On Betas and the Offensive Nature of Death

For about three years, our family has had a pet Beta Fish. Well, we have had many pet Betas, all named Guppy.  Guppy 1.0 lasted for a few months, until his bowl was tragically overturned in the back of Grandma’s vehicle. Guppy 2.0’s and 3.0’s life-spans were a bit shorter, and I can’t remember the details clearly about how they bit the dust.

Guppy 4.0, however, lived a long and full life, surviving our move across town and an unfortunate accident during which the fish bowl randomly shattered atop our counter. This accident left poor Guppy 4.0 flailing helplessly on the seat of one of our counter barstools until I heroically found him, sweeping him into an orange plastic toddler bowl still littered with cracker crumbs. As I managed to pour some water atop of the barely-alive fish in the toddler bowl, my daughter joyfully wrapped her arms around my legs declaring, “Thank you so so so much for saving my Guppy. I just love having a fish.” Glowing with pride, I bought a new fish bowl and rejoiced in our fish’s longevity.  Guppy 4.0 was resilient, and we all grew attached to the little blue Beta.  Even our Calico cats, Daphne and Bhoke, became good friends with Guppy 4.0.  Several times a day, they would meet Guppy at the top of the fish bowl. Guppy would appear to kiss them on the lips while the cats drank a bit of the fish bowl water.

I’m not sure of the expected life-span of a Beta, but when Guppy 4.0 started to fade, I wasn’t too surprised.  I glanced in the bowl and saw very little movement.  I tapped on the glass next to where Guppy was resting, and he gave a gallant though feeble attempt to swim, only able to move one fin.  I shoved a spoon into the fish bowl and gave him an encouraging little nudge, and he managed a weak movement that indicated to me that he was on his way out of this world. Guppy 4.0 swam lopsided for about 12 hours before he retreated to the bottom of the fish bowl and ceased all movement.  Somehow the cats could sense Guppy’s descent into the Valley of the Shadow.  Together they stood vigil beside his little bowl for about 8 hours, and when we removed his body, the cats seemed to be in mourning, lying next the empty fish bowl for about 4 hours.

Grandma was quick to bring Guppy 5.0 within a day or two, and we welcomed a new member to our family.  Unfortunately, it seems that water purifying drops were not added to the fish bowl when the new pet was placed in the bowl, so Guppy 5.0 lasted about a day, followed by Guppy 6.0, who was assaulted when a child (who to this day has  yet to fess up to his or her fatal transgression) threw 16 pennies into the fish bowl.  I’m not sure if the poor fish was hit by a penny, or if the copper in the water slowly poisoned the fish, but Guppy 6.0 took the record for fasted fish to kick the bucket in the McFall household.

We had high hopes for Guppy 7.0, who was the first red Beta fish adopted by the McFall family.  The previous six Guppies had been blue.  Maybe red would represent resilience and longevity! Not so much.  We all went to bed that night, trusting that Guppy 7.0 would rest well with purified water and no pennies corrupting his environment.  The next day, Grandma came over and inquired about Guppy 7.0’s status.  We glanced in the fish bowl, unable to locate the poor fish, until we spotted a shriveled brownish fish corpse on the counter just to the right of the fish bowl.  We could only surmise that poor Guppy 7.0 had leapt to his demise sometime during the night.  Once again, we flushed a fish and the cats held their vigil.

At this point, as I am recognizing that our fish bowl might indeed be cursed, and my children are becoming incredibly desensitized to the concept of the death of a pet (you should see the video that my husband took of my daughter cavalierly breaking the news of Guppy 6.0’s death to Grandma),  I begged my mother-in-law to give up on her pursuit of a Beta fish for my household.  Clearly, it was not meant to be.  We were destined to be murderers of Betas.  But Nancy is not one to give up after seven dead fish, and she showed up on Monday with our eighth Beta:  Guppy 8.0.

He’s still alive (well, he was the last time I checked), and we are begging God in His mercy to spare this poor fish from the untimely demise that his predecessors faced.  While the cats are getting acquainted with Guppy 8.0 and the kids remain unwilling to fess up to who dropped 16 pennies into the fish bowl last week,  I am grappling with the uncanny agony that death presents each time that I come face-to-face with loss.  As I faced the death of each Beta, I felt within the pit of my stomach a deep grief and bitterness that stretches far beyond the limits of grief over a week-old fish.  It seems to echo a deeper ache of an unreconciled fear that I can’t quite pin down.

Even half-dollar size fish, when their bodies float to the top (or sink to the bottom) of the fish bowl, bring a blow to the soul that is difficult to shake.  Death never feels right.  It feels unnatural, unexpected, like a violation of some code that is written into the very fiber of our beings.  We were never created to die.  Guppies 1.0-8.0 were never meant to die.  I am offended and horrified at the sight of a shriveled fish body laying atop my counter when it should be swimming carefree in the fishbowl beside it’s now empty corpse.

I have gathered many elderly friends over the past couple of years.  Many of these friends are aged 80 and above. One of my dear friends, who has become like a grandmother to me, is 81.  She and her husband are in the season of life that involves many goodbyes. A few weeks ago, through tears, she told me that she and her husband had experienced six deaths in the previous seven days.  I could not swallow down the magnitude of this statement and the grief that she must be holding with so many losses. While I have learned much in my study of psychology about the final stage of development and Erikson’s conflict between integrity and despair, I have not had a great deal of first-hand experience with those who are going through that stage of life themselves.  To see your friends and loved ones fall like leaves off of the trees during the final days of autumn seems to be an excruciating and devastating process.  I can’t imagine that it ever feels “normal.”

