Based on our true story
The phone rang just as I was moving a stack of folded laundry to the bottom of the stairs. I plopped the pants and tshirts down and hurried to pick up the call before it went to voicemail. Grandma was on the other end and I could hear Josh chattering in the background. “Do you have any fish food?” she asked innocently. Not connecting the dots that were about to be dropped in my lap, I said I was pretty sure that everything had gone to the trash after the death of our betta a few years prior. “I’ll double check,” I offered as I pinched the handset between my shoulder and ear. A quick rummage through the laundry room bins turned up nothing. “No, just some aquarium salt and PH strips. I threw most everything out when Flip died. Didn’t figure I’d need it again anytime soon. Why?”
I then learned that we were the proud new owners of a goldfish. Josh had stayed overnight with his grandparents and as a special treat, Grandma had taken him to the pet store with the shark tank. On their way out the door, Josh noticed a large gumball machine with a sign that read, “Get an orange gumball and win a free goldfish!” After 2 tries and 2 yellows, the third quarter turned a charm and out came the magical orange orb. A squealing Josh trailed after the teenage cashier to a large tank in the back where a bright orange fish was scooped out of his world and into a plastic bubble. Grandma was halfway to the parking lot when she realized that I might not be prepared to host a fish and so she was calling to see if we did indeed have any provisions to get us through the first day with our new pet.
After hanging up, I decided it would be best to prepare Bob for the new arrival ahead of time. It was one of those, “What can you do?” conversations and we agreed that another pet would just be another chapter in the saga of our family’s wacky animal life. Thankfully, a fish wouldn’t cost as much as the diabetic cat. Nor would it require as much attention as the backyard flock of chickens we had added over the summer. And certainly it wouldn’t be as needy as the neurotic aged dachshund who clung to us every waking moment. Toss a few pellets in his tank each day and add some clean water once a week. We could manage, I supposed. And I reminded Bob that mercifully, goldfish weren’t notorious for living long lives.
A few hours later, the doorbell rang and the dachshund went beserk. She never handles company well and is extra suspicious of anyone arriving who feels the need to ring first. Bob opened the door and was immediately ordered to “Close your eyes, Dad!” Surprises were promised and the giddy led the blind to a couch in the living room where everyone gathered ‘round to find out what Josh had squirreled away in the small cardboard box resting on his lap.
“It’s a goldfish and I won him at the shark store because I put 3 quarters in the machine and got a yellow and a yellow and an orange and that means I was the winner of a free goldfish that I brought home after we went back and got food and Grandma poured him into this glass vase from the plastic bag because that could get a leak and now we’ll have to get a bigger tank with an air filter or else he’ll die from sasfucation because fish use their gills to breathe not their noses. And I named him Fred.”
Brother and sister oooohed and aaaaahed over the orange fish swimming round and round in the large glass vase. It had been awhile since we last peered into a bowl of billowy fins but the fascination was quickly reignited. After a thorough retelling of the story of the orange gumball, Lauren said thoughtfully, “You know, Josh. Everyone names their pet Fred. You should pick something more original.” This challenge landed on fertile ground and soon Fred had been re-christened “Gumball.” It actually seemed a perfect namesake and I acquiesced to making Gumball’s care a part of my daily routine.
The rest of the evening was spent prodding the quivering dog and reluctant cat to greet the fish, drawing pictures to plaster against the vase to provide some temporary scenery and feeding him a few pellets of food before bedtime. I finally gave the last call and 3 sets of feet scampered up the stairs, their goodnights having been dished out to Grandma and Pop. Awhile later, my in-laws made their way to the front door and we began the process of putting the house to bed as well. During one last stop in the kitchen to set the dishwasher, I noticed that Gumball wasn’t very active. All night long he had been swimming round and going through a series of rising and sinking motions, all the while glubbing his gills and mouth in steady rhythm. Now, he seemed nearly still at the bottom of the vase, gills barely fluttering and mouth making weak attempts at gulping. I felt a stab of panic, knowing that it was too big a change of behavior to be normal. The last time I had watched a fish stop moving had been the last moments of Flip’s life. Surely the end couldn’t come this quickly, I reasoned.
