Disclaimer: I would like to preface this by saying that I know that pets truly become part of the family. In no way am I diminishing their importance in anyone's life. Personally, I am a dog person who married a cat person. I love animals. That being said, you have to find the humor sometimes.
Perhaps I should start by saying that Cubby II entered our family in the most unusual of ways. We were headed back home, halfway through our 15-hour drive in the minivan coming from Texas, when my phone rang. My neighbor called to say that our fish, Cubby, had died while in his care. Knowing that our kids were quite fond of our little Betta fish, he had taken the liberty to drive to the pet store and purchase a similar-looking fish. (May we all be blessed with such thoughtful neighbors!) I knew, however, that my kids would be able to spot the impostor fish immediately (as choosing the original fish took an extraordinarily long time) and broke the news to them in the car. Thankfully, Cubby had looked as if he were on his last fin when we left and I had advised all of the kids to say a proper goodbye before we left on vacation. (Thank goodness for that rare moment of forethought!)
So, Cubby II became an adopted part of our family and swam happily for nearly a year. As his predecessor before him, he had been named for the Chicago Cubs, as both fish were blue and red: the official team colors. The original fish, "Cubby 'The King Cub' Fish," as was his full given name, saw the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series win in over a century. Cubby II was less successful, but still a much-loved part of our family. That's the backstory that brings us to that fateful day.
When the shrieking started, I was in the basement with two children, attempting to organize art supplies, which, in itself, is its own special form of torture. I truly believe that my youngest daughter's screaming could have been heard from miles away. "EMERGENCY!!! EMERGENCY" she cried. I jumped up and ran to the stairs as she was flying down them. "What's wrong? What's going on?" I asked her. "It's Cubby II! He's not moving! He's just sitting on a rock!" Now, I'm no fish expert, but I wasn't all that worried. "Is his belly floating up at the top of the water?" "NO! HE'S JUST SITTING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TANK AND HE'S NOT MOVING AND I THINK HE'S DEAD!" I must confess. I wasn't all that concerned. I mean, fish go belly-up, right? So, I didn't move with great speed to my son's room where the fish tank had been a permanent fixture on his dresser for the past two years.
Sure enough, there was Cubby II nestled in the bottom of the tank, sitting upright on the rocks at the bottom, and completely still. I mean, COMPLETELY still. No gills moving at all. Yep. That fish was totally dead. I confirmed the time of death, comforted at least three children who were now wildly sobbing, and took the tank downstairs to figure out what to do with Cubby II's remains.
"You can't flush him!!! He's our pet!!! We have to bury him with a cross on top!" Those were the unanimous cries that greeted me when I suggested that we send Cubby II to a watery grave via the toilet. So, clearly, the only logical solution was to have a funeral for a fish in our backyard.
To set the scene for you, I'll say that it was a surprisingly balmy day in February outside of Chicago. In a lucky stroke, we didn't have snow on the ground and could be outside in clothes without heavy winter gear. My husband, having left for work earlier that morning, had written a eulogy (Truly, this man has earned a special place in heaven somewhere.) and we were now ready to lay our little fish to rest.
We processed out to the tree in the backyard. A more somber group would have been hard to imagine. Not only did I have my own four children in attendance, but they had invited their friends — neighbors on the block — to pay their respects as well. So, there I stood, holding a white cardboard jewelry box in my hand, before a congregation of children, all looking up at me with expectant eyes and tear-stained faces, and set to work on the task at hand.
"Thank you all for coming today to say goodbye to our family fish, Cubby II." I read the crowd. (So far, so good!) I went on, "I'd like to start by reading a letter from Daddy, as we send Cubby II on from this world to the next." I cleared my throat and opened the piece of legal paper left on the kitchen counter by my husband. "Cubby II, you were such a kind fish and taught us all the importance of loyalty and friendship. Fly free, little fish. Fly free." There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
I reached for the trowel and we all took turns digging the tiny hole in which the little box would lie. As I lowered the little box into the ground, I was stopped by a cry of protest. "NO!!! You have to take him OUT of the box. He should go into the ground just by himself!" I looked up and all of the kids were looking up at my with huge, expectant eyes, nodding in agreement. So, gently taking the fish corpse in my hands and trying exceptionally hard not to make one of the million inappropriate faces I desperately wanted to make, I placed him in the ground.
In a break-your-heart-it's-so-sweet moment, my five-year-old asked if we could say a prayer to help comfort her four-year-old sister who was now sobbing uncontrollably and was in full-out fuh-fuh breathing mode. That prompted my seven-year-old to launch into the Lord's Prayer. And after the final "Amen" rang into the air, came the final request: "We need to sing a song."
Now, a million thoughts went through my head. "Oh, when the fish go marching in ..." or "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a fish like me ..." But when I opened my mouth, "Take Me out to the Ballgame" came out. To say it was the saddest rendition of this song to have ever been sung is quite a claim, but I think it's pretty justified as a bunch of whimpering kids concluded, "For it's one, two, three strikes you're out at the old ballgame!"
My mother-in-law had very kindly painted a small rock red and blue to act as a tombstone and we looked on as my son delicately placed it atop the fish grave.
As I poured myself a glass of wine with dinner that night, I thought to myself, "We did a pretty good job of laying Cubby II to rest. I think the kids got some good closure and we learned about life and death. Well done, me!"
And then the next day arrived.
The screaming from the backyard could be heard from the master bathroom. (I'll give you one guess as to how I know that.)
"HE'S GONE!!! CUBBY II'S GONE!!!"
Lo and behold, an animal, having caught the scent of a freshly laid-to-rest fish, found Cubby II too delicious to resist. The little painted rock had been kicked aside and the dirt had been pawed away. Then, screaming emanated from around the corner, "I FOUND HIM!!! I FOUND HIM!!!" Yes, Cubby II's lifeless, mangled body had been recovered among the dormant hydrangea bushes.
Which meant that we had to bury him all over again. Cue the tearful reprise of "Take Me out to the Ballgame."
That time, as I put the last shovelful of dirt on top of the grave, I moved a heavy stepping stone on top of it. No doubly-resurrected fish for this family!
And with that, I was able to finally say, "Cubby II's gone to glory."