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Fish Funeral

What is the proper edict for a fish funeral? An actual question I had to ponder recently.  Yes, our, beloved Beta fish, aptly named, Beta, died last week. I can’t let all the blame rest on me, but mainly it was me. I cleaned his tank too good. In my defense, I will say he was not looking his beautiful flourishing self, prior to cleaning the algae-stained tank. But to see him lifeless a few hours later actually piled a whole ton of guilt on me.

I should have known the second a living thing crossed the threshold to our house, it would become mine physically and emotionally, but it started out as a pet for my son. He really wanted a fish. I figured we would get a goldfish in a bowl and call it a day. He went straight for the betas and picked the most expensive one. After a few days, I didn’t mind. He was a friendly fish, gave me lots of “jazz hands” greetings and just looked so beautiful gracefully flowing around the tank. I grew accustomed to seeing him on the kitchen counter and found myself enjoying his elegant movements.

I even upgraded him multiple times. First adding a heater (I read they like to be warm) then when I couldn’t keep the tank looking clean, I bought a bigger tank with a filter. All the while he would smile and wave at me seemingly content with his tank do dads. The whole family began to enjoy him and take for granted he was here for the long haul. But I let the weekly cleaning of the tank slide, once (or maybe twice) and we had a terrible algae problem. You know the rest of the story.

So, on to the fish funeral; I felt compelled to not just flush our family pet, plus I was terrified of what Ryan would feel knowing his fish was dead and then flushed. I worried so much, I didn’t tell him for a few hours what I suspected, plus I wanted to be sure Beta wasn’t just in shock in the sparkling clean tank. When we knew for sure, I was crushed. I don’t think I actually cried but I got choked up. The anticipation of what Ryan would do was killing me. So I talked to Dan and we decided we wouldn’t do a bait and switch. We wouldn’t try to replace the fish in order to avoid a potential emotional meltdown. We were going to confront Ryan with death with a meaningful talk. We would explain Beta had died, wait for his response, talk it out and then offer to purchase another fish if that was what he wanted. The conversation went like this:

“Ryan, can you come here, please?” I asked. Dan, Jenna and I gathered around the tank and I tried to keep my voice calm. “Ry, uh, Beta…Beta…died.”

He turned quickly to the tank and looked at his lifeless fish. “Oh…how long has he been dead?” He asked. Relevant question I guess.

I looked at Dan for an answer. Nothing. Apparently, this was on me. I guess I had to take the brunt. “A little while, hon. I think it was time for him to go to Heaven.”

What felt like a long silence fell amongst all of us and I waited for the tears or the rage or something. Ryan walked back to his computer and sat down watching whatever he had cued up on YouTube. Still trying to make a teachable, life moment out of it, I said to him across the room, “I think we should say some nice things and maybe bury him. What do you think?”

“Yeah.” He said distracted looking at his computer. “We should dig the dirt and put him in.” That made me the saddest that he knew what “bury” meant.

So, we searched for a proper burial vessel. Dan’s idea was a plastic gum container and all I could come up with was a Brighton jewelry heart-shaped box. The heart box won. It seemed appropriate, after all, that little guy won our hearts. I quickly got Beta out of the tank into the box and closed the lid. I gathered the now scattered family back downstairs and outside. We said a few awkward words about him being a good fish, Dan dug a small hole and I put the box into the dirt. We even made a small wooden cross with his name on it. It seemed like we did it right. I can’t be sure as I’ve never been to or conducted a fish funeral before.

We went inside and I searched Ryan’s face and couldn’t tell if he was sad or not, some of the perks of being on the spectrum, so I thought I would ask if he wanted another fish.

“So, should we go to the pet store and pick out a new fish?” I asked tentatively.

He looked up and said, “How ‘bout a bird?”

Yes, the devastation was potent.

So, did we do our fish justice? Did we properly put to rest a small pet? I guess if you do what’s in your heart then that’s the right thing. And apparently replacing a fish with a fish isn’t the way Ryan would go. You change species and get a bird.

I said no to the bird, and we did get more fish. Let’s just say I had a few more private fish burials. I hope I get this right soon…

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I am a processor. Not like a computer, more like a coffee pot. Water goes in, washes over the grinds, and a new beverage comes out. The actions and iterations of life around me go into my brain and at some point a conclusion or resolution comes out. The time the water spends in the pot I like to call it percolating—see what I did there with the coffee reference—I don’t know if I’ve always thought this way, as I do remember being much quieter as a child. Maybe I was percolating even then.

June 2, 2016 an event occurred that I realized I haven’t finished filtering yet. I have definitely told the tale again and again. But I don’t feel I have completely processed until it’s written down and the percolation process can be finished, hence giving me resolution.

