The eulogy was short, just like Cookie’s time with us.
It went something like, “Those hours you spent in our house were among our brightest. You lit up that tank like no other fish in the sea. You fought valiantly with your one fin, and didn’t even complain. You are an inspiration to all of us, and we will never forget you. Go bravely into the sewage.”
Flush. So long, Cookie.
My daughter had awoken to our worst fears: Cookie floating on the top of the tank. The other two fish seemed nonplussed, and swam on their merry way in and out through the plants and rocks. One down, two to go, I couldn’t help thinking.
Her tears were plentiful and anguished. I felt horrible, but of course was thinking in my head, “See? this is why I didn’t want to go down this road.” My instincts are always dead on, sorry for the pun. Yet even the doubting Thomasina I was expected at least a week of uninterrupted bliss before something hit the fan. Cookie was only with us thirty-six hours.
I am guilt ridden, both for poor Cookie’s plight and for my daughter’s tears. Naturally, I blame my husband, who was in charge of the treacherous transfer (“Didn’t they tell you how to do it properly?”) It relieves the burden of responsibility somewhat from my shoulders; yet my daughter does not fall prey to these tricks we learn as we age; who is responsible for this tragedy is of no significance to her, she just dwells with its aftermath. There is no bringing back Cookie.
But luckily, there are many more fish at the store, so they have traipsed back to where it all began, to find a replacement Cookie. As well as a state of the art heater, just in case cool water temperature had anything to do with Cookie’s failings. You see where we’re going with this. Broke.
My daughter was adamant: she wanted a new sibling for Christmas, and failing that, a dog.
They say the key to effective parenting is consistency. Fittingly, I have been carefully consistent in my message that I am finished with having babies – if I smell that coconut body butter that you slather on your extended belly to avoid stretch marks one more time I can’t be responsible for my actions. As for the dog, I’m conveniently allergic to fur. I am, of course, lying through my teeth about this allergy, but it is the simplest and most effective way of quelling their pleas that surface biweekly. I sleep at night, despite this tiny white lie.
I have been resistant to bringing any pet into our home for obvious reasons, the inconclusive list including odors, noises, and upkeep. But there is another major problem: they die. As much as I want to avoid the trauma for my children, it is me who I am most worried about.
I have been there, and it’s not pretty. The day we brought our family’s puppy home ranks among the most incredulous of my childhood. We loved Buffy, despite the fact that she barked ferociously day or night if anyone stepped foot on our property. She was a beautiful sandy colored cocker spaniel, with freckles on her nose and bottomless eyes with the eyelashes so long and seductive they needed to be trimmed regularly. As much as she loved our large family, she passionately hated strangers or any other thing that moved, so walking her was an exercise in restraint, literally, and not for the faint of heart or weak in stature.
Buffy lived a long life, but her death hit me hard.
In the same way I can’t watch Animal Planet lest an antelope become an afternoon snack for a Cheetah, I can’t stand the thought of any pet under our care meeting its maker, be it gerbil, cat, hedgehog, frog or fish. Besides, I watched Finding Nemo; it is the ultimate nightmare for any fish to be resident in tank cared for by a nine year old girl. Yet I was feeling guilty for denying my child the pleasure of a pet, so I caved. We got her a fish tank for Christmas, with the promise she could pick out her fish on Boxing Day.
She was over the moon excited. She skipped into our house with her plastic bags containing her carefully chosen protege, three small fish that if cared for properly would double in size over the next year. She had already named them: Elmo, Ernie and Cookie (as in Monster). We were pet owners for all of five minutes when disaster struck: Cookie got caught in the fish net during the transfer into its new home. Cookie appeared to be traumatized, if not physically marred by this procedure; we weren’t sure (he?she?) would last the night.
We waited on edge for Cookie to make a comeback. “Cookie’s gone!” she shouted, which I immediately assumed meant he had been eaten by the other healthy fish in the tank, weakest link theory. Half an hour later she reported a Cookie sighting – “I see him! He’s floating on top of the water!” – which caused my husband and I to exchange wary glances; I knew this day would come, just not so quickly. But Cookie was indeed swimming on top of the water, although slowly and like Nemo, missing a fin.
The news report in the morning: Cookie lives. We narrowly dodged that bullet, now it becomes a waiting game. If I was a gambling girl, I would put my money on a funeral conducted toilet bowl-side before the New Year. Meanwhile, I will try to remain detached from Cookie, and hope my child fares better with pet mortality than I historically have.
