For 29 years, I have participated in the annual endurance sport known as “the family vacation.”
As I prepare for our summer trip to Botswana next week, and as you make plans for your own getaways, I want to share a memorable one for me.
The year was 2008 and we rented a beach house in Florida. We would drive a minivan to Seaside with our 3 sons: 8, 12, and 16 years old.
A day before leaving, I packed the minivan with everything to entertain our family: drawing pads, pens, Nintendo Gameboys, a portable movie player, crocheting for me, a pile of CDs for Marcus. We also had floats, snacks, grocery staples, clothing, goggles, fins, beach chairs, skateboards, fishing gear, and nets.
So we over-packed and headed out early in July—a full tank of gas, the pets fed, and written instructions for the house sitter taking care of the dogs, goldfish, and iguana at home.
We made the 8-hour drive in a record 12 hours. I wasted no time laying out arts and crafts supplies for the week, even as the two older boys rolled their eyes at more beach tie-dyes, art journals, hooked pot holders, and beach terrariums.
The next morning, as the house was quiet, I started the day with a cup of tea just as the sun was rising in bands of lavender. But, within a few minutes, the house sitter called. Everything was fine she told me, except, sometime in the night Goldie—the goldfish—died. My heart sank.
We had been gone for just 26 hours and Goldie was dead.
It was too late to ask for an autopsy since she had flushed Goldie down the toilet. I didn't feel right accusing her of criminal activity in the goldfish’s sudden death.
With a surprising large lump forming in my throat, I thanked her, gathered myself, and prepared to break the news. They were all laying around the living room watching TV, the youngest playing with legos, Marcus strumming a guitar.
"Hey guys, I just got a call. Goldie died.”
“Okay,” they all said, without missing a beat on the strumming or pausing the television.
Moses, Goldie's actual owner, added, “now can I get a dog?”
I knew they weren’t trying to be mean, they just didn’t think it was a big deal. But within minutes the tears started falling for me. It felt ridiculous. I took a walk on the beach.
Moses and I had won Goldie at the state fair the year before. He was so proud.
We brought her home and made her a water world with pebbles, palm trees, and an underwater bridge. Every night my son and I read a book and fed her in her silent water world. We cleaned her bowl, made up stories, and bought a special light so we could watch her swim in the dark.
To my seven-year-old and myself, it was magical. I loved that fish.
Now at that point, I had survived my father’s death from a drunk driver at 5, my mom’s death from mad cow disease, my sister’s from an aneurism, and of course, I had presided at hundreds of funerals as an Episcopal priest.
But despite all that, I was grieving a goldfish to the point that my shoulders were hunched forward and a stream of tears fell down my face and dripped onto the beach.
I realized sitting there that I was grieving the end of that sweet, magical time with my children.
My youngest son was getting too old. He wouldn't want to spend another night snuggled in his bed watching an illuminated tail floating and swirling. It was over.
Soon, I wouldn’t need to bring crafts on vacations, pack all their favorite things, and monitor their every move.
Being a mom to small children had just died along with Goldie.
All the stress of toddlers, all the headaches of carrying kids in a grocery store, all the cutting up of the entrée—it was done.
I gave myself over to the great gift of grief that allows us to acknowledge that when we fully love, we are allowed to break wide open.
Goldie taught me we never get to choose what we grieve: our heart will grieve what it will.
She taught me about the passing of childhood without ever saying a word, and that grieving is a beautiful way to tell each other, "I love you."
PEACE AND LOVE,