The dead goldfish was a new parenting low for me, though it was not the first dead goldfish we’d encountered since Santa brought the fish tank two years prior. In fact, if we’re counting, it was maybe dead goldfish number six in that time period. This one was different, though, because it was not floating at the top of the tank; it was on the floor. In my son’s room. Black-eyed and lifeless on the strip of hardwood that shows between where the area rug ends and the closet door begins.
I noticed the night before that one of the fish was missing from the three-gallon tank. The orange and black one was still swimming around, but the pale gold one was gone. I peeked into the tank through the algae-coated glass in all the regular hiding spots—behind the mini Easter Island statue head and among the leaves of the plastic plant— and could not find the missing fish or its carcass. And it wasn’t until the next morning that I solved the mystery.
Mike, Daniel, and I were in the morning rush of leaving for work and school. I was weighed down with several bags: my laptop bag, my purse, a four-year old’s dinosaur backpack, my lunch bag, and my gym bag, though I knew getting out of the office for a run that day was wishful thinking at best. I dropped it all in a pile on the front seat of my Subaru wagon, and my husband buckled my son into the car seat in the back. As I watched this happen, I realized I was cold, that the weather was drearier than I’d expected, and that my child was wearing only a long sleeved t-shirt and jeans. “Hey,” I said, “I’m going to run inside and grab a sweatshirt for Daniel.”
And that is what I did. And that is what I was still doing when I encountered the dead goldfish on the hardwood floor in front of my son’s closet.
I took a private moment to officially rule the death a suicide.
I pondered the dead fish and was about to go grab a wad of toilet paper with which to pick it up and transfer it via flush to the sewer system of Denver proper. But then I stopped myself. We were already late, and given my aversion to germs, especially those associated with raw poultry or fish, I knew the flushing would be followed by a long, hot hand washing and a scrub of the floor, and it had already taken forever to get my family out the door. So instead of dealing with it, I told myself that I would be home first that evening since it was Mike’s day to pick up D from school, and I would take care of the dead fish situation as soon as I arrived. Then I grabbed the sweatshirt off its hanger, slipped out the front door, and proceeded into the rush hour traffic before I could second-guess myself.
I dropped my son off at school and settled into my 45-minute commute, autopiloting on to Highway 36 with my mind wandering first to the uneasy guilt I felt at leaving something so disgusting in my house, and then to another dead fish in my past. It was 1999, and my younger sister called me from her college in Utah. “What’s wrong?” I said, which is what I always said after I knew it was her calling. She never called unless there was drama.
She was crying and distraught. “Mom is such a fucking mess!” she spat the words as her sadness morphed into the anger and disgust that were much more her style. “She sent me a dead fish in the mail!”
“Wh-whoa-whoa. What?” I knew our mom was strange, and yes, often a fucking mess, but what entered my mind was a picture of my sister receiving a package with a large, dead trout or catfish in it, like in The Godfather. I was confused. “She sent you an envelope with a dead fish in it?”
“No, it was a box. A care package”
This did not help it make sense. “With a dead fish in it?” I ventured.
“Yessss!” my sister hissed at me, continuing her longstanding tradition of treating me like a complete idiot while simultaneously soliciting my help or advice.
Courtney explained to me that she had received a box in the mail from my mom containing snacks and fun games and lipgloss and lotion and other creative things. My mom often did things like this, and it always reminded us of the Christmas stockings and Easter baskets that we got growing up; she was ridiculously creative and had a knack for putting gifts like that together. Upon realizing it was one of my mom’s famous packages, my sister had apparently summonsed several dormmates to witness the unboxing in a gesture that probably had more to do with trying to one-up people in the cool-mom department than anything else. The audience made the presence of what I now knew to be a large, dead goldfish about the size of an adult fist— dangling from a pair of funky new socks that my mom had undoubtedly picked up at some cool gift shop she’d discovered—even more upsetting. According to Courtney, she had lifted the socks out of the box and held them up in the air for everyone to admire when one of her friends screamed. And then the fish fell with a thud back into the box. After that it was all down hill.
There was really no way to avoid laughing. Which, in turn, infuriated my sister to the point that I thought she might do permanent medical damage to herself. She’s pretty high-strung anyway, and my glee at her embarrassment and anger was not helping the situation. My mom had done some strange things in our lives, but in my sister’s opinion, this was piece de resistance.
“How do you explain that to your friends?” my sister was still at full-tilt, showing no signs of slowing down.
