You have to understand, this was no ordinary goldfish. My then 5-year-old son brought it home from his school’s Japan Day celebration. For the first week, I refused to feed the fish or take it out of its tiny container. I figured it was going to die any minute now, why bother?
The fish did not die. After a week, we bought it some fish food. After a month, we bought it a fish tank. After a year, we accepted it as a member of the family.
A few days ago, my now 14-year-old son discovered the fish lying on its side at the bottom of the tank, flopping listlessly. Its gills were still moving, it was clearly still alive. But, it was not well. We tried poking it with the aquarium net, hoping that maybe he’d just gotten caught in something. At that, he would right himself, swim energetically for a few moments, raise our hopes…then flop over again.
“The fish is dying,” I said to my husband. “We should just flush and get it over with.”
“No,” my husband said. “We shouldn’t be the ones to decide this.”
He told our son he’d have to be the one to decide this. It was his pet, after all. At which point my son burst into tears.
My husband then instructed our son to talk to the fish to see if that would help him settle on what to do.
I stepped out of the room in order to give them their privacy, but from what I did manage to overhear in bits and snatches, was an absolutely heartbreaking monologue, wherein my son tearfully recounted how he’d first met the fish, what a good fish he was, and how, whenever my son got stressed or upset, he could come and watch the fish swim and it would help clear his head.
The conversation actually appeared to calm him. (Score one for my husband. Honestly, it would have never, ever crossed my mind to suggest anyone have a talk with a fish.)
Of course then, before my son had made up his mind about what to do next, my husband also thought it was a fitting time to start discussing what my son might have done wrong in caring for him that brought the fish to such a state. (In my husband’s defense, he was postulating that our son had added too much aquarium salt to the water, and that moving the fish into a different container might help revive him.)
I interrupted to snap that now wasn’t the time or the place for such unproductive Monday morning quarterbacking and offered that if my son didn’t want to flush the fish, I’d do it for him.
My husband said I was upsetting our son by being so cavalier about the whole thing.
I countered that he was the one upsetting him by dwelling on the subject and attempting to lay blame when it was too late to do anything productive about it.
It was not our most unified parenting moment.
My son thought about it, then asked me to flush the fish so that we could put it out of its misery.
I did. (Without my son seeing. It was hard enough when the poor fish was laying there, visibly gasping for breath. The problem with flushing him was that, in that instant, he became instinctively animated again, so it really did feel like I was killing a perfectly fine specimen.)
My son went into his room, got into bed, and commenced sobbing his heart out. “I murdered my fish!”
Which is when my 10-year-old and my 6-year-old, who had remained silent throughout the entire process, proceeded to surprise me.
First, my 6-year-old daughter brought her brother her huge, stuffed dog, Fluffy Bow Wow, because “he’s soft and cuddly and he’ll make you feel better.”
And then my 10-year-old son brought him his…spool knitting. Spool knitting consists of a stick and yarn that you methodically weave the thread around in order to make a rope. My son’s school gives it to all the boys to help with their small-motor skills.
Now, just like it would have never occurred to me to suggest someone say goodbye to a fish, it would also have never occurred to me that the repetitive act of knitting might help a mourning teenager feel better.
But, somehow, it did.
I don’t know how my children understood to do that for their brother. But, I am immensely grateful.
Once, thanks to the stuffed dog and the knitting, my son had calmed down somewhat, my other children voiced that they would miss the fish, too.
At which point, primarily out of desperation for any kind of ritual to mark–and conclude–the occasion, I asked them if they wanted to say Kaddish.
Again, to my surprise, they all eagerly jumped on the idea.
So we said the Kaddish.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help observing, “Do you realize that we just said Kaddish for a fish?”
My son sighed deeply.
“It’s nice to know, Mommy, that even in the depths of my deepest despair,” (I have the kind of 14-year-old who uses phrases like “the depths of my deepest despair”), “You still manage to find something pithy to say.” (I also have the kind of 14-year-old who uses the word “pithy.” Correctly.)
I waited for him to chastise me for my cold-heartedness. Or to burst into tears again.
Instead, he smiled. He smiled for the first time in hours.
It may not exactly have been the most kosher or by the book Mourner’s Kaddish ever uttered. But, it got the job done.
Beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say: Amen