WILBUR, FORMERLY OF WILBUR & WILBUR, died during the night. It was not unexpected. He was old, ailing for some time, and as long ago as February a visitor to the house had pronounced his condition failing. He hung on though, seemed to get better, actually, but took a severe and sudden turn for the worse sometime after dark. By morning he was dead. I had to bury him alone.
It is time to say that Wilbur is a fish. It would not be fair to go on pretending he wasn't, but it is not too much to say, either, that describing him as a fish doesn't do him justice. He was a goldfish, a survivor as fish go, named Wilbur by my son who named the other fish Wilbur also. They were his, the two Wilburs, and so when the last of them died it was a moment of trauma. He would now have to deal with death.
The day we bought the Wilburs was the day I knew this moment was coming. Goldfish, in my experience, do not liver very long - no more than a weekend, usually. They get overfed easily and underfed easily and you have to chane their water supply hourly or else they stick out their little tougues, turn purple and float to the top. This the first Wilbur promptly did. He did it, though, when we were away on vacation and so he did it at a neighbor's house. The other Wilbur swam on, solo, alone in his bowl - dumb, boring to watch and totally without redeeming value of any sort. Still, he he was my son's fish. You had to love him.
Before the fish, there had been a dog. He had been my dog, very old by the time my son was born, and when he died, he just sort of disappeared. There were some questions later and some questions relating to burial, but mostly we got off easy on that one. The subject came up from time to time and we handled it by facing it and not facing it - which is what parents have done since time immemorial and which, incidentally, is the way my father handled the subject of sex. He acknowledged its existence and then left the somewhat tacky details to others.
Anyway, for a long time we have been told that death was something like sex - one slip on the part of the parent and the child could be scarred for life. But, kids don't see death the way we do. They are afraid of loss, of losing someone they love but they have no fear of death for themselves. A teacher I know discovered this and taught kids songs about death. They loved them and when they sang "The Streets of Laredo" and came to the line "and lay the sod o'er me" the adults in the room would turn green and clutch their chests out the kids would giggle. We think that something that important to adults should be important to children too, and we all can recall our first brush with the subject. We tend to make much of it.
With me, it was something I ran into on the street. I had been downstairs, waiting for my parents, when I noticed the man. He was standing or sort of leaning against a building, wearing a hat and a suit and he seemed to be struggling against something. He was about 50 years old and slowly he started to sink, his knees sagging, and he went down slowly, looking at me all the time, me looking back. He sank to a sitting position and died that way. He turned blue, blood came out of his mouth and someone yelled, "Mike, Mike." Then he was dead. Someone covered him and someone said the word "dead" and I remember thinking, "so that's it." I was very impressed.
Back to Wilbur. By evening he was failing. He was having trouble taking in oxygen and he was up near the top of the water, but even after we transferred him to a pot with clean water, his condition did not improve. Bedtime came for my son and when that was done, my wife and I huddled, knowing that this was going to be important - heavy, heavy, heavy stuff. We discussed how we would break the news and how we would handle the matter of burial.
My sister called. She has a background in psychology, is a mother herself, and she suggested that the thing to do was to run out first thing in the morning and buy another fish. The kid would never know the difference, but this would be wrong and besides the stores did not open before my son gets up for school and besides - well, there was something about this I didn't want to miss.
In the morning, Wilbur was dead. He lay at the bottom of the big pot. We gathered around the pot as a family and made the announcement. We were very grim and formal about it all and there were tears, some questioning of the medical report, and then a discussion of what the undertaking people call interment. The options were burial by land (the backyard) or burial at sea (a flush down the toilet) which was the option I held out for. It seemed somehow fitting. It also seemed easiest. It was not, however, the one chosen. Burial by land was chosen. I would officiate.
So that was that. Heads nodded and there was trauma in the air but it was also a school day, we were running late and so the funeral was postponed for the later time - probably the afternoon. We went off to school, walking on a fine, warm, spring day, lots of kids passing us on the run, laughter and screaming in the air, the crossing guard giving us the sort of smile Republicans think you don't get in big cities. My son and I were very somber. At the corner, he turned to me and said, "Dad, you bury Wilbur." Then he smiled and then he skipped off to school with the other kids.
So I went back to house and I got some aluminum foil and took the poor fish and wrapped him (her?) in it. Then I went to the backyard with a little garden tool and picked a spot right behind the house. I dug a shallow hole and slipped Wilbur into it and covered it with earth. He was a game little fish.
I had to bury him alone.