Every time I pass through our dining room, I see it: a rugged and irregular brick-sized rock, slightly oblong in shape with jutting angles and edges, that we keep on a shelf along with other knickknacks. Years ago, when he first moved into the house we now share, J found this rock in what is now our backyard dog-pen, half buried in the acidic, pine-needled soil. J unearthed, cleaned, and then brought into the house this otherwise ordinary field stone—a rock among rocks—because of what was prominently written upon it in white paint: “Sylvia Fish, Died October 1949.” This curious artifact is now displayed on our dining room bookshelf, in a sheltered spot where the dogs won’t soil it and we humans can frequently see it: a tombstone among tchotchkes.
It’s eerie to think of the ground we walk upon as being potentially haunted—our backyard a burial ground—but what footstep of earth isn’t overshadowed with grief? Wherever we live, others have lived before—there’s no escaping the inevitability of history—and wherever others have lived, others have suffered, too. What kind of innocence, ignorance, or naivety would insist that one’s own heartaches are the first to have transpired in this house, this neighborhood, this earth or universe? It’s a simple empirical fact—one supported by ample evidence—that whatever basic human emotions I experience today have been experienced countless times by others. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that most certainly applies to love, heartache, gratitude, and loss.
What was once a beloved pet’s final resting place is now a pen where our two dogs run, sniff, and relieve themselves. This fenced area is a bare, weed-studded patch of soft soil fringed with tall pine trees: nothing special. Several years ago, it was the enclosed nursery for at least one nest of cottontail rabbits, each one of three babies finding their individual way into our beagle’s mouth before J was able to tell her to drop it; it is also a space where our Labrador retriever regularly bounds after birds and squirrels. We occasionally hear great-horned and screech owls calling from this unkempt border of our backyard—predators presumably passing through on their way to larger, lonelier patches of pines—and in the morning when I watch our birdfeeder, I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk zoom through, looking for careless squirrels.
If this humble corner of an otherwise unremarkable suburban yard harbors the graves of the dearly departed, what else lurks without our knowledge in our backyards or under our feet? Are even our own yards a mystery, the Great Questions camping without invitation right outside our door?
I find myself wondering not about Sylvia Fish herself but the nameless child who loved her enough to insist upon a proper burial. Sylvia Fish died in October, 1949: more than sixty years ago. Sylvia Fish has long since disappeared, her flesh and fins transmogrified into silt and soil, and the unknown child who named and then mourned Sylvia is herself old now, too. Who was this child who loved then mourned a goldfish some sixty years ago, and does she have any recollection now of what may have been her first initiation in the human fellowship of grief? Is there anyone who remembers and still grieves over Sylvia, or was her life as cheap and insignificant as the price tag on a goldfish tank would suggest?
Goldfish are not long-lived creatures, but we give them to children, thereby inuring them to loss. Giving a child a goldfish is like giving a child a balloon, a soap-bubble, or something similarly short-lived: it is a guarantee of heartbreak. One of my most vivid memories of childhood involves me crying in my parents’ front yard after a helium balloon my father had tied to my wrist came loose and floated away, leaving me nothing but a limp string. If a child can love even an inanimate object with all her heart, why give that child a thing that is guaranteed to float away? Why not give her a more durable plaything: when asked by a child for bread—something perishable and prone to staleness—why not give instead a stone that will endure beyond even her recollection?
There is something in our human nature that clings desperately to things that are both fragile and ephemeral. This is the cause of human suffering, but it is also the seed of human compassion. Imagine a world where we fully recognized the impermanence of all created things and responded accordingly, refusing to become attached to creatures who will invariably grow old, sicken, and die. This would be a world where we didn’t fall in love, didn’t cherish children, didn’t adopt pets, and didn’t acquire souvenirs with mere sentimental value. This would be a world where children didn’t name their goldfish and teddy bears, and a world where adults didn’t name their cars. It would be, in other words, an unthinkable place: a place entirely unlike our own world because it lacked both sorrow and joy.
We give our children goldfish not despite their short life spans but because of them. Taking care of a goldfish teaches a child responsibility, and grieving a goldfish teaches a child compassion. As goes Sylvia, so goes the whole mortal world. Watching a news report focused on war, pestilence, or natural disaster, we see so many Sylvias, each one hastening toward her inevitable end. Our first experience of loss is an essential rite of passage, an initiation into the human race. If you can grieve a goldfish, then you’ve learned what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be part of the larger sentient family.
On a peg by our back door, J has collected the collars of cats we have lost to old age: first Boomer, then Tony, then after him Shadow. Upstairs in a drawer, I have Reggie’s collar carefully tucked away with his leash, a curling wisp of fur still clinging to his dog-tags. Keeping the collars of dead pets is both a sentimental act and a quintessential kind of clinging, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Does a creature who is fondly remembered ever truly die? Does some part of a beloved pet rise again when you revisit their mementos, and does some aspect of Sylvia Fish swim on whenever I see her stone and subsequently remember her, a testament to a world where we care for and mourn even the most insignificant creatures?