At the risk of sounding like a lush, Christmas dinner is just not Christmas dinner without a glass of Viognier – my favorite turkey pairing wine- or at the very least, some liquid containing alcohol, be it moonshine or cognac. Like Art Garfunkel’s lackluster solo career without Paul Simon, turkey dinner is bland and tasteless without wine, and my mood is certainly not as festive.
That I have married into a family that does not drink is a source of considering wrangling, not to mention countless thoughts of “what was I thinking?”. Imagine, if you will, spending an entire day trapped within the confines of your in-laws house, a pack of sugared-up children squealing in delight as they chase each other around, and no rum for your eggnog in sight?
Without beer goggles, hopelessly mundane conversations become unbearably hopelessly mundane. That story about the time my sister-in-law was doubling her Barbie on her bike, and turned to watch her hair blowing in the wind causing her to fall and break her wrist is not as charming the tenth time around. With a glass of wine in hand I suspect I would be more patient. I consider weighing in with my own memories of the time I mistakenly drank my father’s glass of whiskey – I was pretending I was in the Flintstones, I was Betty, Wilma was giving me medicine, incidentally – and my 5-year-old self drunkenly fell down the stairs in front of my parent’s company. I keep this memory to myself – this would be akin to blasphemy.
Years ago, when I got myself into this mess, remaining sober on celebratory occasions was not a big deal. Back when my social life was in full swing (another way of saying pre-children), waking up without a hangover, or at the very least that sour taste in your mouth, was a welcome respite on Boxing Day. Those sweet stories of my betrothed’s childhood were charming the first time around. But as my family has grown, so has my need for a cocktail once the clock chimes five. My social life now null and void, occasions like Christmas can provide the perfect excuse for even earlier cocktails.
Alcohol causes nothing but trouble, my in-laws argue. Admittedly, alcohol has gotten us into some hiccups along the way in my own family (a family where the question is would you like a dash of eggnog with that rum?). There was the time my teenaged brother fell into an alcohol induced sleep with a cigarette burning on our ottoman, and we narrowly escaped our house being burned down. But for the most part, spirits add festivity and fun to our gatherings. Those tiring stories become riotously funny. Tongues loosen, guards drop. Very rarely, scores are settled. Always people are teased mercilessly.
The hard stuff adds color. Christmas dinner with my in-laws is conducted in black and white, and yields ho-hum, stilted conversations. For instance there is much discussion over the done-ness of the turkey. The conundrum of keeping the white meat moist while cooking the dark meat properly has been dissected and debated to the tiniest detail. The hours spent on this topic would surely have produced world peace had that been the debate. This year my in-laws barbecued the turkey: a whole new day dawned. The teetotalers were so enamored by this progression that the lumpy mashed potatoes and dressing (with or without raisins – always good for a fifteen minute discussion) were scantly noted.
If you happen to be my mother-in-law, I’m sorry to be disrespectful, but offer me a glass of wine next year and I guarantee you will prefer my slightly intoxicated state. If this makes me an alcoholic, then so be it; the first step is admitting it. Next year I’m bringing a flask.
I call my nephew, Brennan, a child, but at sixteen he is caught between being a child and being a man. He still has the innocence and nonchalance of youth, but the wisdom that age brings for understanding medical terms and diagnoses. These combined characteristics have made him a dream patient for his team of doctors and nurses, but what a nightmare these past seven months have been for Brennan and his family.
Under normal circumstances, he has been a picture of health. A terrific athlete at anything but especially baseball and basketball, he was hoping to add football to his list by trying out for his high school football team this year. But last May he became ill with what seemed a lethal stomach virus, and dropped 25 pounds off of his already thin frame.
Since then he has bounced around from emergency rooms to x-ray rooms and has seen the inside of every imaginable department in the Isaac Walton Killam Hospital in Halifax. What ailed him seemed like a guessing game to the medical community; diagnosis ricocheted from a bad virus, to celiac disease, to Crohn’s disease. Finally, they settled on lymphoma. The game ascended from bad to worse.
Brennan has endured being a human pin cushion with heartbreaking stoicism and a shrug of the shoulders. He learned the hard way that you never know what a day might bring. He was deprived of food for what seemed an eternity under the Crohn’s blanket. The new, updated lymphoma diagnosis meant he could eat, but the lethal chemotherapy drugs took the pleasure out of food altogether.
Brennan finished his last round of chemotherapy last week, and the prognosis is finally looking positive, this nightmarish chapter of his life hopefully closing. He came home for Christmas and, fingers crossed, forever yesterday.
Santa came early, anything else that happens this Christmas is extraneous. Merry Christmas Brennan, and to all a good night.