The goldfish lasted for a week or two. My five-year-old son Alex and his friend Joey probably killed it by continually bringing it outside to oversee their Wiffle Ball contests, and by overfeeding it or feeding it things that a goldfish had little use for. The fishbowl grew cloudy with decomposing Saltines and Chips Ahoy! and though I changed the water a couple of times, the whole situation was probably traumatic for the creature, and before long “Goldy” was floating above the glass-bound watery world that had been its brief home.
Alex cried, and to alleviate his sorrow, I suggested we hold a funeral ceremony for Goldy. Together, we lined a little matchbox with felt and placed the dead fish in it. Alex led the solemn procession, followed by his three-year-old sister, Sandra, his buddy Joey, and Joey’s little brother Zach. Jake, our retriever, brought up the rear, tongue lolling. I waited with my hand trowel by the tiny grave I’d dug in the yard. Alex knelt beside it and placed the box in the hole. Then we all stood around for a minute, staring down at the matchbox coffin. Jake looked from the hole to the humans, expectantly.
“Would you like to say a few words, Alex?” I asked.
The maple tree stirred in a breeze, and the speckled shadows moved over his blond head. “What words?”
“Just some parting words, about Goldy?”
He nodded and thought for a minute. “Goldy,” he began, but he paused, and his upper lip began to quiver. “You were a good fish!” he cried and burst into tears as Joey sniffled and Sandra looked about, confused. I wondered if the ceremony had been such a good idea after all. I said a quick blessing and filled in the hole.
“Very nice, boys,” I said. “You did right by Goldy.”
In the house I put the ballgame on the radio while I continued some painting I was doing on the kitchen cabinets. A while later I looked out to see the children chasing each other around the yard. When my wife returned from shopping and asked how the funeral had gone, I said it was a sad occasion, but that Alex appeared to have gotten over it. We heard the children’s shouts and Jake’s barks from the yard. I concluded that Goldy had joined the forgotten dead.
After dinner that night, I read Burglar Bill to Alex while my wife finished reading The Cat in the Hat to Sandra in the next bedroom. Finally, I tucked him in, stopped to kiss Sandra goodnight, and joined my wife, who was reading a detective novel in our bedroom. She took off her reading glasses and smiled. One of the things she had purchased in her shopping that day was a black peignoir. She looked beautiful, and I kissed her and asked her the old question with my eyes. She feigned a sort of shocked expression, and whispered, “Wait. The kids are still awake.”
We read our books for a while—I was four chapters into To the Lighthouse and struggling to find a plot. I went downstairs to brush my teeth and get the coffee ready for the morning. As I headed back upstairs, thinking to share some intimate moments with my wife, I stopped. At the top of the stairs, I heard muffled sobs coming from Alex’s room. I opened his door and stepped into the boy’s room, dimly lit with a night light.
“What’s wrong, Alex? Are you still sad about Goldy?”
“No,” he said, but he was still crying.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I approached and sat on the edge of his bed.
He choked out the words. “Jake is going to die, too.”
“Jake’s only five. Dogs can live ten or fifteen years.”
“But he’s going to die. And Grammy is going to die, and you’re going to die, and Mom is going to die, and Sandra, and everyone is going to die. And I’m going to die, too.”
I felt as if my whole body, or my soul, if there is such a thing, were a lake, and his words were stones that fell against me and sank into my core. Those were fears I could not allay with philosophy or dismiss as unreal. I knew my wife, under such circumstances, would speak of heaven, and God and angels, and how we would all be reunited in heaven, and Jake too, and even Goldy, swimming in a big eternal fishbowl. But I didn’t want to say that, because I didn’t believe in that kind of heaven, in any kind of heaven really, and I hate hypocrisy above all things. What could I say? That life was beautiful, eternal in some way, but probably not for individuals? Should I tell him to enjoy the people and animals he loved and to be kind to them because it’s all over so soon, an ‘insubstantial pageant,’ as the poet said. Would that comfort a five-year-old? I thought of the old cemeteries of New England, so full of gravestones whose fading names, if shouted, roused no memory among the living. And of the weeping families and friends who’d seen them lowered there, all gone and forgotten, too, and beyond that, back to the first humans who emerged from the plains of Africa some two million years ago—all gone without a trace.
I felt the bed beneath me shake with Alex’s sobs, as, for the first time, Death had shown his pale face amid the playthings of childhood and pointed a bony finger at everyone the boy loved, and he had understood. I sat there in the dim glow of the night light, stroking his head, and finally leaned over and kissed him and said, “No matter what happens, Alex, we’ll all be together again someday in heaven.”
His crying ceased, and I heard his dear voice in the darkness. “Will we, Dad? Do you promise?”
“Of course,” I said. “You know I always tell you the truth.”
“Dad, will you lie down with me?”
“Sure, Champ, move over.”
By the time I got to bed, my wife was asleep; but my amorous thoughts had vanished. I heard a siren in the distance and wondered, as it faded, what trouble it meant for someone. Love is so terribly hard. With every ounce of your will, you want to protect the ones you love, and never let them be hurt by anything, but the reality is you can protect them from so very little. Maybe the best you can do is prepare them for the hard truth of pain and death, and I wished I had tried to tell Alex about the circle of life and that we are part of something so big that we, individually, are insignificant, like shooting stars that streak across the sky and then are extinguished and consumed to dust. I wished I had not filled his head with angels and eternal joy, with visions of his parents and his sister and Grammy and Jake and Goldy reunited forever, but it hurt me too much to watch the little boy ponder these separations.
I promised myself that when he was a little older, I would not hide my mind from him. I would tell him that his mother could well be right—that there could be a heaven—I had no way of knowing, but that I believed in the good sense of what Henry Thoreau had said on his deathbed, “One world at a time.” I would tell him I hadn’t wanted to lie to him. I would tell him that love is hard, and sometimes it makes the truth even harder. I would tell him I loved him, and that was truer than anything.
Steve O’Connor is a writer form Lowell, Massachusetts. He has published stories in over thirty literary reviews, including The Massachusetts Review, Aethlon, and Sobotka Literary Magazine. He has published three books with small presses (Smokestack Lightning, The Spy in the City of Books, and The Witch at Rivermouth).