Elegiac Meditations on Chapter's Death


Chapter died last night.

Chapter was my oldest goldfish. He was one of the two original goldfish that I rescued from being destroyed by overeager children (whether deliberately or accidentally) at a friend's wedding a few years ago. Back then he was just a tiny twenty-five cent feeder in a centerpiece bowl. He rode in the back seat of our car with his fellow refugee goldfish Nicene over 250 miles to come home with us. Nicene died after a few weeks, but Chapter was tough; he grew six inches and outgrew four aquaria, in the process outliving several other fish. I was beginning to think he was indestructible.

Last night I also had a dream in which Chapter died. That's not necessarily as prescient as it sounds; I regularly have dreams in which my fish are prominently featured, and it's not uncommon in these dreams for them to die. I'm not sure why I dream about that so often; my guess is it's reflective of my anxiety about my own life, about my feelings of lack of control. Fish have been used and abused as metaphors, going back for millennia, so I doubt my fish dreams are going to be of much consequence, but to me they are symbols of control and responsibility. I've had lots of pets—and they all require some responsibility—but fish are a little different. We have a cat, and he pretty much takes care of himself. We scoop his litter box and give him a bowl of kibble and a bowl of water, and even if we stopped doing those things, he'd probably figure out alternatives; he could just crap on the floor if the box got full, and drink out of the toilet, and eat whatever he could find lying around. But with fish, everything—their whole environment—is reliant on me. I don't have to monitor the air quality or temperature for the cat.

I'm not saying that it's really difficult to keep an aquarium—at least in the case of goldfish; the fact that Chapter lived as long as he did probably proves that it's not that hard, because I'm frankly not very fastidious about it. But I do recognize that it's up to me to control every aspect of it. I think that's kind of part of what I like about it. I know that's kind of megalomaniacal, but it's the same thing with lots of other recreational pursuits, at least the ones I know anything about. I like gardening because I can make things grow and live. I like to run because I can subdue my body into pursuing physical acts of endurance that are contrary to its instinct. Even music is about ordering sound into specific constraints. It seems like all my recreational interests are really about control.

So I think when I dreamt about Chapter dying last night, it was probably my mind expressing its frustration over the things it isn't able to do anything about. My frequently vain efforts to save dream-fish from death are analogue to my frequently vain efforts to exact order in my waking life, and when I wake from one of these dreams, I react to them the way I suppose most people react to dreams with less than positive outcomes; I wake up, and feel relieved that they weren't real. But this morning, when I woke up and went down the stairs to feed the fish like I do every day, I saw him wedged behind a plastic plant and said, "oh no."

There had been times in the past when I had thought he was going to die, and he'd always pulled through. I didn't notice him behaving any differently lately, and so I was a little surprised when I saw him lying there. Of course there was no obvious cause of death, as there rarely is in these cases. He was a little nibbled-on; I'm no fish pathologist but I suspect that happened post-mortem. Chapter was much too feisty and quick-tempered to let that happen.

Some people don't understand the keeping of fish as pets; they think that you can't interact with them just because you can't pick them up or pet them. I definitely could interact with Chapter. He had as much personality as any pet I've had—or, I suppose I should say as much character. I guess that's why some people don't think of fish as good pets; they want pets with personality—that is, they want them to be like a person. Chapter wasn't like a person, he was like a fish. That's what I liked about him. His fishiness.

I grew up on a farm. People without rural experience, I've noticed, think differently about the difference between humans and the rest of the animals. On a farm, animals are food. That doesn't mean they can't be companions, and even friends, too, but they're still food. You can raise a calf from birth, give it a name, feed it and take care of it, but when the time comes, it's still going to be pot roast and baseball gloves. Some people think that's barbaric, but to me that's not only the natural order, it's the basis of civilization.

When I was a kid, we would go fishing in a local creek. We didn't have a fishing license and we weren't after anything in particular. Our bait was just whatever earthworms we could find from digging a hole in a field. We would catch what we could, and take them home in a five-gallon bucket to put in a big, ancient, steel stock tank—for those unfamiliar, that's what a cow drinks out of—that when it wasn't holding fish, we would sometimes use as a pool. Once we caught a decent-sized bluegill that we creatively named "Gill". Gill lived in the stock tank for a while—not very long, I'm sure, although it's been so long ago I don't remember. When we went out and found Gill had died, my mom took him in the house, cleaned him, and cooked him. And we ate him. We also found out he was a she; she had an abdomen full of eggs. We posthumously renamed her Gill-ette. Mom cooked and ate the eggs, too.

Eating Chapter crossed my mind, but I decided against it, because frankly he didn't seem that appetizing, and who knows what aquarium chemicals would do to me. The point isn't that I'm the kind of person who could eat a pet, as it is that that's the kind of relationship we had; he was my fish, and I was his big thing who dropped flakes of protein-rich fish meal into the tank every morning. I'm sure he would have eaten me if I would have somehow gotten small enough to fit in his mouth. And that's the way it should be. I didn't love him because he was a pet; I loved him because he was a fish.

He got three and a half years in. I can't help but think he could have had a lot more, but I suppose that's pretty good considering most of the poor little comets that graced the tables at that wedding reception didn't make it through that night, and the few that did probably only lasted a few weeks more, like poor Nicene. I don't know what killed her, either. For all I know, it was Chapter; he had an aggressive streak that left me concerned for whatever new fish I might add to his tank. But whatever it was that killed Nicene, as it was with all the other fish that came and went since her, including Chapter himself, it's hard not to think it was probably my fault. Because, as I said, they relied on me for everything.

There was a time when I was religious; there may be a time when I become religious again. For right now, I don't have the energy to sustain belief. I'd like to believe in free will and a soul and all those very comforting things, but I'm afraid the boring, artless economy of secular humanism is too dispassionately simple to avoid. It's less a precept than a resignation, and in its own way is as comforting in its lack of faith as religious faith is to the devout; they give over their grief to God, while I accept it as part of the human condition. The difference is that while they face loss as an unknowable mystery of God's will, I am resigned to see loss as a completely knowable part of natural law, although no less able to avoid it because of my knowledge. Whether it's part of some benevolent creator's plan or part of the soulless machinations of physical forces on matter, the result is the same: ultimately the result is out of my hands.

Of course Chapter wasn't indestructible, because nothing is, including my influence. I had wanted to think of Chapter as indestructible because his indestructibility would mean proof of the completeness of my control, even if it was only over something as simple as a fish tank. We hold on to what we can while we have the chance to; when the opportunity presents itself, we take hold of something new; as time passes, some things slip out of our grasp. Buildings fall; wars are waged; goldfish lie still on the gravel between plastic plants and tank heaters.

I am grateful for the time I had with him.