Losing Nemo

The death of his son’s first pet got Chris Hunt thinking about all the other hard truths he will have to reveal, and how to explain the seemingly unexplainable.

nemoEpiphanies have a habit of springing on you at the most unexpected of times.

This was true for me one summer afternoon, while I was on my knees in my in-laws’ backyard, burying my son Riley’s pet betta fish Nemo.

We’d brought Nemo home a few weeks earlier. Sadly, it didn’t take long until we noticed he was looking a little rough. We gave him medicine, but it didn’t help.

I knew things were bad when I woke up one morning and he looked furry, like he had sprouted peach fuzz. He barely moved.

When we got home from work, he was floating upside down. We discreetly shoveled him into a small plastic bag, and with the due respect the situation warranted, hung it off a door knob. Flushing him down the toilet seemed customary, but his mother insisted we bury him, which made about as much sense as giving a pet cat a burial at sea.

I had a pretty good feeling Nemo wouldn’t be around when we got home, and had come up with what I thought was the best solution to the situation. We’d buy another one of the same colour and drop it in the tank. Riley would be oblivious.

His mom said no. She said we had to tell him what happened. By “we”, she meant me.

So I told Riley I had something important to tell him. His baby blue eyes dripped with innocence as he looked at me expectantly. I choked.

Wasn’t he still too young to experience the cruel truths of the world, let alone understand them?

I looked to his mother for help, but she was crying. Hard.

I was on my own, so I said the first thing that came to mind.

“Riley, remember how we told you Nemo was sick? Well, he got too sick to stay with us. He had to go away. He’s in a place where he isn’t sick anymore.”

He cried. Maybe I did too.

We went to his grandmother’s to bury him in her backyard, because I’m pretty sure burying him in the garden would violate our condo’s no-pet policy.

As I tore up the dark earth, it occurred to me that this would be just the first of many difficult conversations. I will have to talk to him about sex.

My dad’s sage advice, when I asked him about it, was a curt “Yeah, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” Then he smirked, like it was a joke. That’s how I treated the topic my entire life.

In school, my gym teacher gave us this speech: “Sex. It’s not like what you see in the movies. There’s no wild screaming and it doesn’t last forever.”

To which I replied, “Maybe you’re just not doing it right?” That didn’t go over well.

How do I get him to take sex seriously when I’ve spent my whole life joking it away? And bigotry? How can I explain there are people who hate others based on their gender or race when I don’t even understand it? And poverty? War? Religion? The list goes on.

The world is literally an ocean of hard truths. How do I help him swim in such dark and uncertain waters?

And the truth is, I don’t know. I can only hope when the time comes to talk about such things, I’ll be able to look him in the eye and tell him the truth. Well, the truth as I see it, anyway. Sometimes his daddy can be wrong, another truth he will learn probably sooner than later.

So thank you, Nemo. I’m sorry you left far too soon, but you left an impact that will be felt for years to come.