“Keep your eye on these fish for a few days. You don’t want him to be around if one of them dies,” she whispers so Isaac can’t hear.
For his two year old birthday, we got three fish which he quickly named “Two, Baubee, and Three.” He’s learning to count and there really isn’t anything more exciting at the moment than the numbers two and three. He can tell them apart and feeds them every day. And when bedtime comes around he refuses to turn off their light because, he insists, the fish do not want to go to bed- just like him.
Yesterday, one of them did died. It started growing something gross on its face and by the time we got home, Baubee was gone. The store attendant’s voice was ringing in my head, “you don’t want him to see if one of them dies.” Actually, I think we do.
“Isaac, remember this morning how Baubee was sick? Well Baubee died. We have to say goodbye to Baubee. Maybe you could help me dig a hole we can bury him?”
He picked the spot in our backyard. And with his green, plastic shovel he helped dig a hole in the dirt. Erinn and Isaac went and got the fish bringing him down to the yard in a little cup. Erinn told me they thought we should sing some songs and say why we were grateful for him. Isaac carried the cup and came over to me saying “Baubee die. Baubee die.” He then went over to the stray cat that has fallen in love with Isaac and he said “meow, meow. Baubee die. Meow, meow, Baubee die.”
We walked over to the hole and the cat came too (I am sure Isaac thought the cat wanted to participate, while we were trying to make sure the cat didn’t eat him before we buried him).We sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Ancestors Breath” with special verses made up for Baubee. We went around and shared why we were grateful. Isaac dumped the cup over dropping Baubee in and together we covered him with dirt.
I couldn’t help but smile and give thanks for Isaac. The way he could pay attention and listen and take in what was happening. It is not a full knowing about death, but it is a beginning. An understanding that this is part of life. Not something to be afraid of, but rather to be honored, celebrated, mourned, sung about, and shared with mothers and cats alike.
This morning, he visits the tank regularly and says “Bye Baubee. Bye Baubee.” We will keep talking about him and giving thanks for his life. We will keep telling the story of this shy introverted fish stuck in the tank with the wild extrovert Two.
Through my own teenage years, I walked alongside death. My mom struggled with brain cancer for seven and half years before she died when I was nineteen. Her dying was my greatest teacher. I learned to honor life, to pay attention, to hold each second sacred, to create space for joy and celebration, to hang on to laughter, to cry freely, and to love wholeheartedly. When she died, our house overflowed with people and stories and singing and keening. For how much I ache for her being here now, I cannot deny the gift of those days and the gratitude I hold for them.
We live in a culture that doesn’t just hide death from children, but from all of us. We send the dead away to the “professionals,” bury our bodies in indestructible boxes, and push people out of sight when they are feeling sad.
I don’t want that for Isaac. I want him to trust his heart and show grief publicly. I don’t want him to be afraid of it. I want him to see death in the same way as we put the gardens to bed watching as the plants die and decay and to rejoice as the bulbs poke through.
I know that in the moments I want to shield him from death, it is more my own fear. What will it mean for him one day when he loses me and Erinn and others close to him? I know that I get a twinge in my heart every time I get a head ache and that I will hold my breath when he turns nineteen. But I don’t want to be afraid and I don’t him to be afraid. So today, we resist the fear and the culture of hiding death, by remembering Baubee, by visiting his spot in the yard, and giving thanks for the teacher and friend that he was.