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Friday, November 16, 2012

Christmas Confessions

I have to confess something. I like Christmas music. I like Christmas music a lot. I have been listening to Christmas music since before Halloween. Christmas music makes me happy. Mom loved Christmas music. She listened to it all year long.[1] Dad issued an edict that Christmas music could only be played after Thanksgiving because he got tired of it. Mom decided it was okay to listen to Christmas music anytime except when Dad was home. She would play her Christmas records loudest while she was cleaning the house. I have over 600 songs on my iTunes Christmas playlist, many of them from albums Mom used to play. Whenever It Came Upon a Midnight Clear from the Carpenter’s Christmas Portrait comes on I feel like a little boy in fizzy pajamas staring at the lights on our family’s Christmas tree. Only the absence of the faint hiss of the record player on my iPod keeps the illusion from consuming me.

Mom counted down the days to Thanksgiving like an inmate waiting for his sentence to end. After the leftover turkey was packaged up and the Tupperware drawer emptied, Christmas music could be played unrestrained. Mom always opened the season with Bing Crosby. How could you not? The morning after Thanksgiving was Christmas Friday in our house. Mom released her inner Macy’s window display decorator and our house exploded with nutcrackers, candy canes, and tinsel. Everything went somewhere different every year.  Decorations purchased sometime over the past year made their McBride home debut. It was glorious.

The only times from Thanksgiving to January 2nd (the closing date of our family Christmas season per paternal decree) that the record player wasn’t blaring Christmas music was when the TV was showing a Christmas movie. I have seen them all. I enjoy Christmas movies too, but there is something about Christmas music that is different, something that sets me free.

Maybe I just remember how happy Mom was during that time of year. How she would quote the lines to the Charlie Brown Christmas record with my sister and I.  Mom was a dancer in her youth and young adulthood. Dad was not a dancer. I only remember seeing Mom dance as a young child when she would vacuum and mop with spontaneity and exuberance to Jingle Bell Rock and Santa Clause is Coming to Town.

One of the things I have taken with from my childhood into adulthood is a love for Christmas music. Everything from the reverent sacred strains of the Messiah to the ironic and unfairly obscure Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses makes me smile and takes me to a different place. Occasionally, I would listen to Christmas music off-season. Maybe the week of Thanksgiving, or maybe the week after New Year’s, I would sneak a listen to a song or two. The past two years have been among the worst times of my life. I started listening to Christmas music in September of both years. Last year I didn’t give it up until MLK Day. Listening to the music in my car makes me smile. I think about my Mom.

I used to believe listening to Christmas music in June was just a quirk. Now, I think it was a survival mechanism. Mom was loosing her battle with sanity, with life worth living. However, Christmas was her season. Mom lived for the cooking, the decorating, the time together, the religious reflection, the giving, and the living. Christmas music gave her a piece of that feeling all year round. Mom rarely listens to Christmas music now, even during the season.

For the next several months, who knows when I will stop listening to the stuff, whenever I hear Brenda Lee intone Jingle Bell Rock I can picture Mom’s spectacular Kitchen choreography with a squeeze top mop. During my Christmas music season I can still be the little boy listening to It came Upon a Midnight Clear, with fuzzy pajamas laying down with a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies watching the colored lights blink on the tree, trying to save my sanity.

[1] I will be referring to my mother in the past tense not because she is deceased, but because cancer, heart problems, and mental illness have robbed her of her essence and left a shell that only shows a twinkle of her former luster, and then only rarely and fleetingly. 
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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Of Fish and Family

I am not a pet person. I like animals, just not in my house. This may be due to genetic factors. I am allergic to dogs and cats. This may be due to environmental factors. I never had a pet growing up, not even a fish, and I like my house to be clean. Shark week is great. The zoo is stupendous. Hiking and hearing the birds is even better. Having a Fido or a Fifi? Not so much.

The very first pet in my life came via my oldest daughter five years ago.[1] It started one Sunday with a tender bean plant. Her primary[2] teacher gave one to each child in the class. She informed me when I picked my daughter up that the lesson was on being grateful to God for plants. The next week I was shocked to pick up my daughter and to find a room full of three year olds with plastic cups, each housing a tiny goldfish. “Today we learned about being thankful to God for fish”. The teacher explained. I smiled and put my arm around my daughter and asked the teacher “Next week’s lesson isn’t about being thankful for puppies is it?” She promised it wasn’t.

My daughter loved the fish. She named it Goldie, and then changed its name to Nemo Submarine. We did not own an aquarium, or even a fish bowl. After minor pleading from our daughter, we bought a fish bowl. We decided we would make a run at the fish thing. After all, how long could it last? A week? Maybe a month?

