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Teaching Our Son About Death, One Fish at a Time

I can still picture the bright Sunday afternoon my friend Melissa, also known as "Aunt Melissa," surprised us with the red betta fish.
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I hit the car radio's "off" button as fast as I could without getting us into an accident, but it was too late. I had spent much of the afternoon trying to give my 5-year-old son, Gabriel, a break from the d-word, but thanks to Don McLean, it was already out there.

"This will be the day that I die," Gabriel repeated the classic refrain with horror. "Mommy, they're singing about him. This song's about Baxter. This is the day Baxter died. I want Baxter."

His little voice trailed off into sobs. It had been almost an hour since Gabriel had cried about the death of his beloved pet fish. This was the longest tear-free stretch we'd had since we'd broken the news to him that morning.

Neither my husband Jeff nor I was terribly surprised to find Baxter belly up. Ever since we'd brought our daughter, our second child, home from the hospital, Baxter's care and feeding had taken a backseat to our daughter's. Despite our best efforts, Baxter just hadn't gotten as much food or clean water as he once had. Clearly two is the maximum number of dependent life forms we can successfully tend to at once.

What really came without warning was the intensity of Gabriel's reaction. His grief seemed enormous and without end. As I tried to kiss his pain away, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd done the right thing by telling him. Truth is, we'd gotten away with the bait and switch act (so to speak) before.

Baxter the First

I can still picture the bright Sunday afternoon my friend Melissa, also known as "Aunt Melissa," surprised us with the red betta fish. Gabe, about 2 at the time, climbed up onto his hand-washing stool and watched, transfixed, as Melissa set the little swimmer up in his new home, a glass bowl lined with green and blue marbles.

"So, what do we name this guy, Gabey?" she asked.

"I know," he said. "Baxter." This was name of our babysitter's dog, so our world was already full of Baxters. Now Baxter the fish joined Baxter the lime-green stuffed baby dinosaur and the backyard squirrels, Baxters all.

Gabe spent what seemed like ages perched on his stool calling "Here, boy" as he tapped the bowl and, for reasons I still don't understand, gave the fish detailed weather reports. Life in Baxterland went along swimmingly until, one evening before bedtime, I spied Baxter's lifeless body among the beads. I panicked. I said a bad word. All right, I said a few bad words.

Better, braver parents than I would have broken the news immediately and stayed up all night identifying and processing feelings. Instead, I hurried my son upstairs for stories while whispering a small thank you to the fish gods for not taking Baxter while Gabe was telling him about partly cloudy skies. I proceeded to ignore our bookshelf full of parenting titles and, once I'd successfully tucked Gabriel in, instructed my husband to go to the pet store to purchase a new and improved (read: alive) Baxter. As we thanked Baxter I for his service to our family and flushed him out to sea, we made a pact. We promised that when it came time for Baxter's successor to go to the big fishbowl in the sky, we would tell Gabriel. But that time came sooner than either of us could have imagined. Much sooner.

Baxter II: We Hardly Knew You

A mere 90 minutes later, we discovered that Baxter II had flatlined during a Law & Order rerun. Suspected cause of death: Either Jeff hadn't added enough of the drops that make tap water safe for fish, or Baxter I had returned for his revenge. After another, less ceremonious flush, Jeff rushed out to get a second $3 replacement fish, extra water conditioning drops and our brand new Petco loyalty card.

Baxter III: Swimming with the Fishes

Three made it through that storied night, and Gabriel never said a word. Jeff and I again pledged that next time we would tell the truth. So when Baxter started looking sickly after Miriam's birth, we began preparing for the inevitable. I chatted with our fabulous pediatrician and consulted my mom network. Avoid the words "sleeping" and "sick" so he won't associate either with death, I kept hearing. Instead, opt for old. People, animals, fish, die because they are very old for a person, animal or fish. Surely if we could handle "How did the baby get into your tummy," we could handle this. Surely.

When we discovered that Baxter III had finally gone to meet his maker, I looked into my firstborn's big brown eyes. "Sweetie, I have something sad to tell you," I said. "Baxter died."

At first there was nothing. Quiet. Then came the sobs. Straight-from-the-soul wails of pain. I held him tight. He shook. The top of his jammies were soaked in tears.

