Idara came home from a birthday party with a one-inch betta fish in a little glass bowl. When I asked her it’s name she said “Zucchini!” without the slightest pause. That was Sunday. On Tuesday we found Zucchini at the bottom of the tank, upside down.
We’d been warned. Aziza, the woman who takes care of Idara after she gets home from school, told us that we might want to tell Idara that Zucchini “went to stay on a farm in the country.” Of course we could shield her from the idea of death for a while, but for how long, and to what end?
We didn’t tell Idara that Zucchini went away or that he was just sleeping — we told her in as gentle terms as we could that he was dead. No more swimming around, no more eating, no more anything. Tears began to well up in her eyes and for a moment I saw myself in her, and remembered all of the tears I’d cried over dead fish and frogs and dogs and cats.
The poet Louise Gluck wrote that “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” What will Idara remember from this brief look at death? I have no idea.
Maybe she won’t remember it at all, so briefly were she and Zucchini acquainted. Or maybe she’ll remember that we fished him out of the tank and laid him down in a grave she dug in one of our potted plants outside. That she set down some colorful rocks as a grave marker, and that afterwards we sat around the dinner table and recalled our favorite memories of Zucchini.
The truth is that death is the ultimate rejoinder to life, the experience that makes it most worth living. The other truth is that Idara is only five years old. I want her to feel endless opportunity in every direction, to feel free of worry and fear and suffering. But I can’t force that reality any more than I can reanimate a fish, and so we do the next best thing: We experience it, we talk about it, and we learn from it.