Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life Lessons in the Seafood Section

It's been 33 days since my mother-in-law passed away.

Today was the first kind-of-normal day I've had in a long time.

There was the funeral, and the trip back from Boston. There were weeks of family visits and pleasantly chaotic routine-upheaval. And then the house was quiet. We were on our own again. I finally felt normal enough to get up before the kids, take a shower, put on something that resembled an actual outfit. You, know, with accessories and shoes that weren't UGGs. And lip gloss.

I made breakfast, made lunches, made coffee. Dropped E off at school, left Baby N with my babysitter. Took my laptop to Starbucks for a few hours, worked on my book proposal, listened to Bollywood music for inspiration. Drank more coffee.

Instead of crawling to the couch during naptime and lying there--staring at the ceiling, too empty and broken to do anything else--I cleaned. A lot. Opened the three-foot high pile of mail next to the door. Hauled out several bags of trash. Made vegetable soup for lunch, from scratch. Paid some bills.

And, even better than kind-of-normal, J was working in the LA office today. Which meant he was coming home tonight. Which meant I got to cook an actual family meal, instead of feeding the kids whatever from the freezer something tasty and nutritious and grilling a turkey burger on the Foreman for myself.

So, to celebrate, the kids and I made a pilgrimage to Whole Foods to buy ingredients for a special family dinner. E and I browsed through some cookbooks and my Kindle apps and settled on "Citrus Tilapia" from Epicurious. Which meant a visit to the fish counter. Which should have been just another kind-of-normal activity in our kind-of-normal day.



"Do the fish miss their families?"


"The fish. They aren't swimming in the ocean anymore. Do they miss their families?"

I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how to answer this question. Was this about Grammy dying? Was E projecting her own sense of loss onto the slabs of iced marine flesh behind the glass? I wasn't prepared for this. None of the books or articles I'd read on parenting through grief mentioned anything about seafood.

So I did what any good mom would do in the situation: I tried to distract her with food.

"Mmm, look, E...raspberries! Should we get some for breakfast tomorrow?"

"MOM. How do the fish get here? From the ocean?"

"Um, I think they use nets."

"Who does?"

"The fishermen. Fisherpeople. The ones who catch the fish."

"Are the fishes left in the sea sad when members of their family go into the nets?"

When did parenting get so complicated? When did she put the pieces together to realize that the fish on her plate tonight was intrinsically different than the quinoa and green beans that would also be there?

Everything feels like it's about death these days. When our afternoon call with Baba got cut off, I said--off-handedly, not thinking--that his phone had died. E's eyes grew wide and liquid as little blue oceans.

"OH NO, Mommy! We'll never be able to talk to him on the phone again if it died!"

God, I'm bad at this.

How do I explain a fish's journey from the sea to the seafood section at Whole Foods without using the words "killed" and "dead"? Do I start talking about the food chain? About the differences between a human brain and a fish brain? About Pixar, and how Nemo and Dorrie are smarter (and cuter) than your average farm-raised tilapia? That real fish families don't miss each other when they're gone? Nemo's dad went to the ends of the ocean looking for him; there's no way E's buying that.

My head started to spin, right there in front of the seafood counter with the Whole Foods guy staring at me, waiting for me to finish telling him how many deceased, beloved fish family member fillets I wanted.

Flustered, I failed her. I just didn't answer. I burst into a rousing rendition of There's a Dinosaur Knocking at My Door. Busied myself picking lemons from a bin, bribed her and Baby N with an overpriced organic toddler snack so I could browse the shampoo aisle for a minute. Jabbered away about how much fun we were going to have cooking, how excited Daddy would be with his surprise dinner, and how if she was really good I'd let her use the lemon zester all by herself.

I, the die-hard, vegetarianism-is-a-deal-breaker, make-mine-rare carnivore, considered going vegan just so we'd never ever ever have to have this conversation again.

But we did, of course. Digging her fork around in her tilapia, E's wise little mind returned to the problem at hand.

"Daddy, do the fish miss their families when they're on the plate?"


"The fishies. When the fisherpeople catch them in nets and bring them to the store and we make recipes with them. The tilapia. Do they miss their families?"

J didn't miss a beat. He shoved another forkful in his mouth, swallowed, smiled.

"Nope. Because they like going straight into our tummies for dinner."

Why is this parenting thing always easier for him?

Because at 3AM tonight, he'll be asleep.

And I'll be up lying awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering if giving up sushi...and bacon...and cheeseburgers...might be worth never having to serve E "Citrus Nemo" with a side of quinoa for family dinner again.


  1. Ohhh, not fun. Not fun. As you say, no easy answers. And it's impossible to know what level of simplicity is appropriate. And as funny a J's answer is, I bet she asks you again some other time.

  2. Okay, I have to start this by stating the obvious. You are an amazing storyteller. Amazing. Second...you handled this with so much thought and compassion. J's answer was very funny, (and something I can hear my husband saying...what is it about men and their on-spot answers?), but your kiddos are so lucky to have a Mommy who is up at 3 am pondering the merits of veggie life, just to not have to ever mutter the "d" word ever again. Totally and completely blessed. I'm glad you had an almost day. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Oh these questions from little people are so hard. And I totally get this. Dads just throw out answers and it's the end of it and we spend all night, maybe days, hoping we handled the situation correctly. This parenting gig is so hard.

  4. I'm continuously stumped by the little peoples' questions... and now I know I'm not letting my son watch Finding Nemo, no matter how much I love the movie.

  5. This is so sweet, and heart-wrenching. Kind of how I imagine parenting is. And I know life is. Thank you for sharing.