As I talk to my sweet friend about the loss of member after member of her network of support, I sense that she feels the “not rightness” of death even at the final stages of a full and abundant life.   These beloved companions of my sweet adopted grandparents keep taking their last breaths and stepping into eternity–they are in that season of life.  And yet– as I hear them share their grief and confusion over these losses,  I hear a heart-cry that whispers, “death is not right;  We were not created to die.”

C.S. Lewis talks freely about death throughout his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  In the book The Silver Chair (1953), we find that even Aslan, the mighty lion, is deeply grieved by the death of Caspan, the King of Narnia:

Then Aslan stopped, and the children looked into the stream. And there, on the golden gravel of the bed on the stream, lay King Caspian, dead, with the water flowing over him like liquid glass. His long white beard swayed in it like water-weed. And all three stood and wept. Even the Lion wept: great Lion-tears, each tear more precious than the Earth would be if it was a single solid diamond.

With each tick of the clock, I find myself cringing.  With each ring of the New Year’s bell, I feel a sense of foreboding, a sense that I am fighting against a force that I was never created to have to fight.   As we bury the lifeless body of a pet, a friend, a family member, we feel a clamoring in our souls, screaming out against the atrocity of death. We were created for life.

Journey back with me to the garden.  Walk barefoot through the vines and verdant beauty of life unlimited and unending.  Inhale the air that is rich with sweet growth and abundance that has never once been tainted with the stench of death, decay, or rot.  Feel the perfect glow of the young sun, freshly created, on your skin, warming without destroying or burning, without threatening the integrity of your skin cells with cancer or exposure.  Open your eyes and take in unadulterated beauty, untarnished perfection, a world yet to be exposed to the perversion of good, lovely, magnificence that would lead to evil.  Imagine yourself in a world, created by the mere utterance of the Word, the Logos, the Holy and Perfect One.  Imagine that world designed to be a colony of Heaven:  A land for God’s beloved to dwell where there is no concept of death, dying, or pain:  Where no eye has felt that sting of a bitter tear or the pain of stabbing rejection, insecurity, or fear of death.  Feel everything shift with the single bite of the fruit, with the hubris of independence, and the desperate retreat into the shadows, and sense cold breeze that carries with it a death sentence.

Walk with me to another garden. Kneel with me next to our Savior in Gethsemane, where every cell of our Lord’s being cries out,  “This is not right! Death is wrong!” Knowing His path, begging for another way, yet surrendered to the will of the Father, our Lord grapples with this dissonance that we face every time we look death in it’s cold, callous, piercing eye: We were not created for this!  Watch his sweat and blood fall as his body feels this wrongness of death for the created order that the Father breathed into being.  Breathe in the air, far removed from the idyllic state of Eden, now stale with the rot of decay,  heavy with the weight of the stench of sorrow and despair, infused with the bitter betrayal of the disciples.

Fast forward a day to Golgatha,  to the “place of the skull”, as deep darkness falls with the sixth hour, which slowly creeps to the the ninth, upon which time, the Son of God cries out, betrayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.  Join me in the stark, sickening tragedy of a mother who is smack in middle of having her heart ripped from her very chest as her beloved son breathes His last and exhales his Spirit with the words, “It is finished!”  See the blood and the water pour from His side, as He surrenders His body to the most unnatural death imaginable.  See the mote of salty tears that has spilled down upon the trembling ground surrounding his mother, holding within her the unnatural agony of a parent watching the death of a child, and hear her heart with the hearts of innumerable grieving mommies crying out, “A mother should never have to bury her child.”  Watch as she collapses, folds in upon herself, trying to confine a grief that could shake the foundations of the entire planet.   Listen to the unnatural roar of thunder and see the piercing flashing of lighting.  Feel the earth quiver, the rocks split open, and see the tears of the Father fall from heaven as vinegar to the ground, splashing what feels like acid onto the onlookers, scoffers, mockers, and mourners.  All of the universe screams with the unnaturalness of the death of the Son of God so much so that the sun itself dims as He dies.  On this day, the darkest, most offensive, most unnatural day in the history of time,  the Son of God yields Himself to the Father and surrenders to the most unnatural phenomenon in the history of the world: Death.  We collectively shudder at the reality of the death of our Savior.

And in the background, we hear the dull rip of the temple veil as it split from the top to the bottom. And something begins to rumble as the Son of God has begun process of rendering death null and void.   Three days later, on the first day of the week, right around dawn, stand with Jesus’s mother as she hears the words that bring life back to her heart and and redeem all of our dying souls: “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen (Luke 24:5).”  Then join Peter on his dead-sprint to the empty tomb, to see for himself that his hope had not been in vain, and that death had truly been turned on it’s head.  Nothing would ever be the same.

In Lewis’ The Silver Chair, Aslan grieves for Caspan in his death, but in turn, offers a drop of his blood to bring Caspan back to life: not necessarily in his own country, but he would be alive and well in the what Lewis calls “Aslan’s Country”.  Fast forward in Lewis’ Chronicles to the final book: The Last Battle.  Here, we get the most breathtaking of all promises of the life that is offered beyond death:

And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was on the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Death, as unnatural as it feels, is only the beginning of the real, true story for those who are in Christ Jesus.  And we await the day where it is entirely overturned, where Eden will be restored, and as Lewis says, “in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

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Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain, the first things have passed away.  And He who sits on the throne said: “Behold, I am making all things new.”  (Revelation 21:1-5, NASB)

2 thoughts on “On Betas and the Offensive Nature of Death

  1. Beautifully written sweet Megan. … love you so much

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