Nemo Submarine grew and grew. He lived for two years. His death gave us an opportunity to have a tender lesson about death and our beliefs regarding the resurrection. It also gave me a chance to play funeral director and give an incredible eulogy.

black moor
Our second daughter was now three. The day after the funeral we ended up with two goldfish in the bowl. These fish did not last as long, only a year and a half. During a visit from my parents, one died of an apparent suicide. He was found on the counter outside of the bowl in what can only be described as suspicious circumstances. In a touching and sad follow-up the companion fish, Nemo Submarine II, died shortly after his companion’s, Goldie Gold Goldfish, mysterious demise.

The day of the second death we became the proud owners of an aquarium, complete with light and pump. We also joined the big time with the purchase of four fish, two goldfish and two black moors. The goldfish were named Nemo and Goldie. The black moors were named Shadow and Midnight. My oldest had picked out the black moors. My second oldest had chosen the goldfish. Midnight died after only a few weeks. This was our shortest-lived pet. Pet? We didn’t just have fish, we had pets. The other three were still living, more than two years later.

Except Shadow wasn’t doing very well.  He had all the classic symptoms of a sick fish. He swam slowly, often upside down or on his side. He would rest at the bottom of the tank. In a last ditch effort to save Shadow, I completely sanitized the tank and replaced the gravel. Shadow seemed to improve initially, but seemed destined to soon end his fishy existence in this world. 

I had some internal debate about if Shadow should just be “put down”. I didn’t know if the fish was suffering, I didn’t really know his prognosis. I know my children love their fish. I initially decided to let Shadow live and hope for the best.

I always intellectually understood pets could teach children important lessons like responsibility and stewardship. I also felt these could be instilled by chores and nature walks. For our family the most valuable lesson having fish taught was that living things die and that is part of life. The lesson having fish taught me was my children are capable of grief and disappointment without having their souls shattered. Having a beloved fish die turned out to be excellent preparation for the sudden death of two uncles, and the grief felt by the adults surrounding my tenderhearted children.

The current fish dilemma has provided an excellent chance to discuss end of life issues such as what responsibility do we have to the animals in our care, what responsibility do we have to ease suffering in others, what is the difference between the life of a fish and a human being. I don’t know that there is another more natural way to have discussions about these value heavy topics with my children without this real life problem, all be it on a small scale.

This morning I checked on the fish, and Shadow was lying motionless at the top of the tank, tangled in one of the luminescent plastic plants. My oldest, now eight, was home sick from school. I told her the bad news. She was stoic. She wanted to help bury Shadow. My three year old son took the news the hardest. He morbidly wanted to see the floating dead fish. Boys. My youngest, the eighteen month old just followed the rest of us because that is what eighteen month olds do.

Shadow's Grave
I carefully scooped up Shadow and laid him on a paper towel. My oldest noticed his gills were still flexing, he appeared to have a little life left. We had a discussion about suffering animals and she decided we should let Shadow die. She tenderly folded the towel over Shadow, like a burial shroud, and we walked to the back yard. By the time we reached the back yard there was no sign of life in Shadow. He was dead.

My oldest and I talked about death, physical bodies, and immortal souls with my three year old. I was a proud father. Shadow was respectfully buried behind the retaining wall in our fish graveyard. Everyone helped dig the grave and bury the fish.

I am still not a pet person. I am not ready for a cat or a dog (although I could be persuaded on the dog thing in the right set of circumstances). I have accepted fish and am grateful for the lessons they teach our family. I am proud of the love and compassion my children show for a simple animal. I am also proud of their resilience. The death of a fish is not a newsworthy event. However, in the privileged first world life of my children, it is their first exposure to mourning, grief, and loss. The death of their pet is also their first chance to learn and demonstrate that life goes on after death.

[1] This is not strictly true. In college my roommates and I had a fish tank with small piranhas, betas, and gold fish. We called it our Darwin tank. The betas fought each other and chased the piranhas. The piranhas were too small to eat the goldfish whole and slowly nibbled away at them, a fin here, and an eyeball there. The betas actually “won”. The tank was not mine and I don’t think I contributed anything towards the purchase of the fish or their food. I did come up with Darwin tank.

[2] Primary is a Mormon term for what most Christian denominations call Sunday school. Primary is for children from ages three to eleven. The three year olds are called Sunbeams. Why we don’t call it Sunday school is beyond the subject of this post and probably would make a fascinating anthropological study. 
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