Tony Woodlief | Author

A Whisper

The day after I wrote about the miraculous recovery of Caleb’s goldfish, the damn thing up and died. We had a funeral service in the back yard, beside a tiny redbud sapling. I decided to make it a dual funeral, and include Eli’s goldfish, who died in the middle of the night some weeks before. It hadn’t occurred to us to have a funeral for Eli’s fish, because he wasn’t that concerned when he found the thing floating at the top of the bowl. He’s sparing with his affections, that boy. But since we were going to have the funeral for Caleb’s fish, it seemed only right to include Eli’s fish.

So there we stood around the little redbud, beside a small scooped-out bit of mud, at the bottom of which lay Caleb’s fish. Eli’s fish lay in a plastic baggie somewhere in the Sedgwick County landfill, but I told him I had buried the little fellow by this same tree after it died. One day, I suppose, he’ll read that here. I hope you understand, Eli, and don’t let the bitterness turn you into one of those twits who tells his children that Santa is just “the spirit of Christmas,” explains in cold clinical detail, at the first sign of interest, how babies come to be, and makes them call their private parts by the actual medical names. Parenting is about pointing to truth, but sometimes the best way to reveal truth is with something made up.

In any event, we stood beside that little hole in the ground and I said a few words, which amounted to: “Lord, thank you for our time with Gold Star and . . . Eli, what’s your fish’s name?”


“Right. Lord, we thank you for our time with Gold Star and John. They were good little fish, and they never complained. We thank you that now they are swimming in golden ponds in Heaven. Amen.”


I filled in the hole, and Caleb cried. Eli cried on the inside, I guess. Then we went to get a treat.

I suppose there’s no shielding the little ones from heartache, so long as we raise them to love anything. I see it in myself, too, that I restrain my affection for fear of loss, or rejection. Everything is awkward with people, because just to be, just to see and be seen, is too fearful. It’s why I keep people away.

Except for these babies. They have an unbreakable hold on my heart that I cannot understand. I remember after Caleb was born, and the pain of losing Caroline was still so sharp, that I avoided loving him. It wasn’t on purpose, and I only realized later that I had done it, but there it was, a wall to protect against ever facing the terror again.

But that little boy’s smiles are like an ocean, and each wave piled into the next until I found myself loving him as fiercely as I had ever loved my daughter. And then came Elijah, the solemn little prophet, and then Isaac, our laughter. I used to think I would never laugh again. I thought there could never be joy again. And yet my house is filled with it.

So we’re back to the slow, quiet miracle. Sometimes when I am alone I whisper “thank you,” over and over. I never knew it could be this way. And do you know the most exciting thing, the realization that makes me tremble as I consider it? It’s the fact that there could be other miracles ahead, slowly building until you or I recognize them for what they are, and find ourselves stumbling about in a world that isn’t as dark as we once thought it, whispering: “Thank you.”

Thank you. Whisper it, right now. It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it, to know that there’s joy, even in the midst of sadness? Tomorrow night will mark seven years since she breathed her last in our arms. I realized the other day that I’ve been deeply sad and soul-weary for weeks, and that it’s always this way when the weather cools and the light changes and my body remembers. You think it will fade and then you smell her or hear a squeal that sounds like her and it hits you full in the chest, and you remember that she is etched into you so that it will never not hurt.

But there is this joy, in the midst of it. I think somehow they’re intertwined, and I don’t understand why. I only know that now, even in this immense sadness like a black lake, I can whisper thanks. Even here there is hope, for me, for you, for anyone with eyes to see it.

Thank you.

On Key

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