Death and Other Life Lessons

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to realize how precious life is.

By Dulce Zamora

We have a koi pond in our front yard. It is my 9 year old daughter’s dream come true. J had always wanted pet fish when we lived in California. I promised she could get one, but the prospect of an international move loomed over us, which made commitments a challenge. When we finally relocated to Singapore last year, the house we rented happened to have a small pond with 7 koi, and 2 parrotfish. J was beside herself, and so was my 11 year old daughter, S. The fish helped soften the blow of a move away from family and friends.

The girls devoted all of their love to their pets. Every day, they fed them and cleared the pond of debris. They gave the fish names, observed their habits, and assigned relationships. There were a couple of twins — Apple and Cherry, and Mo and Jo. Some were mother and daughter — Pearl and Zara, and Orange and Ginger (the parrotfish). One in particular, Citrus, was everyone’s best friend, because she was the most playful with the others. In fact, it was a frolicsome group. They splashed and jumped about freely and sucked loudly at the walls, eating what we imagined were minute creatures. The fish thrived under the girls’ care, growing longer and wider, and developing shinier scales.

The Accident

My father in law passed away in January, so my husband, Noel, was in New York for his funeral. (More on this in another blog post.) The girls and I didn’t go because the family thought it would be best to have a quick and stress-free service. It wouldn’t have been easy to make plans with jet-lagged kids in the mix. We all thought it best to stick to our original plan of visiting the family in the summer.

Noel and I were on the phone long distance — he, in Brooklyn, and, I, in Singapore, when something outside the window caught my eye. It was one of the koi, Apple, sprawled out onto a concrete step outside the pond. There was a swarm of ants surrounding her. Her eyes were open. How long had she been lying there?

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no,” I said. “J fed them about 4 hours ago. They were all fine then.”

“Think a cat got it?” Noel asked.

“Doesn’t look like she has any scratches.” I said, examining all 16 inches of her lifeless frame. Her white and dark orange scales gleamed in the afternoon sun. I glanced behind me. No one was there. The kids were probably still upstairs playing Legos.

“How I will I tell the girls?” I said, voice strained and thin. “Should I show them?”

“No!” Noel quickly said. “You can’t.”

“I know,”  I said, more to myself. “We don’t have a place to bury her, and we can’t just dig up a field. Too big to flush down the toilet. Well… I guess.. it will have to go in the bin.”

I was already on my way to the kitchen to get plastic bags when Noel said, “Use plastic bags to handle it.”

“Okay,” I said. “It’s probably late there. You need to go to sleep. I need to go — have to focus.”

When we hung up, I took a deep breath, wrapped the plastic bags around my hands like mitts, and slightly lifted Apple. My neck felt prickly and I put her back down quickly. Heat rushed to my head as I tried a second time to lift her. This was harder than expected. I had handled raw fish for cooking plenty of times in my life — even fish with heads and tails still attached — but I had never handled a dead pet.

I inhaled and exhaled like an express yogi, then quickly picked up Apple. I placed her inside another recycled grocery bag, and ran to the trash bin outside our gate. It was empty. Darn, we just missed the garbage guys. How long would this poor fish stay in there? Would a dead creature in front of our house bring us bad luck? I’m not superstitious, but Chinese New Year was coming up, and all the talk about elements that bring good fortune had me wondering. Our landlord had told us that the whole house was designed to bring positive things into the home. Even the fountain inside the pond was fortuitous; it flowed toward the house. Apple’s death, however, did not feel like a good omen.

The Struggle

A few weeks later, on the 15th of February, I came home from a day of meetings to find all 8 remaining fish gliding sluggishly along the surface of the pond, opening and closing their mouths in slow motion. Their eyes were wide. Mo and Zara kept banging into walls like bumper cars.

“Oh no!” I said, feeling like it was deja vu. I remembered the way S cried when I told them about Apple’s death. Tears flowed right away at the news, and she kept asking, “Why? Why? Why?” J was silent at first. She sniffed her elephant blankie and looked  thoughtful. It wasn’t until we went outside to feed the fish that she cried into my chest. “It’s so sad that Cherry lost her twin.”

I nodded. It was sad. I didn’t think it could get worse.

When all 8 fish looked in distress, I immediately put in a spare oxygenator into the pond. I called our landlord. No response. I called our pond maintenance guy. He couldn’t come until the next day. Plus, I couldn’t really understand what he was saying on the phone. He grew up in another country — I wasn’t sure where, but it’s worth noting that his broken English was much better than my understanding of his language. So, I called my cousin, Derrick, in California, who knew a lot about fish. I told him everything I knew and he helped me figure out what was going on.

Earlier that day, I had asked our helper, a woman we hired to maintain the house, to change the pond water. I asked her to take out 10 buckets and to replace it with the same amount of liquid. I had shown her a couple of months ago how to add water, by having a hose drip slowly into the pond over a few hours. Apparently, she didn’t do it that way.  She did not look certain when I asked her how much water she took out and how fast she put it back in. It wasn’t her fault, because she knew nothing about fish. Frankly, neither did I, because Derrick told me that when people changed aquarium water, they typically used a dechlorinator and measured pH levels of water. We never did any of that, because I didn’t know it was something to do.

