Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation–proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love–we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what.
(Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)
Our fish died yesterday. His name was Buddha Betta and he was exquisitely beautiful. If a fish could look like a majestic peacock, then that’s how I would describe him. Aidan named him and I am not sure where he got the idea, but the name stuck. However, he wasn’t just a pretty fish, he was also a joyful fish. When you approached his bowl with an enthusiastic greeting, he would flare his fins and swim faster, making eye contact with you and shaking himself to and fro. Mike even taught him how to jump for his food. Such a character, our Buddha Betta. When we got him, Lainey was about 18 months old and called him “Baddhu”, which remained a sweet nickname until his untimely passing.
He was also a strong fish. Tough as nails. On the day we brought him home over one year ago, he fell out of his container and onto the driveway as Aidan was getting out of the car, throwing everyone into a panic. As I muttered a series of expletives to myself followed by a few prayers for some sort of mercy on this poor fish who had only been in our care for 25 minutes, I hastily scraped him into a cup and ran him inside and into the sink. We then performed life-saving measures to get him into a semi-clean bowl with the appropriate water cleaning drops and watched him kind of float around in shock. My expectation that he would live was very low and I tried to prepare and cushion Aidan for the imminent death of his new fish. But Buddha surprised us and kept swimming.
Not too long after that, I walked into the kitchen one day to find that Lainey had pushed over a chair and was transferring dirt and plant food from the potted plant on the counter into Buddha’s bowl as she said, “Feed Baddhu?”
So we commenced the second round of life-saving-measures and life-expectation-management. But the Buddha lived again.
Basically, he was the best fish ever.
So when I learned of Buddha’s passing in the midst of what is currently an incredibly chaotic and strained day-to-day life for us, I thought, “Really? Now?” Well, of course now; that’s how life works. So we braced ourselves to tell the kiddos, feeling especially bad about telling Aidan since this was his fish from the start.
After my last post, I probably don’t need to describe the implications of this death, the complicated overlay of grief and the potential for trauma triggers. I am sure you can just imagine.
So I will just recount a few of the heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments that unfolded when we told Aidan that Buddha had died.
First, he needed to see it, and there was something liberating and reassuring for him in being able to see Buddha resting there lifeless in his fishbowl plants. Aidan threw his arms around me; I could see tears in his eyes and I actually felt washed over in relief. Aidan was grieving and letting himself feel it. That is a big deal.
Then we took Buddha out to the garden for a proper burial. I felt that familiar tug at my heart as we all thanked Buddha Betta for being such a great fish, but then Mike and I totally broke down as both kids reached in to the hole to “pet” him one last time (or for the first time really because, well, he was a fish) with their tiny fingers before covering him with dirt.
Aidan created a beautiful headstone, adorned with the flowers and plants from the fishbowl. It reminded me of the thoughtfulness I recounted in this post when he found a dead seagull on the beach two summers ago.
As Aidan arranged some rocks around Buddha’s grave, the tears really started to fall as he sought comfort from each of us. Lainey was so sweet as she repeated, “I’m sorry, Aidan.” Because what else do you say sometimes? However, his sobs actually comforted me deeply. To know that my boy could cry those tears freely when he needed to. To know that he wasn’t still numb. To know he felt safe enough with all of us to release whatever grief was there. “Mommy, Buddha was my best friend, ” he cried as I stroked his hair and kissed his salty cheeks.
After our ceremony, he seemed lighter to me all day; I could sense all that he was able to release just by feeling everything he needed to and accepting that this was just part of the game.
Children are such incredible teachers. Their honesty and vulnerability is a gift we should handle with delicate reverence. They are also masters of living in the present moment, embracing it for all it holds. For me, that is tricky business.
As the grace-filled and inspired Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart (side note: if ever there was a book title to serve as my new survival manual, this is it.):
Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality and impermanence of death.
There are about a hundred metaphors and images of life and death in this story, many of which relate directly to my family’s experience and some of which I thought of sharing in this post. I also had to not get too terribly heavy about it all because otherwise it’s just SO depressing, so I cheered myself up by remembering the episode of The Cosby Show when the family fish died (does anyone else chuckle recalling all of them gathered around the toilet bowl?).
Anyhow, I realized that the only truth I really needed to acknowledge for myself (with a deep breath) is that ever-present paradox I am fumbling with so much right now.
In life, there is always death and in death, there is always life.