Yesterday morning I walked into my kitchen to be greeted with a harrowing sight.
I saw the buoyant carcass of my son’s black goldfish, Sharky, being mercilessly devoured by his tankmate, the ever-so-dull Nemo. Sharky had been showing signs of ill health for a while. His erratic and distressed swimming had me tearing out my hair with concern. Once Google explained that this was most likely due to fish constipation I decided the fatty should go on a strict diet; he improved but he wasn’t quite the same vivacious, charismatic goldfish he once was. And now this.
Horrified, I diverted my son’s attention and scooped out the mortal remains, diligently disposing of them in the bin. I made the decision to deceive him in a fraction of an instant. Act now, I thought, and work out some explanation for Sharky’s sudden disappearance later.
I referred to our wet pet’s sad passing and my subsequent pondering on Facebook. One friend encouraged me to tell the truth, retrieve Sharky’s half-eaten rotting cadaver from the bin, and give him a proper burial befitting of how much joy he single-finnedly brought into our lives. I could see her point, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I rather preferred another friend’s suggestion to say that Sharky went on holiday and then replace him with an identical fish later, but the former friend pointed out that I might have to prepare for questions such as ‘How did he carry his luggage? Has he got a passport? Will he need suncream?’. I confess I began to concoct fairly plausible responses in my head.
I have written here before about the lies we inevitably tell children as they grow up. While I know I can’t avoid the death chat indefinitely, I didn’t feel quite ready to do it just yet, particularly because I am very much grieving at the moment. I can’t make sense of death myself, let alone explain it to a three-year-old. So it’s not just sparing the poor child from a trauma, it’s sparing myself from confronting some difficult facts. I think I’m going to invest in an impostor, buy myself some time and address the matter in a more appropriate way once Sharky the Second kicks his bucket too.
The fact is that this is not actually my son’s first encounter with death. The other day he came back from a weekend in the countryside relating that him and his Daddya had gone to ‘Pill some rappers‘.
What? Pill some what? Pill some rappers? Wtf? Imagine my confusion.
‘Me and Daddya went to Granny and Papa’s stables. And Daddya had Papa’s gun, and I had my bubble gun, and we pilled some rappers.’
I turned to the ex, or shall we refer to him as the Exterminator, and demanded an explanation.
As it happens, his parents’ stables are currently infested with rats, and they’d asked him to shoot some to cut down numbers. Now, I am no vegetarian, nor am I averse to culling, but I was pretty darn cheesed off with the idea of him taking our 3-year-old son shooting with him.
‘Relax! I think it was a nice thing to do, go out shooting with his dad. It will teach him about life and death, and to have respect for guns’
‘But he’s THREE! He doesn’t understand! We live in London, we’re going to struggle to keep him innocent as it is, without you taking him bloody shooting! As far as I’m concerned he doesn’t have to have any contact with guns at all.’
This all eventually descended into an argument, of course. One which we haven’t quite settled yet.
My point is that this exercise hasn’t really taught the kid anything about life and death. He doesn’t understand that once the rats stop moving, they don’t ever start again. He doesn’t have any emotional bond with the rats to be made to rationalise it, or make a connection with his own life. He’s just lost a grandfather and doesn’t really grasp the concept. The cancer was like the bullet; he stopped moving and never will again, just like the rats. The mechanics may be similar but the emotional significance is radically, overwhelmingly, different. The grief is the very reason why I can’t face a death chat at this moment in time.
But I can’t suppress my smile when I think he might go to school and tell his poor teacher that he and his daddy got some guns and went out ‘shooting rappers‘…
The horror, indeed.