I buried Ryan’s two dead fish today. His charges. I wasn’t going to. I was going to flush them down the toilet and call it a day. And then Ryan’s little face got to me. And his friend Noah’s face got to me too.
“Mom, I don’t want you to flush them. Okay? Can you bury them? In the back yard? But do it while I’m at school, okay? Cause it would be too hard to watch.”
Yeah. Sure, I thought. I’m going to stop my day of a million responsibilities, after a night of staring at the ceiling, wondering what the heck matters, and I’m supposed to find the time, energy and presence of mind to scoop dead fish and dig a hole and bury them in my back yard? And honor them in some way, too, I suppose? And not even with my kids – not even for a “feel good” moment of connection – the kind of moment that makes me feel like the most awesome mom for a nanosecond? One quick flush, a little lie about a peaceful burial, and I can move on to my next chore.
Then I had a shift. I remember how those fish came to be ours. Ryan’s best friend, Noah, gave Ryan those fish. Noah moved here from California. He immediately related to Ryan’s softness, his not-so-athleticness, and Ryan’s dog, Colby, who reminded him of a dog they’d just lost, Jett. As the months passed, they bonded over the loss of their dogs, over Star Wars Lego guys, and the rescuing and training of their new crazy dogs. His mom and I did, too. As I type this, I can still hear Noah’s and Ryan’s laughter coming from the upstairs bedroom.
Without much warning, Noah’s family needed to move back to California. Ryan was heartbroken, but Noah had asked Ryan to keep his fish for him. Forever. This wasn’t just a fish-sitting job. Ryan was asked to ADOPT them. Feeling proud to be regarded as “animal people,” we immediately agreed. Plus, it was a way for Ryan to hold on to Noah. To nurture something OF Noah. FOR Noah.
So we cared for those fish pretty well. I, busy and scattered, did not do enough for the fish. I left the feeding and care of the fish up to Ryan. I didn’t even know their names. (One is named Oreo, I think. That’s all I know.) I would walk by from time to time and see that they were clean and happy, but I was most definitely removed from their care. I told Ryan, once in a while, what a great job he does every morning – either feeding the fish himself, or delegating to one of his sisters. But I wish I’d taken the opportunity to really, really do more.
This morning, still in pain about other yucky stuff floating around in my universe, I drove Abby to preschool and focused, the whole ride home, on these fish. I cried. I actually cried. Isn’t that silly? I cried about what they represented to Ryan and me. I cried about how I could have done better for them. I cried about how stupid it felt to be so deeply moved by two goldfish, and how much a 38 year old could miss an 8 year old boy who’d moved away, leaving only his fish (and a pair of pajamas he’d forgotten) for us to remember him by.
So I came home and I scooped those bloated, bug-eyed fish into a used coffee filter with some coffee grounds still in it. I wanted something that was biodegradable. It felt right. Whatever.
I couldn’t find a shovel. Didn’t want to ask a neighbor for one. How do you explain what you’re doing? You know? Or why you’re crying? Or if that’s even why you’re crying to begin with? So I found a camping stake for a tent we don’t even have any more and I used that to move the soil. It was so much easier than I thought. Healing, too. Damp soil. Who knew? It feels good. And I buried those tiny beings’ bodies in my favorite spot in the yard. Right under our dog Colby’s tree. The spot, in fact, where we took our last photo of Colby before we took him in to be put down. That spot was so right for the burial.
And it didn’t seem complete, this humble little resting place for Noah & Ryan’s last living connection, without something to mark it. The mound of fresh soil would soon enough be covered over with grass. And so I made a cross out of sticks and a twist tie. And I hope Noah is okay with a cross. It’s the only thing I could think of. Cause I was not about to check Amazon for tiny fish headstones or any such nonsense.
So thank you to the fish, and to Ryan, and Noah, and Noah’s mom, for giving me this chance to reflect and focus on our time together. I hope that Noah and Ryan will understand how much these little tiny fish mattered. I do. We all matter. A lot.
And when I take the time to capture a moment – whether it’s the death of a fish, my dad’s hands, or a young boy’s brand new car, well, it’s just my way of marking it. Of remembering that that moment, regardless of how huge it was in the grand scheme of things, it mattered. And the people, or dogs, or fish, or trees that I captured? They mattered too.
Capturing what matters. I love doing that. I really, really do.