Sleeping with the fishes…

Back in January I had a wild hare (SIDE NOTE: there’s a saying with an interesting history) and came home from my biweekly marketing with a betta fish and a little glass bowl. Much excitement ensued. My children have been begging for a pet for years, and my stock answer has always been “we don’t have pets, we have children.” Despite their offers to ditch a sibling, I held firm. I’m not sure why I changed my mind that day, but the tiny little fish in the plastic container was met with gladness and delight.

Cody the Betta Fish never exactly seemed thrilled to be in our company. Granted, he was a fish, and fish are rather impassive creatures to begin with, but I always got the feeling he didn’t much care for us. He mostly stayed in one place, and our days usually started with us thunking on the bowl to be sure he was still in the land of the swimming. I don’t think we ever actually saw him eat. Rather, he’d swim up from under the bridge where he usually hid and bump the food away with his head, giving us a  look of disdain as he swam back under his bridge to hide again. Cody lived his life on his own terms, and his terms did not include entertaining us.

Still, it was a sad day when we came downstairs and found Cody, dead-weight and on his side at the bottom of his tank.

“He sleeping!” Daniel exclaimed joyfully, probably excited that Cody was finally doing some sort of trick.

Um… no.

Once we realized Cody has passed on to fresher waters, we all had different reactions.

I felt horribly guilty. Had I not cleaned his bowl enough? Did I clean it too much? Did he overdose on those little drops that were supposed to render the bowl habitable? Where did I go wrong?

Katie Grace wondered where breakfast was.

Michael started planning a full-out funeral service, complete with music, sermon, and a headstone: “Here lies Cody, bought in January, died in March. He never seemed to like us much.”

Nicholas was the most distraught. We sat together on the sofa and cried. He cried for his lost beloved fishie Cody. I cried because I felt guilty that I ever bought this instrument of sorrow into our home.

I don’t seem to have very good luck with fish. My first try was when we were first married, back in our pre-child days. I had a little tank full of goldfish who dropped off, one by one, as if they were in some underwater version of an Agatha Christie novel. When the last one died, my husband came home to me curled up in the fetal position on the couch crying, “How will God ever trust me with children when I can’t even keep a stupid goldfish alive?!??”

Our second try was in Seminary after Michael was born. A firm believer that a fish tank is a calming element to a child,  I bought four goldfish, plopped them in the aquarium, and went to the Refectory for dinner without even naming them. We came home to one fish in the tank  and three on the floor. After cleaning up the mess, they all had names: Lazarus and Lucky survived their jump for freedom, Flushy did not, and Einstein was the one who didn’t even try. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

Obviously fish and I are destined to have the same sort of relationship that I have with houseplants, empty email boxes, and balanced checkbooks. It’s simply not meant to be.

Services for the dear departed Cody were held that afternoon. There were a few rocky moments. Michael asked if we could bury Cody “out by the garage,” which I took to mean “in the back by the garage, an area where we usually don’t hang out due to a profusion of ivy.” Apparently in Michael’s world, it meant “in the middle of the yard, where I will dig a hole right where everyone usually walks.”

Getting the dead fish from the bowl was an adventure as well. I tried to stay out of it, but had to intervene when I overheard Michael yelling “Get a toothpick!” Apparently dead fish are difficult to extricate from nets. Who knew?

Nicholas insisted we needed to burn the fish’s shroud. Ah, the power of Greek mythology! So Michael obligingly made one for him out a scrap of muslin. I quickly searched the internet for ways to burn the shroud without setting fire to the yard. There was shockingly little information on fish shrouds to be Googled. I finally settled on asking Katie Grace to find the cast iron skillet.

A sad little procession followed. Michael carried the fish in a recycled yogurt cup, Nicholas carried the headstone and shroud, and Katie Grace carried the skillet, which she banged on while they all yelled, “Bring out your dead!” I laughed at the absurdity of it all, and then, remembering this was a solemn occasion, rearranged my features to a more serious expression.

Michael desperately tried to stumble his way through the “Prayer at the Death of a Pet” he found in one of my books, but found it difficult to proceed through his own hysterical laughter. “My heart is heavy as I face the loss in death of my beloved Cody–giggle— who was so much a part of life.  He made my life more enjoyable— snort— and gave me cause to laugh– snicker— and to find joy in his company. From him I learned man lessons–laughter— such as the quality of naturalness and the unembarrassed request for attention– Mom, this is so stupid!”   Finally, we spilled out Cody into the hole and each threw in a handful of dirt. We burnt the shroud, or at least most of it. It was a very windy day. And when it was all over, Nicholas looked up to the heavens and declared, “Rest in peace, Cody. May you be with Jesus.” Which would have been really sweet had it not been immediately followed with “Hey, Mama, let’s get another fish. We can call him Sushi!”


  1. Oh, your telling of this was just wonderful! You have wonderful children. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Author

    Thanks, Kate! I’ve been really missing writing lately and decided to start here.

  3. As I recall, when y’all left for internship I got two fish from you; within a few weeks my cat had eaten the head of one and the other had jumped out of the tank…

  4. Author

    Rachel, that was them! Apparently we lost another between this time frame and internship…

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