Bud's goldfish, Dorothy, is dying.
She has been unwell for a while - bulging in the wrong places, listing to the side - but last night she took a discernible turn for the worse, her eyes getting white, her gills struggling to open, her fins barely stirring. We moved her into a private bowl, away from her friend Stevie, and into the bowl that will act as her goldfish hospice. This morning she looked even worse and poor Stevie, alone in his bowl for the first time, seemed distraught.
So this morning I was presented with a dilemma. Bud had not noticed Dorothy's absence from the bowl. I could easily have asked Nana to slip out while he was at school and buy a replacement Dorothy, sparing Bud the tragedy of losing his beloved pet. And while I want to protect Bud, while I want to keep him free from unnecessary pain, I also want him to live fully -and loss is a part of life. Dorothy will not be the only loved one that Bud will lose in his life. And as difficult as her loss might be, it will not be the most difficult loss he will experience. It is time to help him start to develop the skills that will help him withstand the greater losses when they eventually come.
I didn't want to start the difficult conversation before I sent Bud off to school, so I just started laying the groundwork.
"Dorothy is very sick, Bud," I said.
"Oh no! My fish!" he yelled, running to the bowl, where Stevie swam in confused circles.
"She's over here in this bowl, honey," I said, holding it low so Bud could peer in to see the barely-moving goldfish. "She is sleeping here so Stevie doesn't get sick too."
Bud put his face close to Dorothy's water.
"That's okay, Dorothy," he said. "You feel better soon." Then he kissed the air above her bowl with a loud smack.
My throat tightened, but I reminded myself, now is not the right time. I put Dorothy's bowl back on the counter, where she was out of Bud's sight.
So very soon - tonight, or perhaps tomorrow - it will be time to introduce my son to one of the most difficult parts of life: the ending. I'm thinking about how to phrase it, about which words will bring comfort, and about what I can say that won't make him panic the next time that he, or someone else he cares about, gets sick.
I imagine that I will take my cues from him, and work hard not to plant emotions that are not there. I'll try not to talk too much. I'll try to listen to what he's not saying as much as to what he is. But, mostly, I will just be with him. Because, ultimately, when we're grieving and we're struggling to understand our own grief, it is the comforting presence of other people, the space and the permission to feel, and the knowledge that even in our darkest moments we are not alone, that we really need most.
Perhaps that lesson is the final gift that Bud will get from his very first pet.