Losing Nemo: A Lesson on Life, Love, and Saying Goodbye

“Mama! Mama!” Rainey’s frantic voice shattered my sleep. “Why’s Nemo floating on top of his fish bowl?”

Oh no, I thought to myself.¬†This is the moment I’ve been dreading.

As I pulled my slippers on my feet, I pondered what I’d tell Rainey if my suspicions regarding her goldfish were true.

Two days earlier, a neighborhood park hosted a carnival to raise funds for a local fire company, and like most carnivals of its kind, the main attraction for the three-foot and under crowd was the goldfish toss. You know the one: throw a ping-pong ball into a glass bowl and you win the swimming fish inside. At five bucks a turn, carnival vendors must make a killing – pun intended since most of the fish never make it home alive.

So I wasn’t all that shocked to find Nemo, Rainey’s prized fish, belly up in his fish bowl that morning.

I began to explain in a way I hoped any four-year-old could understand that her fish had died.

“Why?” she asked, the sadness painfully evident in her voice.

“Well, sweetie, sometimes things like this just happen.”

But my vague explanation didn’t register with her. Eaten by our cat. Gobbled up by one of our dogs. These were things Rainey could understand. But dying of natural causes made as much sense to her as trigonometry. I might as well have tried explaining Pythagorean’s theorem.

So I did what any other intelligent mother would do; I called in backup. But Scott’s version of the truth didn’t resonate either, so we decided to forego the explanations and make proper burial arrangements.

Flashbacks of Cliff Huxtable’s moving commode-side eulogy of Rudy’s dead fish stirred inside me, so I suggested a similar ceremony for Nemo. But Rainey was too distraught to say good-bye and I was too grossed out to do it myself, so that left Scott with the duty of flushing Nemo down the toilet.

Rainey cried as she curled up in my lap, heartbroken over the loss of her gill-breathing companion. It reminded me of the night she won Nemo when she met Hannah, the six-year-old daughter of one of Scott’s coworkers. After barely knowing her for an hour, Rainey tapped Hannah on the shoulder and said, “Guess what? I love you.”

Love, according to Rainey, is not measured in time. I realized that morning that with her, love is instant, sincere, and strong.

A few weeks later, we surprised Rainey with a trip to the pet store. After extensive research on the care and longevity of fish, Rainey picked a cranberry-colored beta fish and named him Max. The first morning after taking him home, Rainey once again woke me with her hysterics, but this time, the news was good.

“Mama! Mama! My fish isn’t dead yet!”

Here’s to Max, who’s been alive and well for almost a month now. But this week, my mind has shifted from fish to family as I learned of my mom’s recent diagnosis with terminal cancer.

For most of my life and almost half of hers, my mom has been going to a dermatologist regularly for check-ups and, when necessary, to have cancerous lesions removed. None have been alarming until a year and a half ago when her doctor found malignant melanoma, the worst kind of skin cancer, on the back of her upper arm. After successfully removing the tumor and not detecting any traces of it spreading to her lymph nodes, we rejoiced that she was officially cancer free.

But a few weeks ago, after feeling sick, she went to see her doctor, expecting to be treated for symptoms of her lupus, another illness she’s been struggling with for two years. Some blood tests, body scans, and one biopsy later, it was confirmed that the cancer was back, this time in her lungs.

As I sit here today, trying to give voice to my feelings, my mom is lying in a hospital room all the way across the country receiving her first round of chemo. Although her doctors are hopeful and she vows to fight it, the prognosis is dismal. To put it in terms any 30-year-old daughter hates to admit, there’s a chance she may not be here this time next year.

I believe in miracles, though, and if anyone deserves one, my mom is among the most deserving candidates. But I’ve been around long enough to know that life doesn’t necessarily work that way. So Scott and I are making plans to move my mom from Montana to Pennsylvania to live here with us. That way she can spend what time she does have left with her granddaughters, drinking in the sound of laughter, bickering, and bedtime chatter, the smell of sweat, maple syrup, and baby shampoo.

Some people may question what this will do to Rainey, to have her watch her Nana die. But what textbooks can’t teach her about life and death and the roundness of it all, maybe this can. It will be hard, but I hope it will be worth it.

Of course, this news makes me ache with grief. Despite my militant belief in God’s goodness, all kinds of selfish questions still nag at me, like, who will mother me when she’s gone? Who will I call at midnight when I just need to talk? Who will read my stories and offer me both the encouragement and criticism only a mother can give? And who will hug me and dance with me and rub my back like her?

And what about Rainey? Will she have to grow up without a Nana like I had to, left only with the stories of a woman who lived, laughed, and loved hard? Will she be left with only a name, like her own, she can pass on to her daughter some day?

Oh, I hope not. I hope my mom proves prognosticators wrong and outlives us all. But like Rainey’s love for Hannah and her carnival fish, I will not measure my love in time because life itself is not measured in time either. As my friend Martha put it, life is not about how long you live but by how much you love. My mom loves a lot, and I plan on loving her right back for the rest of her life and mine. I have a feeling Rainey will, too.

Update on My Mom
September 8, 2005

The chemo is working. After three rounds of treatment, her CAT scan yesterday showed shrinkage in the size of the tumors in her lungs.

SIDEBAR: There has been some confusion in regard to the kind of cancer she is fighting. She does not have lung cancer. She has metastic cancer of the lungs. That means the skin cancer, or melanoma, that she had two years ago spread to her lungs.

All along my mom has been in good spirits, and not once did she have any bad side effects from the chemo. What’s more, she still has her hair, and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief because I promised her I’d shave my head if she went bald.

She has an amazing family of friends and loved ones in Montana, and my brothers and I thank them deeply for the selfless way they are taking care of our mom. We are grateful, too, for the many of you who have written, called, and prayed on her behalf.

She’s not out of the woods yet, but with your heartfelt thoughts and faithful prayers, I believe a miracle is in the making.

Another Update on My Mom
June 17, 2006

Almost an entire year has passed since her diagnosis, and we just received the best possible news. My mom is officially in remission. The doctor says he’s seen it happen before, but he still calls her’s a miracle case.

She’ll continue to be monitored every three months, but for now we’re celebrating this latest, greatest news. Many thanks to those of you who have asked about her and prayed on our family’s behalf.

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