Small Wonders: Thanking Lilly for the life lesson

Editor's note: While Patrick Caneday takes some time off, we’re running some of his choices for republication. This column was first published July 24, 2010.

I have sad news to report. We've lost a beloved member of our family.

Lilly has died.

At least I'm told it was Lilly and not Poopcakes. I never could tell my daughters' goldfish apart.

But there she was, floating belly up, eyes void of life. Poopcakes swam nearby agitated, silently screaming for us to call 911. But it was too late. In fact it was bedtime, which raised even graver concerns.

My daughters, Thing 1 and Thing 2, were in the bathroom brushing teeth when I discovered the lifeless goldfish. I stood in front of the tank wondering how best to handle this, shielding them from the sight of their dead pet as they climbed into bed.

Should I take the tank out of their room now, surely attracting their attention? I could claim I was just taking them for a starlit stroll and hope to find a 24-hour pet shop to get a look-alike.

Should I tell them now that Lilly had died and risk a night of crying, lost sleep and bad dreams?

Should I turn the lights off, kiss them good night, then slip in like the goldfish fairy after they fell asleep, remove the corpse and leave money in its place to soften the heartache of death?

There was only one right thing to do.

“Honey,” I said to the wife quietly. “Look.”

I stepped away from the tank so she could see the calamity. Her eyes grew wide.

“What should we do?” I asked.

After some consideration she said, “We have to tell them.”

She was right of course. She always is in such situations. I didn't want to admit what I already knew; the hardest thing to do is usually the best thing to do.

“Girls,” I said. “I have some bad news.”

They froze, sensing the seriousness in my tone. I lacked the appropriate words for this occasion, so I merely stepped away from the tank, revealing the shocking image of their unnaturally motionless pet atop the murky water.

Thing 1 was first to react. She brought Lilly home from the school carnival that day three years ago. Her face went white, the skin around her chin wrinkled in silent horror before the cries came like waves. The tears flowed, and she threw herself on her bed wailing.

Thing 2 stared in wonder at the tank.

“What happened?” she asked innocently.

“Lilly died,” I said sadly. “I'm sorry.”

“Is Poopcakes OK?”

“Yes, Poopcakes is OK.”

Thing 1 looked up through red, watery eyes. Denial came first.

“She's not really dead, right?”

Then anger:

“It's not fair! Why couldn't it have been Poopcakes?!”

Then bargaining: “We have to do something! I have money in my piggy bank!”

Then depression: “Why does this always happen to me? I don't deserve to be happy.”

And finally acceptance: “So now can we finally get a dog?”

I raised the difficult topic of funeral arrangements. Though Lilly was old, living a longer life than we ever expected, she left no instructions for how she wanted us to handle her departure. I suggested a garden burial, near the tomato plant. We'd remember her every time we had insalata caprese.

But Thing 1's emotions were too frayed for that. So I knew that a “water burial” in the porcelain crypt was out of the question. In the end, Thing 1 didn't want to know — couldn't bear to know — what happened to her goldfish now.

I took the tank out of their room. We kissed the girls' wet cheeks and turned out the lights. We heard sniffles before the quiet blessing of sleep finally arrived.

After letting Poopcakes have a few final moments alone with her friend and life partner, I scooped Lilly out, dropped her into a baggie and laid her to rest in the trashcan outside. It sounds disrespectful, but hey, what's in that bag isn't Lilly. It's merely the vessel in which she resided. Lilly will always be with us.

She was a good pet. She never ran away, never defecated on the carpet or tore up my slippers. She never needed more than a few bites of food each day. When we forgot and let her go a few days without, she didn't complain, but greeted us with the same tail-wagging excitement that typified her character in life. Happy. Loyal. Loving. And always there for us. Always right there, in the same bowl, on the same shelf.

She is survived by her adoptive parents, Thing 1 and Thing 2, me, the wife, an extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, Nutty Boy the squirrel. And of course Poopcakes.

She wasn't just a goldfish. Lilly was a member in an innumerable, exclusive order: beloved first pets. She's a symbol of loving and losing, of the tides of life that cannot be held back. She will forever be the first, but sadly not the last, heart-wrenching loss in my daughters' young lives.

In lieu of flowers, the bereaved ask that donations be made in Lilly's name to the SPCA.

PATRICK CANEDAY is a Glendale native who lives and works in Burbank. Stay in touch with him on Facebook, at www.patrickcaneday.com and patrickcaneday@gmail.com.
 
 

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