I felt so ignorant — even more so because I was rushing to buy a dechlorinator at the local pet store near us. The staff at the store didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t know Mandarin. I called a couple of Singaporean friends to help me translate, but they were busy at work.

At that point, the landlord returned my call and instructed me to put 2 cups of salt into the pond. I turned back to go home and did as she suggested, and monitored the fish with my girls who had come home from school.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with them?” S and J asked, eyebrows creased together.

“There’s too much chlorine in tap water,” I explained. “The fish can’t breathe in it. Hopefully, the salt will help.”

“I’m not a fish person,” said my neighbor, Wyatt, who had just come home from work as a middle school chemistry teacher. “But I am not aware of salt reversing the effect of chlorine. I do have a dechlorinator inside the house. Do you want it?”

“Yes!” I said while watching Citrus descend to the bottom of the pond. Mo’s breathing looked more labored. Zara moved from the surface of the water to the bottom corner. She was swimming, albeit slowly. Was that a good sign?

“There are important lessons here for you and me,” I said to the girls. “If we want to really take care of our pets, we need to educate ourselves.”

I read the dechlorinator instructions. Since our landlord constructed the pond, it was not a standard size. So I measured it and figured out the volume of the pond (with the help of Google as it had been a while since I was in a science or math class). I also figured out how much dechlorinator to put in. Since I was not confident with my methods and calculations, I went over them with Wyatt over the phone. He had already gone out to dinner with his family. He said they sounded right.

I poured the dechlorinator into a measuring cup with shaking hands. It was a 25 ml cup so I had to do this 5 and a half times. Was that right? Was it too much? Wyatt said it sounded right so it should be okay, right? Meantime, Mo had wandered behind the small waterfall. He wasn’t moving. Citrus hadn’t moved from her spot at the bottom of the pond either. Zara was still at the bottom corner, but her fins seemed to be moving faster, at least.

“What are they doing, Mommy?” the kids asked. “What is Mo doing behind the waterfall?”

“Let’s have dinner,” I nudged the kids. My stomach churned and everything I put in my mouth tasted like paper, but I ate a little just so the girls could have something inside them before I broke the news. Noel was in an airplane this whole time. He did not know what was going on. We were expecting him to come home late in the night.

The News

The girls and I had a memorial service for Mo and Citrus. We all cried and shared our memories of them. S and J laid out frangipani flowers and leaves, and gathered several stones to spell out their names.

“Could we play some sad love songs?” J asked as she sat on my lap. S laid her head on my shoulder. I put on Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You on my phone.

I’m so tired but I can’t sleep.

Standing’ on the edge of something much too deep.

It’s funny how we feel so much but we cannot say a word.

We are screaming inside, but we can’t be heard.

I will remember you. Will you remember me?

Don’t let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories.

The girls and I said farewell and went inside. To lighten up the mood, we watched one of their favorite shows, and when it was bedtime, I shared a story:

“When I was a little girl, I loved to help my grandma in the garden. The plot of land in front of our house in California was hard, because it had been covered with plastic and stones by the previous owners. Every morning one summer, Ima turned over the earth with a tall plow. I helped pull weeds. We rested in the afternoon, then she baked snacks. One of my favorites was enseymada, a soft and fluffy pastry topped with butter, cheese, and sugar. I can still remember how Ima carefully separated and rolled the dough, how she made the pieces swirl like cinnamon rolls, and how much those swirls ballooned after she took them out of the oven. The fresh baked, buttery-bread smell was so heavenly, it made my mouth water. To this day, I think I can smell it when I close my eyes.”

S and J asked if we could make Ima’s enseymada one day. I said,”Sure,” and made a note to ask my mom for the recipe. I really wished I had asked Ima to teach me how to make it while she was still alive, but these are lessons we learn through loss.

“All living things do die,” I said to the girls. “It’s sad but that is part of life and part of what makes it so special. When we love someone or something, they will always live on in our hearts, even when they’re no longer around. I miss my Ima, but I know that her spirit and her strength lives on in me and in you. We miss Apple, Mo, and Citrus, but the joy they brought will always be inside us.”

“They were so playful,” said J.

“Yes, they were,” I replied with a hug.

“I’ll miss them,” said S.

“Me too,” I said.

We fell asleep, succumbing to the heaviness of the day. I left the kids’ bedroom at some point in the night to transfer to my bed. When Noel came home from the airport, he shared the bad news with me: Zara was dead. He found her floating in the pond. I hugged him tightly, and asked if he could dispose of Zara’s body.

Noel was here, I thought. He could take care of it. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the pond once more that night. Tomorrow would be another day. Tomorrow, life would go on. Tomorrow, there would be more time for lessons.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower


March 5, 2019

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