Dead Fish and Nursing Gowns: A Short Story


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“Sometimes it’s just hard to let go.”

I wish I had had something more comforting to say, but these words were all I could figure. I pulled Luke down to the floor on my lap as I stroked his thick, brown hair.

“But I don’t want to say goodbye, Mommy.”

“I know, baby; I know.”

“Will Sam go to heaven? Does God let fish in heaven?” He struggled to push the words out without falling into a mess of tears.

“Oh, I’d like to think so. God created fish, so I’m sure there’ll be fish there. And God knows how much you love Sam, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up there swimming around waiting to see you again one day.”

I hugged him tighter; Luke was so sensitive. I had to get that belly-up fish out of his room.

“It’s okay to be sad, Buddy. It’s okay to cry. You loved Sam.”

And with my permission, the tears rolled down his hot, red cheeks.

“Look, I need to take Sam out of your room now.”

Geez. How was I going to do this? I had never dealt with a dead pet before. Flushing the fish down the toilet in front of a sobbing boy seemed as cruel as those funerals where they lowered the casket in front of the family.

“What are you going to do with him?” Luke asked. Except, I didn’t know. ‘Deal with the dead fish’ wasn’t on my original ‘to-do’ list.

“Well…I can’t leave him in this fishbowl like this. You don’t want to look at Sam like this…”

“Please don’t take him out of my room! Let him stay here!”

“Babe, we can’t keep a dead fish in–“

“Can I have a funeral for him?” Luke interrupted.

“Umm, I guess we can…if that’ll make you feel better.”  If giving a funeral for a dead fish would allow me to take the fish out of Luke’s room, I was all for it.

“Let me just get a box for him, sweetie. Why don’t you go pick some flowers in the backyard that we could use for the service?”

As Luke headed down the stairs, I hurried to my bathroom to bury Sam at sea. And once I bid him a final farewell, I dug through shoes and clothes in the bottom of my closet looking for a proper box with which to hold his ‘remains.’

So we spent the afternoon digging up dirt and picking dandelions from the backyard in order to give Sam a proper burial underneath the big pear tree in our yard. Luke said a few words, and I said a few words, and as the warm sun made its way into our eyes, I was suddenly very thankful that Sam chose to die during Elizabeth’s nap. Yes, he was a good fish.

The rest of the day was typical–dinner and play and baths and stories–but by the time Luke lay his head on his pillow, convinced that Sam would be in heaven, and I kissed the curls on Elizabeth’s sleeping head, I was ready for bed myself. I contemplated hitting the sack early, calling it a night, but then I remembered the bag of clothes I agreed to leave on my porch for the clothing pick-up in the morning. The bag that I had not yet gotten together.

I was rummaging through my drawers when I heard Brian coming up the stairs.

“Hi,” he said as he kissed my head. “What’cha doing?”

“Oh, the clothing pick-up’s tomorrow, and I’m sure I have plenty to give away in these drawers.” I motioned to the crowded t-shirts scrunched forming little mounds in their space. “The meatloaf’s warming in the oven, if you want to make our plates. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll come down.”

“All right. What do you want to drink?”

“I’ll just have some water,” I said with a small smile and then turned back to the drawers in front of me.

Cleaning out the drawers was faster work than I thought. As I grabbed t-shirt after t-shirt, I added more and more to the pile. There’s was no reason for me to have so many. I looked at the clock. It was five until eight. I could finish these drawers, eat dinner with Brian, and then call it a night. There would be enough in the bag for the pick-up tomorrow to be worth their while, and I could get the rest I so desperately wanted. Who knew the death of a fish could be so draining?

I started on my pajama drawer, wondering why I had so many since I always slept in t-shirts, then contemplating if I should hold on to them as I looked at the massive t-shirt pile. I decided against keeping most of the pajamas, throwing more clothes on the growing mound. I grabbed a nightgown that I had forgotten I had, a nursing gown that I last used two years ago.

I started to throw the gown on the pile, but then I stopped. I looked at it in my hands–the white gown that I wore in the hospital after both children were born, the gown that I wore in bed many nights during their first year of life to make three a.m. feedings a little easier–and I held it to my nose. I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps the scent of a newborn, but I rubbed my cheek with the gown and held it there. And then I pulled it away, gave it one last look, and threw it on top of the pile.

I grabbed a few more items of clothing and tossed them on the pile. I opened the black trash bag beside me and stuffed everything in. Then I pushed my drawer closed, got up off my knees which cracked a little when I stood, and I headed down the stairs to join Brian for dinner. We talked about the day, the fish funeral, meetings with employees at work, the upcoming fall conference at school, and then we rinsed our dishes before closing them in the dishwasher to do the dirty work.

And then I drug myself back to my room and got ready for bed.

That night I closed my eyes as I nuzzled my cheek against my pillow and took a deep breath. Thoughts of ‘Sam’ beneath our tree and the kids dreaming in their beds filled my mind. Finally, sleep could come. But as sleep came over me, so did a picture of me in my nursing gown. I gently opened my eyes only to let them close again before drifting to sleep.

The next morning, though, I got up and headed straight to the full bag of clothes. I dug through the top layer until I saw the white cotton gown beneath some yellow pajamas. I grabbed the gown and threw it back in my drawer without giving it another look before heading to the bathroom.

Sometimes it’s just hard to let go.

Last Thursday, I was inspired by one of Mama Kat’s writing prompts to write a post beginning and ending with the same sentence. However, I stayed up until two a.m. Thursday morning finishing a photo book. Hey–cut me some slack! I had a coupon for 50% off that expired at 12 a.m. PST. Anyway, waking up early to write didn’t happen, so here is my short story a week and a day late.




3 thoughts on “Dead Fish and Nursing Gowns: A Short Story

  1. Great story. I think maybe some things shouldn't be let go, at least not on purpose any way… What a wonderful keepsake for your children to be able to have someday. I wish I'd been a little more sentimental over the years. I'll use this as a reminder to be more so….


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