The Waiting Room to Heaven

For about the last 10 years I’ve kept an aquarium of fish. The fish have a collective name of the “The Natives,” which stems from the story of when I received my first fish. It was at my wedding shower and one of my college roommates said she had a surprise for me outside.

“Why is it outside?” I asked, mainly because when you live in Northern California it tends to be 110 degrees in the summer and nothing but the sun is outside by choice.

She giggled. “Oh, they’re natives, it’s ok!”

It turned out she was wrong. Outside were two feeder goldfish in a small cup. Goldfish are actually cold water fish, but it didn’t matter, I immediately loved them and vowed that they would never be any turtle’s meal.

Even though I was a broke college student, I bought them a small proper aquarium. They were the perfect pets. I could buy a 12-month supply of food for about $2.99 and they never woke me up in the night and let me sleep in long through the morning.

Eventually, I bought a bigger aquarium and added some Platies to mix with my goldfish. When I did Ph tests on the water, I silently thanked my chemistry teacher for believing that, yes, there was a slim possibility I would use this skill in real life one day. I enjoyed taking care of them, and they seemed to enjoy living with me.

After about four years, my two original goldfish died. It broke my heart. I moped around for a week and my poor concerned husband would ask me, “Is this just about the fish?” To which I would answer with only a glare. Just the fish?!

Little did I know though, with the Platies I had inadvertently bought livebearing fish. (Yes, everything you were told as a child was wrong.) Pretty soon I had tiny little schools of Platies swimming around in the tank, which helped ease the loss. The trade-off for the poor Platies’ ability to produce offspring so easily though was that they had a shorter lifespan. Platies came and Platies went over the years. But my fish now had something extra special, they truly were all Natives to my tank, and I felt a special affection for each little fish that I had watched grow from a small fry.

Eventually though, I ended up with all females in the tank (ever the hardier sex), and the population dwindled.

Finally, only one Native remained. I decided that for now, this would be the last Native. We were planning on moving again soon and it was just too stressful for fish to be moved. My one Native seemed happy having the tank to herself though. Every morning when I turned on the light she would swim happily up to my reflection. The cats would watch her curiously and she would glare right back, content in the safety of her aquarium.

The other day though as I watched her swim, panic gripped me. Even though she still seemed very happy and active, she had a growth on her.

My fish has cancer.

I don’t know if there was ever a sentence that sounded so sad and ridiculous at the same time.

Last night I watched her swim for a long time and decided to look up her symptoms on the Internet. Were there any treatments for fish cancer? Did anyone else care about such a thing? How do you dose pain meds for a one-inch organism?

Eventually though my searches led me to the end – how to humanly euthanize your fish, which involved a mixture of clover oil (to send her to sleep) and vodka (to end her sleep).

Suddenly, the tears I had been holding back all week came out. I sobbed.

I sobbed for my poor fish that seemed so happy yet so sick. I sobbed for the death of my family member over the weekend, who could never be replaced. I sobbed for my family. I sobbed because life could be so so shitty sometimes.

I looked back at my fish, who was still swimming happily around my face, which only made me cry more. With all the death around me recently, the thought of having to put down my last fish broke me. It was like I was having to choose death, and I didn’t want it.

At that moment, I got a text message from the Husband, who was coming home from band practice.

Husband: How was your night?

Me: I was worried about the fish and was looking up stuff and came across how to euthanize it. It made me cry.

Husband: What?! You should never follow a link that tells you how to euthanize anything!

Me: But sometimes it’s necessary.

Husband: We should let the Native finish its cycle and then move on. It’s had a radical life.

I agree that getting euthanization advice from the Internet is probably a bad idea, especially if the FBI ever decides to seize my computers, but I felt a little defensive over letting the Native move on. Why should I let it move on without me? Why should I let anyone move on without me? It hardly seemed fair.

