Bigness seems to be a big deal these days. The messages to “Take up space,” “Be Bold,” “Live a BIG Life,” are plastered across buildings, decorate bookstore shelves, pop-up in Facebook feeds, and have always been tucked away in fortune cookies.
I love the message, BIG is fleshy, and it can amp up my subcutaneous anxiety and sound alarms.
“You’re running out of time! Drop everything and go hunt down your Bigness!
Leave no stone unturned, you need everything you can find to be as BIG as you can possible Be!”
It’s final creepy whisper, “If you feel unseen, you aren’t BIG enough yet.”
This week, I found myself drowning in a spinning tea cup, and then I remembered something small that made a big impact, my Goldfish Bob.
When I was seven, I decided it was time to expand our family zoo by adding an aquatic section. The dream was made possible by my efforts at the Sierra Oaks Elementary school carnival. As always, my parents were playing pivotal roles in orchestrating the whole event, so throughout the day I returned to them several times requesting tokens. They were preoccupied with leading the Cake Walk, rotating hot dogs, or restocking the prize booth with slap bracelets and glow sticks to ask where all the tokens were going.
At the end of the night, I proudly presented them with twenty-two coupons for a FREE GOLDFISH. They were accustomed to me reappearing with randomness after being left to my own imagination in the world. My dad erupted into a dumb-founded laughter and my mom mustered the energy for a congratulatory, “Wow Honey!”
We visited the pet store the following weekend to redeem my prized fish. It turned into a full afternoon event assembling an aquarium complete with florescent yellow and pink pebbles and a castle statue for the school of fish to play hide & seek on rainy days. I scouted out the perfect spot on the white tile counter separating the kitchen from the living room. It was strategic, the area had the most foot traffic, and the fish could monitor any cooking while watching Little Mermaid to stay connected to their motherland. My hope was that despite being contained, the goldfish would feel like part of the family.
It wasn’t long before we had a new routine. I’d challenge them to staring contests through the plexiglass or mount the bar to catch a bird’s eye view of their Cheese Puffs bodies. Some would push through the water to visit different sides of the tank while others darted through the castle. All would flash mob to the surface when pastel snowflakes fell into their tank. Most days Suzy might have been mistaken from Charlie, but I took the time to name them all to support our bond and their self-actualization and individuality.
For my sister and me, the fish were playmates, to my dad they were more of a part-time job. It wasn’t an age or gender issue. He was the only one that could single handedly pick-up the aquarium to dump the dingy water. Plus, he was a doctor of human poop issues, so it was a natural extension of his professional expertise. He bitched a little during the transition from dog poop to fish poop, and I knew deep down he loved the creatures that left him the brown strings and patties.
My dad’s heart is like an M&M, thin candy coating filled with a sweet tenderness that melted more than he let on. I knew the golden blobs had squeezed into his heart because of how he treated the ones that found themselves resting precariously on the blades of the garbage disposal after jumping out of the waterfall flowing from the aquarium to the glass-bowl holding tank.
“Shit!” blurted from my dad was our cue that one had fallen. We would all slow our pace and hold our breath as my dad contorted his hands and softened his fingers to rescue the fallen golden warrior from imminent death. He executed it with the precision of a Navy Seal and the grace of an actual seal. To the fish, he was a savior — to me, he was a hero.
Despite all our efforts to become marine biologist and excellent caretakers, after a few months the aquarium had gone from a metropolis of fish to a rural sea of one — and then it was empty.
My parents had handled funeral arrangements for all the other fish, and I never attended. I had already said my goodbyes and wanted to remember them swimming at the pace of peace, not surrendering to the frantic swirl of a porcelain whirlpool.
As the last survival, I felt the responsibility and duty of orchestrating a proper burial for Bob complete with a coffin, blessings, music, and flowers. It was my very first funeral.
I didn’t send out invitations, mostly because it was late notice and hugely because I was embarrassed about the emotion I felt. If someone laughed it would throw everything off, and I would hide what I wanted Bob to know and feel before his world went dark.