Jeff and I desperately attempted to comfort Gabe. He could bury Baxter next to the tree we planted when he was born, we told him. But the thought, which seemed so comforting to us, absolutely terrified Gabe. Thankfully, he had never been to a funeral and had no reference point for burials, cemeteries or coffins. The idea of taking water-loving Baxter, putting him deep in the ground and covering him with dirt made us seem like monsters. How I longed for the simple days of explaining where babies came from.

"I want to keep Baxter here," he bawled. "I want to see him. I don't care if he's dead. I want to keep him anyway. I want to keep seeing him."

We attempted to introduce the concept of heaven and the afterlife, but Gabe would have none of it. All he wanted was to keep his dead fish in our kitchen. Now I know we promised to tell the truth, but I never signed anything that said I had to explain decomposition to my 5-year-old. What we needed was a fish funeral home, so I made up my own. I asked Gabe how he would feel if we gave Baxter to the people at the pet store so they could put him in a special place for dead fish.

"Can they make him undead?" A way out of this emotional torture hung in Gabe's innocent words. It was tempting. Incredibly tempting. But we promised. And we'd already poured buckets of tears into this teachable moment.

"No, honey, you can't become undead," I paused to wipe a tear. "But it might be nice for Baxter's body to be with other dead fish." He agreed. So I took Gabriel to the mall to pick out a new backpack for school -- and pretty much anything else he wanted -- while Jeff ushered Baxter into the hereafter.

By the time we returned, Baxter, his bowl and his glass marbles were gone. This time we all cried. We offered to let Gabe pick out a new fish. "Maybe this one can live in your room," Jeff suggested. He liked that.

We drove over to Petco, although this time not under the cover of darkness. Gabriel picked out a new betta with a veil tail that bore a striking resemblance to Baxters I, II and III. We found a small plastic aquarium-type container with a red top and placed new jars of food and drops (lots and lots of drops) in our cart.

I wish I could say this ended my child's grief. But it didn't. Just about every night for a month, Gabe would cry and tell us how he missed the old Baxter. He asked if he made Baxter dead by feeding him too much. "No, it's nobody's fault," we would say. "Baxter was just very..." "I know," he interrupted, "old for a fish."

During that first week we also tried to hold something of a wake or shiva. We found an old picture of Gabriel watching Baxter I swim and put it in his room. We drew a few Magic Marker renderings of the dearly departed in happier times. Sometimes these things helped. Sometimes they made it worse. Often he would start crying when we pulled out the pictures or say how much he missed the "old" Baxter.

A guidance counselor at school suggested we let Gabe make a donation in Baxter's memory. She usually recommends finding a humane society when the pet is furry with four legs. Since Google turned up no betta rescue societies, we settled on the World Wildlife Fund, which features pictures of whales and oceans on its Web site, and made an online contribution. Gabriel felt great about it -- he also didn't mind checking the mailbox daily for the free animal umbrella that came with our pledge. A few nights later he told us he felt sad about Baxter and wanted to send more money to help the fish. "This time maybe we can give $100," he said. "Wait, I have a better idea. How about a million? I bet they can help a lot of fish with a million dollars."

Yes, I bet they could.

Baxter IV: Just When We Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

With time came healing. Gabriel spoke less often of Old Baxter and stopped lobbying to share his college fund with the underprivileged fish of the world. Still, we kept a close watch on Baxter's health.

I suspected Baxter IV was being overfed, and my suspicions were confirmed when I spied Gabe giving "Baxtie" a "little extra" in case he got hungry later. So we set up a new rationing system based on what could fit into an old vitamin-jar cap. But Gabe's approach to fish feeding had already taken its toll.

A few days later, Baxter IV decided to swim his last lap the morning of Gabriel's debut in his class production of "Peter and the Wolf." I said a bad word. A lot of them. Then I e-mailed Jeff. "Dead," I typed. " we tell him?" My husband sent back two words: NO and WAY.

Jeff fished out (pun very much intended) his Petco card and made a stop on his way to the class play. A play in which, incidentally, the wolf does not die, but is brought to a zoo to live out the rest of his earthly days.

If that's not a sign, I don't know what is.

Fishkill: The Postmortem

Just a few days ago, Gabe called me into his room. "Mom, when this Baxter dies can we get a pet that walks, maybe a bunny or a dog?"

My hands started sweating. I wanted to say a bad word.

Instead I just said, "We'll see, dear."

Then I took Baxter downstairs to change his water and add a few extra drops because, really, I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle that.