I’ve talked about this before, how endings and/or changes are hard for Ryan, as for most people with autism. So when we found out earlier this year, his middle school was going to close, I was devastated for him and for me. He had just made a seamless transition to this school, due in large part to the teachers and staff (and of course our team of therapists). The amount of unexpected support the school gave us is almost indescribable. They encircled him with so much acceptance and excitement I was taken back. I kept thinking: When is the other shoe going to drop? When are they going to decide we don’t belong? Why are they so good to him? This is too good to be true. And finally it was…only because it was going away.

I didn’t tell Ryan about the school simply because I couldn’t face his loss. He was doing so well and loved going to school, but it only took a few days for him to hear it from his friends. And yes, he asked me about it.   I know I should have just told him, but the future was uncertain, and I didn’t want to make him anxious. I fumbled my way through and luckily he took whatever explanation I told him.

It took a few months for information about the outcome of the school to arrive and with it, another wave of devastation.  The teacher’s and staff would no longer be at the school. The staff that had gone out of their way to include Ryan, eagerly worked one-on-one with him, and reached out to him everyday even when he wasn’t so reachable were going to lose their jobs–almost every single one of them. The school would stay open, but with new owners, staff and teachers. The only shred of good we had to cling to was the location was staying the same.

At the beginning of the school year, it would have been sufficient to us to be mildly accepted into this tight-knit family/school. But we were lovingly ushered in with open arms and open minds. The red carpet was rolled out and the support never ended. Whatever we needed, or asked for, was never denied. It felt borderline Stepford—but not in a creepy way. How many people get daily hugs from the principal? I think that alone set the tone of this school.

In my recent memory, there have been few things I have agonized over like our impending last day of school. If I remember correctly all the recent painful hurdles had to do with death or dying.   That’s what this felt like. A funeral. We knew the day was coming, we were in countdown mode and each day slipped away bringing us painfully closer to the end.

I let myself cry as I made gifts for the teachers and staff; I thought it might get my grieving out before that last day. But that was wishful thinking; fresh tears started the second we pulled in to pick up Ryan. Hug after teary hug we made our way through campus saying goodbyes. Each one seeming to get worse; maybe because it was almost over, maybe because the kind words grew and grew. Kind, amazing, painfully beautiful words about what my son meant to them. It was almost too much to bear all at once. But I quickly put a band-aid on the wound in my heart and we drove away, spent and sad.

It seems this should have ended there, but, two weeks ago when the old school sign finally came down with the new schools colors and logo in it’s place, I realized I wasn’t over it. I wasn’t over the loss.  When we pulled in the driveway for camp, I heard Ryan’s sharp breath of surprise echoing mine.

“Oh no. No more Crestridge* Tigers.” Ryan said softly from the backseat.

A lump immediately formed in my throat and I simply said, “I know, Bud.”

As we continued onto campus, a maintenance man was half-way through wiping the old school letters off the glass door. Adding a visual punch in the stomach that the old school was slowly being erased. The chemical smell stuck in my nose and made my eyes tear up even more. Passing through the door, Ryan and I both stopped quickly. The office that we had walked by hundreds of times-was empty.  Eerily empty. For the second time that day we both inhaled in surprise. It looked like a ghost ship bobbing in the water.

“They are taking it all away.” My insightful boy said softly. “Why?”

I had to clear my throat and think of an answer. This wasn’t a bad thing. Was it? They were only sprucing it up-giving it a facelift. But what stood in front of us was a gutted-out symbol of former happy times. A place I was given a hugs and smiles. The bench where Ryan would wait for me-where I knew he was safe and watched; the nurses office who made sure he had his meds everyday; the counter that was decorated for every holiday and gave Ryan so much joy. All gone.

The band-aid was now ripped clean off; exposing all the put-away emotions of that last day.

We turned simultaneously away from the empty room and walked to the camp area. I looked at Ry as he stared straight ahead.

“They are just putting new things in there to make it look nice.” I say slowly trying not to cry. Thankful my sunglasses masked my eyes.

“Why are they taking it all away?” He asked again, looking at me briefly. His little voice sounded so sad. I put my arm around his shoulders.

Deciding I wanted him to make his own opinion, not echo my own, I asked him, “Is that good or bad?”

“Bad.” He said and pulled away from my embrace.

As I drove out and stared at the new sign, the loss of all those wonderful people was as fresh as that tearful last day.

I’ve been letting the sadness roll around in my brain and each day I look at the sign and sigh. Today, I decided I finally needed to get this out. I figured writing this would bring back fresh tears. It only did a little. Maybe you only have so many tears to shed for a loss. Well, that’s not entirely true; but maybe it’s a sign my percolation is almost done.

There are few things we can change in this life, but one is our attitude. It’s time to let go of the pain and look to the future with enough optimism to make Ryan’s new school the best it can be for him.

All this talk of percolation, makes me want coffee.





*Crestridge is the name I use for the school in my book, using it here for consistency.

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