I picked the day Bob died to host the funeral. I put Bob in a used, jewelry box I salvaged from my Mom’s extensive collection of wrapping materials stored in the game closet. I left the square cotton that came with the box so Bob would be more comfortable. Naked, and with his eyes still open, Bob was placed in the center of the box, then I closed his coffin and tied it shut with a pink ribbon and curled the tips with scissors. His coffin looked liked a gift. I wrote on the box, “Bob, we love you.”
The official funeral procession began when I opened the front door, and step-together-stepped my way down the walkway. The slowed rhythm gave me time to scan the yard for the best grave site. I settled on a spot under the bushes with wide, lime green leaves that cascaded below purple flowers. Tiffany and I had dubbed them snail bushes because the slimy suckers hung off the leaves like bats and dragged their gooey bodies across the path on their way to nightly lawn parties. It was the perfect spot — Bob could make snail friends, we’d be able to say hello on our way to school, and he’d have great scenery, which was important given his eyes were still open.
I had put a spoon in my pocket and promptly started digging Bob’s grave while he waited in his coffin where the cement met the dirt. I didn’t have the strength or attention span to dig six feet down, but I managed a good four inches. Before placing Bob in the hole I cleared my throat in preparation for a live performance in his honor.
I had chosen Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All.” That summer, my mom had been president of the swim team and organized an epic opening ceremony to celebrate everyone before the first race broke the surface tension of the olympic-sized pool. All the kids and coaches paraded around the deck with balloons while Whitney sang into the loud speakers:
I BELIEVE THE CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE
TEACH THEM WELL AND LET THEM LEAD THE WAY
SHOW THEM ALL THE BEAUTY THEY POSSESS INSIDE
GIVE THEM A SENSE OF PRIDE TO MAKE IT EASIER
LET THE CHILDREN’S LAUGHTER REMIND US HOW WE USED TO BE
It was an epic experience for me standing by the glistening human tank. Some kids were jumping up and down in anticipation of releasing their balloons. I stood still, and time stopped. I concentrated on feeling the horizontal ridges on the ribbon anchoring the balloon to my body and squinted my eyes to narrow the escape route for tears. It was a combo of Whitney’s lyrics and my mom’s efforts to spin magic and create something special for everyone that frogged-up my throat.
I wanted Bob to have an epic moment too, which is why I chose to sing Whitney’s song for him. I wasn’t sure how it would come out, and I was committed to giving it my all. I sat cross legged holding Bob’s coffin in my hands, Bob still nestled inside. The first verse came out quiet as a test to ensure the neighbors wouldn’t rouse to see what all the ruckus on the lawn was about — this was private moment. By the time I hit the first peak in the song, I knew I needed to put Bob down and perform not just sing. I grew to my knees and threw my hands down, palms out, chin tilted up, and belted out:
EVERYBODY’S SEARCHING FOR A HERO.
PEOPLE NEED SOMEONE TO LOOK UP TO.
I NEVER FOUND ANYONE WHO FULFILLED MY NEEDS.
A LONELY PLACE TO BE,
AND SO I LEARNED TO DEPEND ON ME
I DECIDED LONG AGO, NEVER TO WALK IN ANYONE’S SHADOWS.
IF I FAIL, IF I SUCCEED
AT LEAST I’LL LIVE AS I BELIEVE.
NO MATTER WHAT THEY TAKE FROM ME
THEY CAN’T TAKE AWAY MY DIGNITY.
There was a pause as the instrumentals in my head geared up. I jumped to my feet and clutched my hands to my heart, closed my eyes and rolled my head side to side, taken by the essence of the song sifting and rising through my body. When the bass dropped, I popped my eyes open and blasted to the sky…
BECAUSE THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
IS HAPPENING TO ME.
I FOUND THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
INSIDE OF ME.
THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
IS EASY TO ACHIEVE.