The truth was that there was probably no way to explain it that would truly encapsulate my mother. It wasn’t the first or last time either of us had been forced to make up a brush-off story about how my mom was actually normal, just eccentric and lots of fun, and maybe a little “spacey” sometimes. I thought about the fish and how it could have possibly happened. I knew my mom didn’t do it on purpose. But seriously, how do you end up with a big, dead, google-eyed goldfish mixed in with a care package of cookies and Chap-Stick? The explanation I gave myself was that the fish had probably died in its tank, and my mom, in a common move for her would have let it sit for a few days or weeks until it started to smell. And then she might have gotten around to lifting it up, dumping the water, and then stashing it somewhere, in this case a big empty box that she had in the bottom of a closet or at the back of a cabinet, without actually removing the body. And maybe the tank tipped over and the dead fish fell out and then, weeks later, she grabbed the box (a really nice box, as she always used to say) and used it to pack a care package worthy of a Harry and David catalog. That’s the explanation I gave myself, and given the weird shit I’ve seen my mother do with messes she didn’t want to deal with, I’m sure it wasn’t far off. I gave my hypothesis to my sister to no avail. She wasn’t having it.
“She’s lost it! She’s crazy! I’m done!”
My mother died almost ten years ago, several years after shipping a dead fish to the University of Utah, care of my little sister. Her death was, in fact, due in part to her “losing it”, but in the past decade, with all the writing I’ve done about her, I was always too scared to address the crazy. I couldn’t talk about the parts where she was manic or drowning in depression or some other episode of what was very likely bipolar disorder. I couldn’t write about the parts where she spent money compulsively, sometimes leaving only enough grocery money for rice and canned tuna for dinner, or the parts where she did things like hide a disgusting fish tank, carcass included, in a closet or cabinet without cleaning it out first, and then completely forget about it until one of us was left to take care of it. After she sacrificed so much to raise us on her own, and after she did so many great, fun, cool-mom things over our lives, it felt like a betrayal to talk about the fact that she was probably really sick for a lot of her own life. Living with my mom created a confusing childhood, one that likely made us grow up before we were ready, but it seemed disrespectful to talk about her behind her death.
It took me some therapy to figure out that it’s possible to acknowledge my mom’s mental illness without taking away from the fact that she was funny and smart and beautiful and more nurturing than anyone I’ve ever met. I would still choose her as my mom if given a choice between her a million others, but I also now know that I’m allowed to paint an honest picture; it’s ok to process the shitty parts; it’s ok to revoke her sainthood in return for some closure. For a long time, I felt like my grief would be rendered invalid if her secret got out, that it was only ok to mourn the perfect. In fact, I spent so many years protecting her memory, making sure that people saw her as the upstanding mom of the decade, that I never dealt with the residuals of growing up with a mother who was mentally ill. The taboo, it turns out, is not only reserved for the living.
When I got home from work that afternoon, it took me about fifteen minutes of puttering around in the kitchen before I remembered that I had a dead fish to deal with. I went first to the bathroom where I fashioned a catcher’s mitt out of about 46 layers of toilet paper, wrapping it rhythmically around my hand while I gave myself a pep talk. Armed with my fish catching apparatus, I walked into Daniel’s room, turned on the light, and walked toward the spot where I’d left the dead fish that morning. I began breathing through my mouth, a practice I typically reserve for cleaning up vomit, but I thought could prove handy in this situation, as well. Ready. Steady. And… nothing.
The body was gone. And because I’m not always great at thinking on my feet, my first instinct was to look back in the fish tank. The tank that sits on the bookcase about five feet above where the dead fish was that morning. The tank that, even if he had been alive and well and just out on a stroll, the fish would never have been able to jump back into. It was at this moment that one of our dogs walked in. (Bex. It’s always Bex in situations like this.) She beelined for the spot where the fish had been that fateful morning and licked the floor. It didn’t appear that this was her first visit. I went to the kitchen to get cleaning supplies and then returned to shoo Bex away and sterilize the floor in my son’s room with approximately seventeen bleach wipes, shuddering as I pictured our adorable, but not super-smart, blonde mutt chewing her snack. I shuddered again as she gave Daniel a big welcome-home lick across the face when he arrived a little while later.
I didn’t become a mom until a few years after my own mother passed away. It took me off guard how much having a child would make me miss her, and it put in perspective how difficult her life must have been as a single parent struggling with a mental illness that, because of the way things were—and, really, still are—she kept hidden from everyone except for my sisters and me, who had no way of understanding it, and no way of declining our invitation to the party. For all the moments in the four years of Daniel’s life that I have pined for my mom, at this moment, standing in my child’s bedroom with the late afternoon sun squinching my eyes and shining a spotlight on the crime scene, as it sunk in that I left a dead fish on the floor on purpose which my dog then ate, I actually wanted my mom more than ever. I wanted to tell her I was sorry and that she was forgiven for all the things that she couldn’t control, and that she shouldn’t worry, because it doesn’t take a crazy person or a bad parent to get a dead fish stuck somewhere it isn’t supposed to be. Or maybe it takes both.