Every single one of our kids have taught me something different. Every new experience, every new fear, every new argument ends up leaving a lasting impression. My relationship with my oldest, though, seems to pave the way. His firsts are my firsts, and we kind of grow together, me as his mom and him as a person.
For Johannes’ fifth birthday he picked out two fish. Unlike our “zoo” of other animals, these would be just for him. He picked them out, he named them, their tank was in his room and it was his job to feed and help clean their water. He named them Rainbow and Sharky.
Sharky the first passed away almost immediately after we brought him home, but being Johannes’ birthday I couldn’t break his heart or ruin his special day and I made the decision to replace him, unbeknownst to him. Sharky the second passed away while we were in Florida last month, we chose to tell him the truth this time and I also used the opportunity to spill the beans about Sharky the first. He was upset, but with the trip and everything else that was happening he moved on quickly and only mentioned it once or twice when we came home.
But Rainbow was still there. She still swam around happily and he still had his friend to feed. Until yesterday.
Johannes was the first one to notice that Rainbow wasn’t herself when he woke up Monday morning. Her tummy was swollen and she was barely able to swim near the water’s surface. “Its all my fault,” he said. “I probably fed her too much and now she’s going to die because of me. You have to help her. What can you do?”
I had a sinking feeling that nothing we did would help, but I turned to Dr Google, and Therapist Instagram, and then I texted our amazingly patient vet, Dr. Vlad (who’s a real doctor, unlike Google). The prognosis was grim. I explained it to Johannes, told him that Rainbow was very sick and that we couldn’t help her and suggested that he say “goodbye” before school. All day I prayed that she would go quickly and painlessly but she hung on. I even went as far as to google “aquarium fish euthanasia” but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to actually do any of it. And so we waited.
That night Johannes was hopeful, but sad. He told me that she was his best friend, he remembered that he hadn’t had a chance to say a proper good-bye to Sharky. He cried and asked me why God would want to take away his best friend. I had no answers really. I held him and I cried too because so far this moment was one of the hardest ones I’ve had to date.
I had a feeling that Rainbow was dead when we woke up in the morning so I made sure to bring Johannes and Magnus downstairs without turning on their bedroom light, before going back upstairs to check. I told Johannes about Rainbow myself, at 6:30am and then hugged my sweet sensitive little boy tight as he cried more for his little fish friend.
He wanted to see her, to say goodbye, he asked me to help him plan a ceremony and to not flush her down the toilet, like he knew other parents did. So I scooped up our poor fish and put her in the freezer for the day. While Johannes was at school I found a little box, bought some spring bulbs and gathered some candles. We waited until everyone was home and Henrik was asleep and then we held a little ceremony for Rainbow in the back yard. It was dark and cold, but hopefully that means the squirrels and raccoons won’t come around and try to dig up our friend. We buried Rainbow beside my lilac bush, underneath two purple hyacinths which will grow out in the spring and remind us of sweet Rainbow. We took turns saying a few words and a little prayer. We left a candle burning over the spot we buried her in, we hugged Johannes tight and came inside for some milk and cookies…and wine for Michael and I.
In some ways planning a “burial” for Rainbow might seem silly I suppose. But that’s to us as adults because we’re so desensitized to life ending and somehow we make it ok to prioritize what life forms should be mourned more than others. But to a little child who loves all creatures, losing a fish is heartbreaking. It was the first time I saw Johannes truly hurting over the death of something, and the first time that I realized he understands exactly what is happening. He cried and told me that he’s happy Rainbow is with God, but he’s sad because he will never see her again…or at least for a very long time until he is in heaven too. (the boys go to a Catholic school, and though I may not believe as much as he does, I am glad that he has his beliefs because it eases the pain for him and provides him with comfort. Heaven is so much less scary than forever).
I wasn’t sure what Johannes thought of everything until he went to bed, shed a few more tears and as I was finishing tucking him in he said, “mom, thank you for taking this seriously. Rainbow was my fish and my friend, she wasn’t just a fish. Thank you for having a ceremony for her.” My heart broke into a million pieces, but also swelled with gratefulness. I realized earlier on that this was important to him, but it was only then that I really “knew” it. And he’s right, it is a big deal. A life is a life no matter how small.
Rest in peace Rainbow. You’ve taught us more than you will ever know and we will miss you greatly.