When I was little, I was really worried about death. Mostly, I was worried about going somewhere without my family. I was fine with the thought of moving on to a different plane of reality (after all, heaven seemed like a pretty sweet place, especially since I imagined being able to hang out with all sorts of awesome animals that no longer thirsted for my blood (see All Dogs go to Heaven)), but I didn’t want to go there alone. But my brother told me not to worry. That when we die we all go to a sort of waiting room, where we sleep and wait for everyone else. It was like waking up in the morning, the dark of the night goes by with a blink of the eye. I was six, and this made sense to me. I imagined a very white room with a lot of white linens and sleeping bodies (my visions of heaven at that age also involved a lot of white togas and clouds).

I don’t know where my brother got the idea for the waiting room to heaven, but it made me feel better. It still makes me feel better – to think that no one is really moving on without me, but they’re just there waiting for me, maybe with a little aquarium of bright orange fish.

Until then, we can just hope that we can all live a radical life.

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23 Responses to The Waiting Room to Heaven

  1. This was beautiful. I think daily of my own loved ones in their waiting room. Sigh.


  2. Wonderful! I enjoyed every word.


  3. Platies typically live for 3-4 years, so they’re not the longest-lived fish to begin with. But the growth may not be cancerous, it could be something benign. i worked in an aquarium shop, and we saw fish that lived for years with weird things growing on them. Sometimes the growths could be excised without harming the fish. The Native may still have some life in her yet!


    • Rae says:

      I think she’s about three years old. She still seems happy now, but it’s grown at a rather alarming rate… I guess it could be some sort of infection too. But yeah, she can still pull through!


  4. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who gets attached to fish.


  5. rwyckoff says:

    I too, have had a tank with just one fish in it for several years now. Very different back story, inherited the tank from my son 20 years ago when he graduated from high school. But after many years it’s down to one remaining tetra which I had supposed would die several years ago, as its schoolmates did, and then I could finally close down the fish tank and move on. But it has steadfastly persevered and I have slowly come around to the thought of bringing in some new fish, to make a school of them again, and continue the cycle. In fact, I had the thought just now, if my son gets married this year (which, according to his mother, is very definitely likely, certain in fact), perhaps I will make them a wedding present of his high school fish tank and bring it full circle! Or better, maybe I will just keep it until his children get old enough to toddle over and look at the fish and I can tell them that this was their father’s fish tank when he was a kid and we’ve always kept it and never changed the water….


  6. I think your brother is very wise. The idea of all my loved ones I have lost waiting for me before they move on is wonderful (as long as they aren’t aware of how long they have waited and are comfortable and happy). I wish someone had explained that to me when I was younger.


  7. Michelle says:

    I loved this post. I hate that you were sad, but I’m glad you cried. I’m thinking you really needed that emotional release.


  8. sj says:

    It makes me sad that you’re having such a rough time right now because you’re one of my favourite people that lives in my computer.

    I love what your brother said to you, and I might co-opt that to use with my kids. The six year old has been asking/thinking about death a lot lately, and finding comforting phrases for children is hard, yo.

    I wish I had comforting phrases for adults, too.

    (did your brother work on the last season of LOST?)


    • Rae says:

      Haha, if he did he has some explaining to do!

      But thank you. It’s been a rough month, but it really does help having support from the people who live in my computer too!


  9. I had a hamster for three years that I loved to death. It was trained to use a tiny litter box, and it would run around in its plastic ball, purposely bashing into the cat and dog. It would literally walk backwards to get enough distance to bash them almost as revenge for them thunking on his house every day. But he was sweet and small, and I would pet his head with one finger. He got a bladder infection, and people thought I was crazy–I took him to a vet, I gave him antibiotics, but he was old and after a few months he died. I cried and cried, and people thought I was crazy. He wasn’t a REAL pet. And 3.5 years is ancient for a hamster! I should just let it go…but I still miss him. So you’re not crazy at all. Or we’re crazy with you.


  10. Oh my goodness I absolutely loved this! Do you mind if I share it on my facebook page? My husband has a fishtank and it is totally his thing, not my cup of tea, however as he was researching and putting together the tank I did get sucked into the drama unfolding (check out my Underwater Soap Opera post…I think you’ll like it).


  11. Pingback: the Infinite Monkey speaks: on looking up stuff | steadily skipping stones

  12. katherine12345678910 says:

    Beautiful! loved it! can’t wait for heaven! 🙂


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