should take my Facebook posts, which included an obituary for the original Rodney, and write a piece, because, as she stated, it was some funny stuff. I commented to her that most of it was absurd and funny, but the reality was that I knew I had spent all that time trying to keep those fish alive because there were people in my life I couldn’t keep alive and somehow I was trying to balance what I viewed as failings on my part. I didn’t even realize what I was saying until I said it. I spent hours trying to keep the Rodneys and Goldfish alive because I couldn’t keep my first husband alive. I couldn’t keep a dear friend alive.

I left my husband alone when clearly I should not have. I promised a dear friend I would bring my boys by to swim in his pool, and I never took them. I said things that I shouldn’t have. I made promises that I didn’t keep. Sure, they both knew I loved them, but I wasn’t there as much as I should have been when they needed me the most. I failed them. And they both ended their lives. Despite years of grief work, therapy, reading, retreats and thinking I had a handle on all if it, it took 4 dead goldfish to show me that my greatest fear is not only losing those I love, but not being able to keep those I love alive.

When Goldfish was struggling to stay alive and I knew I might have to perform a euthanasia flush, I told my other son (who Goldfish technically belonged to), that Goldfish was really sick and probably wouldn’t be there when we all woke up the next morning. I told him he might want to say whatever he wanted to say, and the following was exchanged:

Me (near tears): Goldfish is really sick and because we love him so much we need to let him know it’s ok if he leaves us. We want him to feel better. So let’s tell him how we love him ok?

My son (practically kissing the tank): I love you Goldfish. I don’t want you to be sick. I’m gonna miss you. When you get to Heaven, say hi to Grandpa. Say hi to Uncle Mondo. Say hi to Rodney. Tell them I miss them.

And, by then, I was sobbing. People say 2 and 3 year olds are too young to grasp death. But the reality is that when they experience mom and dad being gutted by death more than a few times early in their life, and when mom and dad are age appropriately honest about what is going on, kids “get” stuff on a level we adults just don’t sometimes (a lot of the time). The boys talk about Grandpa and Uncle Mondo (our dear friend who died by suicide) all the time, so it’s not surprising to me that this was part of B’s process.

And what happened next was simply amazing. After two days of fighting death like nothing I have ever seen, our little $.29 goldfish, Goldfish, who had been with us since the beginning of the tank adventure, gave one last tail flap and died. It’s like he actually did want to know that we (yes, me included) were going to be ok. And it helped me immensely, because it was like he was telling me he knew I did the best I could, and his death was out of my control.

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic or sappy, but this was honestly one of the more beautiful moments of my life.

Goldfish, you were a good fish. You and your brother(s), Rodney, actually taught me a lot. About fish certainly (more than I ever could have imagined), but mostly about myself.

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