I grabbed a coffee stir and swirled the water around, hoping to stimulate Gumball and supply fresh oxygen. We were planning to get a proper tank the next day and I had checked online to make sure that goldfish could survive awhile without filtration. He gave a little effort and wobbled his fins again. Not enough. I stirred some more and moved him away from the sink to the stovetop, thinking that perhaps the counter was too cold there near the window and being away from it might help the water temperature stay a little closer to comfortable. He finally perked up and began swimming and glubbing at the surface. His gills found their rhythm again and he seemed to quicken to his previous pace. I put his vase in a cardboard box and turned the overhead switch on high so that he would have at least the comfort of light. A final pellet of food and then I made my way to bed, expecting that he’d settle in and we’d get him properly housed by the next afternoon.
The next morning I woke up before everyone else as usual and went downstairs to gather the chicken’s feed for the morning. While filling a gallon jug with water in the sink, I glanced into the vase on the stovetop, fully expecting to see Gumball busy about his morning, too. Instead I saw a fish that was completely still, leaning on his side. I grabbed the coffee stir and swirled the water around hoping to stimulate him once again. Nothing. I gently prodded him but he remained motionless. I knew that he was gone.
A short time later, after letting the hens out of the coop and making myself a cup of coffee, I went back upstairs to do my morning devotions. I felt that it would be more comforting to talk with Josh about his fish in the folds of our familiar bed rather than at the hard wooden planks of the kitchen table. I imagined he’d rush downstairs to see Gumball and then come to me with news of the terrible discovery. We’d been down this road before, with a cat and a betta and even the childhood angst of a dead mouse that was found on the top step of the basement stairs. It’s always best to hear bad news in a place where faces can easily be buried into open arms and so I waited there for the embrace that I knew would come.
About an hour later, I heard the boys’ room door open and Josh’s feet go through his familiar routine...the hurried thwacks of bare skin on bathroom linoleum followed by the quick sliding sounds as he went down the carpeted stairs. He still walks down stairs like a little boy, both feet meeting on the step before moving down to the next one. It’s one of the ways that I identify which child’s coming down in the morning. I strained to hear his voice from the kitchen below but only heard the return steps coming up the stairs. Josh climbed into bed next to me and asked in a quiet voice, “Mom, where is Gumball’s vase? I can’t find it.” I was surprised that he hadn’t noticed it on the stovetop but I also felt that his voice betrayed a hint of suspicion that a vase removed meant a life demised.
I put down my book and coffee mug and turned toward him as he incurvated deeper into the space between Bob and me. “I want to talk with you about Gumball,” I said in my gentlest voice possible. Immediately Josh asked, “Is he dead?” I paused, picking my words carefully and replied, “He’s no longer with us. He passed away during the night.” With commendable courage for a 7-year old, Josh listened as I explained about the listless fins and idle gills, the frantic stirs and imploring prods and the final resignation that Gumball was gone. I looked down at his face just in time to catch a single tear sliding off his nose and onto my pillow.
For a child not known for composure or aplomb, this quiet, dignified grief caught me off guard. I am used to the fits of tears that accompany his disappointments, not the silent bearing of heartache, and my heart split a bit at the sight of his brave countenance. My hands moved to smooth his hair and I pulled him a little closer so I could kiss the top of his head. With this permission, the swell of tears rose above the levees of his lower eyelids and Josh cried openly, lamenting about bigger tanks and lacking food.
A few minutes later, he decided to wake his siblings and let them know the news. He ran down the hall and I followed behind, thinking of ways to explain the unpredictable lifespan of ichthyological pets.
In the kitchen, I lifted the vase out of the box and closer to the edge of the stove for the children to see. Gumball was clearly deceased, his body arched stiff and mouth hinged open. Upon making this final confirmation, Josh ran back upstairs to our bed and pulled the covers over his head. Lauren followed him with tears on her cheeks. I decided it was best to wake Bob, who had somehow managed to sleep through the last hour’s drama, and tell him the news so that he would be sensitive toward the tender hearts clustered in our bed. As I whispered in Bob’s ear, Josh cried out from under the covers, “Why did I have such bad luck to get a fish that died in a day?”