LEARNING TO LOVE YOURSELF,
IT IS THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
Out of breath with a slight scratch in the back of my throat, I fell back down to my knees and bowed to Bob’s tale fin.
This is when I first awoke to the fact that my high octave enthusiasm had captured the attention of my tom cat. Heather was an Easter present when I was five along with his sister who Tiffany appropriately named Fluffy. At the time, I thought all boys had cooties and insisted on having an all girls stuffed animal pose. A few days after the adoption, Heather’s foster mom called to check-in on her kittens and my mom put me on the phone to receive a lesson on the anatomical differences between genders and that Heather in fact had the equipment of a boy. I heard her out, and made the clear decision that no name change was necessary.
Heather always embodied his lion spirit, even at a funeral. He sat lurking by a tree, plopping the tip of his tale side-to-side, only slightly amused. I was inspired to do an encore performance; I wanted to stay in the experience of using my whole body and strongest voice to cast vibrations across the lawn and beyond our property line. Four renditions later, Heather still hadn’t risen for a standing ovation. He didn’t have too, I had impressed myself and felt proud of my passion and conviction.
I got the inkling that Bob was getting bored to death, and felt confident that I had done everything I could for him to feel how much he was loved and important in my life.
I settled back down to earth, and in silence laid Bob to rest in his grave and tossed a yellow dandelion on his coffin before spooning dirt back into the hole. I marked his place on earth with a ring of flowers. I stood up, gave another moment of silence, then patted Heather on the head on my way into the house to move on with my day. I felt light in spirit, jolly almost.
The next day, I said hello to Bob on my walk to the carpool for school. He was dead, but still felt very much a part of my life. After all, he was the first to ever see me belt out a tune with such wild abandon. I loved him for being there and taking me all in, and I was tickled at myself for mustering the courage to let go and be moved. I imagined Bob in his box lifting a fin and winking his eyeball facing the sky.
The following morning, I slipped into my favorite outfit: a short, black ruffled jean skirt with matching white sweat shirt that my mom had sponge painted with turquoise, silver, and black squares falling over the shoulder down to the waste. It was 1987, and a good majority of my clothes and school supplies were adorned with puffy paint and metallics. I completed the ensemble with white Keds and billowed two-tone socks around my ankle. It was my power-suit, so I stepped outside with my book bag assured it would be a fruitful day.
Then I saw it, a mysterious mound of dirt on the walkway to the street.
Bob’s grave had been robbed, and the burglar had only taken Bob. My heart felt heavy with worry and some guilt. Maybe if I had dug a little deeper, or done an intricate knot to seal the box, Bob’s might not have been snatched from his peaceful slumber. Science class had introduced me to the very basics of a food chain, and it didn’t make the thought of Bob being eaten alive any easier to swallow. I cleaned up Bob’s coffin and held a grudge against Heather for a few days. He was the prime suspect since he had witnessed Bob’s burial, and I had caught him licking his lips a few times during the ceremony. I was sad, but I didn’t cry. It was a few more days before I was back to tucking Heather into a stroller for a peaceful walk around the neighborhood.
Over 25 years later, I still think of Bob. I laughed while recounting the memory on paper, and I also finally cried. Some of the tears were for Bob, and would have hydrated his scales had they fallen from my cheeks during the funeral. Most of the tears overflowed from a reservoir of love for the little girl who sang her heart out for Bob so that he would know he was loved, that he mattered.
It’s a BIG love for her silliness and knowing that magic is real. The one who imagines caterpillars wearing spectacles and trees that pull up their bark skirts and dance under the stars. The little girl who is quiet, and connects the dots of the whispers that melodies between her ears. A enormous love for the little girl who seeks solitude, and wants to share her hiding spaces and hold a hand until the moment passes. A tremendous love for little girl who is enchanted with glitter and creating, who sees beyond the lines drawn and can make something out of everything.
Leave it to Bob.
a small golden blob
who showed up big in my life
simply by being present
with eyes bulging
and mouth open
of the brazen spirit