My daughter was four-years-old when I wrote this essay. As I had very little experience with death in my own life, guiding her through her first glimpse of mortality proved challenging for me. I wasn't ready. Parenting proves to lean towards "making it up as I go" side of things.
Daughter wins four fish on the day we celebrate hanami on the banks of the Shukugawa. She names them Ichi, Ni, San and Toto. They do not last long.
Ichi dies at night, just after Daughter goes to bed. I consider flushing him right then, but decide I better wait until morning so that Daughter is not startled to hear of his demise and disposal after the fact. I scoop him out of the bowl and leave him to float all night in the little pink teacup on top of the TV. Daughter wakes up late. The babysitter is already standing at our door and I have just a couple minutes before I need to rush out to work. I give Daughter the bad news and show her the fish.
“Why did my fish die? I don’t want it to die forever!”
Real tears. My heart races as panic sets in.
“Well, we need to decide what to do. We can bury it in the park, or we can flush it so… it can go out to the ocean... to fishie heaven.”
More and more tears. Third degree breakdown. I glance again at the clock in the wall. Obviously, the funeral is not going to go smoothly in the final minute I have left before I need to leave. I wrap the teacup in plastic and place it in the refrigerator, between the daikon radish and mini-yogurt drinks.
“Sweetheart,” my voice low and calm, “when you are at school, think about how you want to say good-bye. We’ll take care of Ichi when I get home.”
After teaching my last class of the day, I skip out on my usual hour of loitering in the teacher’s lounge trying to catch a moment in the same room as crush and head straight to pick up Daughter. I wait anxiously in the entryway to see her, wondering if she’ll be tear-stained and red-faced. She looks fine.
We are standing around with all the other moms helping their kids put on shoes and sweaters when Daughter shouts, “My fish died! We’re going to flush it down the toilet!” She bounces up and down in her stocking feet.
Uh, yes, that’s right. We’ll be going now. Have a nice evening everyone.
On the walk home, Daughter starts moaning again. She is obviously sad, but also experimenting with grief. Her voice goes up and down in concentrated scales. She cries for a second, then stops mid-sigh when a thought occurs to her.
“Where does the fish go when we flush it down the toilet?” Her voice is crystal and lilting.
“I think it goes out to the ocean. To fishie heaven. She’ll be so happy there. It will be beautiful, just like in the Nemo movie.”
I want to smack myself. Did I really just compare the afterlife with a Disney movie? And I don’t even think there is a fish heaven. I promise myself not to lie to my daughter about death again. I say it twice in my head. Don’t lie about death. Don’t lie about death. Daughter resumes her dramatic murmurings.
We get home, take the fish out of the fridge and stand in front of the toilet.
“Good-bye Ichi,” I say. “You were a good fish.”
Daughter really starts to cry now, fifth degree, and I’m a little surprised by how deeply upset she seems.
She moans, “Don’t die forever!”
I drop the fish into the toilet bowl and gently ask, “Do you want to be the one to flush it?”
Daughter’s crying stops in a heart beat.
She springs forward like a leopard. “Yeah!”
Whooosh, around and down Ichi goes. Daughter enthralled, hangs over the toilet with her mouth open and her eyes wide.
“He’s all gone now,” she says to me, then skips away top play with her toys.
The other fish last a few more weeks. The one black one, Toto, dies next. His funeral is a much quicker affair. Then a few days later, Ni goes bottoms up. Daughter scoops him out herself and does the flushing honors. This morning, our last survivor, San, finally gives up the good fight.
Daughter wants to get a turtle next.
Oh little turtle that we bring home, I apologize in advance.
Author note: We never did get a turtle, but we have been through a variety of small, completely un-lovable mammals. She has a cat now. We love the cat. It survived.