Ah yes, the impossible, unreasonable interrogation had been launched. Like trying to convince a child that lying on a bed of nails doesn’t hurt when their only experience with nails is connected to absolute pain, so, too, is trying to acceptably explain the substance of life and death a futile effort. Truly these moments are when parents earns their pay. My mind flipped through the rolodex of responses, looking for the right card to pull out and offer in response to a 7-year-old’s limited experience with loss.
It dawned on me that taking the fish’s perspective on the last day of his life, instead of our own, might give me something to work with. And so I asked Josh these questions.
“Sweetheart, I know that it seems like bad luck, but do you think perhaps it might have been that you were favored instead? We don’t know how old Gumball was. He looked healthy but he could have been a very old fish. Do you think it is possible that God knew Gumball had one day left in his life and He made sure that he was scooped out of the tank to be your free fish?” I paused and waited to see if this might hook Josh’s reasoning. There was no movement from beneath the comforter and I took that as a good sign. “Do you think that perhaps God sent Gumball home with you for a single day so that he could experience all the wonders of the world that he never would have known if he had stayed in the tank and died there instead?”
Josh emerged from the blankets, a far away look on his face. I know that gaze, the one that announces, “Come back later. I’m dreaming right now.” So I pressed on. “What things did Gumball experience yesterday that must have been amazing to him? Can you tell me about his wonderful last day?”
As so Josh started at the very beginning, right after he turned the crank on the gumball machine and handed in his orange winning ticket to the cashier.
“Well, he got to go for a ride in a net when he was scooped out. I guess that was exciting, but maybe a little scary since he couldn’t breathe for a few seconds... And then he got to feel like he was in a bounce house as I carried him to the car in the plastic bag... He probably felt carsick on the ride home because the car was really warm and I get that way when I feel too hot in the car... He probably was amazed to see all the things outside his glass bowl in Grandma’s kitchen. I spent a lot of time watching him swim. He probably wondered what kind of creature was outside looking in!.. And then when we came home, he probably felt chilly air and saw darkness and heard strange noises that the car makes... And when we got here, I showed him to the dog and cat and those would have been even stranger creatures to see through the glass...” He trailed off, back to the dreaming of fish on Wonka-esque adventures.
“You’re right, Josh. Gumball experienced all those things, amazing, unbelievable experiences because he was chosen to go home with you. His last day was exciting and thrilling beyond anything his little fish brain could have imagined when he was swimming with the other fish in his tank. You were chosen to be his tour guide through a magical world and his last day was unforgettable.”
“If fish can remember things,” added Josh. “Yes, if fish can remember,” I conceded.
Lauren was listening intently. She whispered, “Do you think Gumball is in heaven now, Mom?” Hmmm. Another bed of nails. I thought for a moment and gathered all the truth I could quickly recall about the promises of Heaven.
“Well, the Bible tells us that humans are the only ones to need forgiveness of sins, so there’s no sin-problem that would separate pets from God. And the Bible tells us that God is preparing a place for us in Heaven and it’s full of all His goodness and we know that animals are good. God told us that in the first book of the Bible. And we know that Heaven is going to be full of things that delight us and surely God knows how much our pets delight us. And if God took time to include animals in His plans for Earth, then I don’t know why He wouldn’t also include them in his plans for heaven. So I think it’s very reasonable to expect that we’ll see our pets and other animals in heaven one day.”
I pulled the children close and held them while they tested these thoughts, gingerly pressing their hearts up against the nails of the grave, beginning to realize that the sting of death was truly swallowed up by Jesus on the cross as He secured the promise of imperishable life for us.
Later that day, when emotions had calmed and the children had grown used to the idea of how to dispose of a departed fish, we gathered in the powder room for a few last words. We gave thanks for the day we had with Gumball and we rejoiced that it was extraordinary. As the toilet swirled and the last bit of orange fin disappeared from sight, I glanced over at Josh to see if he was struggling. Not surprisingly, he had a faint smile on his face and that far-away look in his eyes. I smiled in reply and joined him in dreaming of all the amazing things Gumball was seeing on his first day in heaven. And as I wandered along those quiet streams, I realized that like a goldfish, we, too, have experienced so little of the world that God has surrounded us with, understood so little of His plan for this life and the next, imagined so little of the unimaginable so-much-more that awaits us on the other side of our last day.
As it is written,
'No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love Him.'
1 Corinthians 2:9