We could see that Max was winding down. He hung out at the bottom of the fish bowl behind the water plants, no longer swimming up to us to get his lunch pellets. He hovered close to the back of his SpongeBob Square Pants Pineapple Under the Sea aquarium house. He ate far less than usual.
They say the life-span for a beta fish is approximately two years. Our blue beta, Max, joined our family on Bob's seventh birthday, one year and eight months ago. And who knows how old he was that day we picked him up at the pet store? He was surely swimming slowly into his two year marker. To prepare Bob, I told him that Max was nearing the end of his life. He responded, "Wait! You're just going to let him die? I don't want him to die!"
We had a series of talks about nature and life and death and animals and people and how we enjoy the time we have with them in the world and then wish them well as we help to comfortably usher them into their next phase. Like we had done with Grandma Sylvia. Like we had done with our dog Daisy. Like we had done with our cats Pearl and Vi and the stray cat we named Rose.
Last night when we returned from dinner, Bob went to the dining room to check on Max. "You guys," he called out, "Max died!" We gathered around the fish bowl to see Max floating motionlessly at the top of the water. Bob hoped that because Max's eyes were open, that there was a chance he was still alive. We assured him that fish do not have eyelids to close and that yes, he was indeed gone. We decided it would not do to unceremoniously flush him down the toilet as is often the custom. It was late, so we made plans to honor Max with a small fish funeral in the morning before school.
Before bed we say prayers and out loud we bless, by name, all of our pets and immediate and extended family and their pets too. Over time, we have lost a number of people and animals and each time someone is moved off of the list, the rhythm of our prayers is altered and it takes a week or two to get used to our new, smaller parade of loved ones. Last night we blessed Max and then remembered that he had moved on and we then changed our prayer to bless dead Max's tiny fish soul.
In the morning, Jeff and Bob got out a shovel and dug a hole near the rose bushes behind the house. Jeff was going to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and we would bury Max, saying a few kind words about our fish-friend. Bob and I stood in the cold back yard, waiting for Jeff to retrieve Max's body from the bowl and wrap him in a thin shroud of paper towel.
"I dug a good hole for him, Mom," Bob said. I ruffled his hair and thought about losses big, and small and wondered if adult-Bob would remember this moment of memorializing Max and if so, would he remember it as ridiculous or comforting? We watched our breath hang in the foggy morning air. Then, Jeff ran out of the back door yelling, "He's alive! He's alive!"
Jeff explained that he had reached his hand into the water and touched Max who then, apparently displeased with this, quickly darted around the bowl. Bob and I then took our turns touching Max and watching his frenzied swimming. He was indeed alive. We cheered.
There will come a time soon when we will have to light a candle for Max, but not today. Today, we will feed Max again and appreciate him even more, watching his feathery fins tread water. Sometimes a suburban, Monday miracle can give the day a bit of magic and hope. And hope has many disguises. Today hope looks like a small blue fish.