Don and I were only married just under 5 years when he died of a heart-attack, smack in the middle of his life, in July, 2011. We never got to start our family. Would we have had children? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably. It was something we talked about often, and something we both wanted to make happen one day. Adoption was one thing we fantasized about. Don loved the idea of helping or “rescuing” a child that was in need of a family, just like he loved rescuing animals.

Sammy naps with his Poppa (Don) …

There were many nights we would lie in bed and talk about what our future son or daughter might be like. We talked about names, created future scenarios for our imaginary child, and laughed about Don’s hatred of New Jersey, the state we lived in, and how he wasn’t going to be raising any “mafia wanna-be” who walked around saying things like “Fuggett-about-it!” The idea of kids was something we both hoped for.

Ever since losing my husband, people like to rationalize and insinuate that it has to be somehow “less painful” for me, because after all, we didn’t have children. To me, it feels like they are saying we weren’t really an actual family, since it was only me and him and our pets. I’ve also had lots of people wrongly assume that we werent planning on having kids anyway, so therefore, I didnt really lose anything in the way of a future family.

Sometimes I really hate people and their unbelievably cluelessness and insensitive remarks. Who cares if we were planning on having kids or not? Does it matter? The point is; the possibility, the hope, the option; was taken from us the second he died. Not only do I grieve the loss of my husband – I also grieve the family we never got to have. Each time I see other families playing happily together, kids swinging on a swingset, a little boy that maybe looks a bit like Don, a little girl with his sense of humor, a dad and his son tossing a ball back and forth. All of these scenarios are cruel reminders of what will never be. There won’t be any kindergarten or 1st year birthday parties or school functions or science fairs or graduations or marriages or grandparent days – not for us.

The only thing that hurts me more than the fact that I will most likely never be a mother – is that my husband will never be a dad. This reality pains me to my core, because Don’s own father was never much of a dad to him, so he never got to be a son, and now he will never get to be a father. My husband was robbed from both ends – his childhood was abusive and dysfunctional, and his adulthood ended at 46. He never complained, but he was hurt. This is why he loved animals so much. “They never leave you. They just love you, all the time, no matter what”, he would say to me. His lack of a loving family broke my heart into a billion tiny little pieces.

Don with our nephew Brian, as a newborn

And that is what I got – pieces. Before he died, during all the years I knew him, I got to see little pieces of what kind of a dad he might have been. I saw him play with our kitties, love them, take care of them when they were sick, brush their teeth with the patience of a saint, and hold them when they passed away, whispering in their tiny, furry ears: ” You’re going to be okay sweetie. My sweet Isabelle … poor little Ginger ….”

I watched him chase my cousin Tabatha’s daughter Ana around her house when she was a little girl, and how she always wanted to climb him because he was so tall. I saw him take care of our Nana when she was feeling sick, and I saw him help our elderly neighbor and friend Uncle Chuck into a chair after he had fallen, talking him gently into going to the hospital. I saw the way every animal and every child gravitated to him and loved him, and I saw him turn into a little boy while playing with kids and their toys. Mostly, for 2 1/2 years, I saw the way that he was with our nephew, Brian. He would lift him onto his shoulders, or lie down and toss into the air over and over, or we would read stories to him together on the couch. Don helped to teach Brian how to throw a baseball one day in my parents front yard, and he also taught him the word “ocean” when our family spent the weekend together on Cape Cod. Everytime I saw my husband with Brian, I would get that tingle inside me that wanted nothing more than for him to be someone’s dad. The way he was with little kids and animals – it was magic.

Brian laughs as Uncle Don lifts him into the air…

About 11 months ago, my brother and sis-in-law, Jen, had their 2nd child, my niece, Jillian. She was born after Don died, so she will never know him. But Brian knew him, and my husband really loved that kid. A few months ago, my brother told me that lately, Brian had been asking questions about Uncle Don, out of the blue. He was only 2 1/2 years old when he died, and now he is 4 and very curious. He wanted to sleep in the bed with me when I went home for a visit, because he said “Auntie Kelley is sad.” He whispered into my mom’s ear during dinner one night that he had a secret. “Uncle Don died”, he told my mom. “But don’t tell Auntie. She doesn’t know.” My mom laughed nervously and said: “Im pretty sure she knows!”

My mom babysits Brian and Jillian once a week while Dave and Jen are at work. She called me tonight to tell me this story of the dialogue that happened between her and Brian during their time together today. I scribbled it down as she was talking, so while it’s not exact wording since I wasn’t there, it’s close. The conversation began when my mom noticed that the fish in Brian’s fishtank were no longer there.

Mom: What happened to your fishes, Brian?

Brian: Oh, they died.

Mom: Oh, they did? Im sorry to hear that. How did they die?

Brian: They died because I forgot to feed them. I didnt feed them and they died, like Uncle Don died.

Mom: (taken aback) That’s right, Brian. Uncle Don died, and we all miss him very much.

Brian: Did Auntie see Uncle Don die?

Mom: No, but she went to the hospital to see him afterwards.

Brian: He used to pick me up and then go really really high , almost to the ceiling, Grammy!

Mom: That’s right honey. He did. He loved playing with you.

Brian: (putting his hands on his hips and getting very serious, like an adult) You know – he was a very nice guy. Uncle Don was a really nice man.

Mom: Yes he sure was. He was the best.

Brian: He was a really good, good guy. A very nice guy.

After that, Brian went back to playing and jumping around and being a little boy, but my mom was stunned by the seriousness in his tone. She said it was as if she was having a conversation with another adult, instead of a 4-year old boy. Now, I am quite sure that the most logical explanation for this “nice man” thing is that Brian has probably overheard my brother and Jen say things like that about Don, and he is just repeating it. Or maybe it’s something more.

They say that when people die, their souls or their spirits are easiest to reach by both kids and animals. Im convinced that our cat Autumn sees Don in the ceilings and talks to him, because of the strange way she acts. And as crazy as this makes me sound, I often see Don through Sammy’s eyes when Im petting him. I sing to them and I tell them how much I miss their daddy. Maybe Im nuts, or maybe I just dont have any children to see my husband’s eyes in. Maybe I see him wherever good things are, and because he never got to be that wonderful dad he should have been, maybe it makes my heart sing and skip a beat to hear that he left some sort of impression on a boy who was only 2 years old. Maybe that boy remembers and understands more than we think and know.

Or maybe he was just a really nice man, who now sleeps with the fishes.

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10 thoughts on “Fishes

  1. My grandfather (mom’s dad) died when I was almost 3 and he was a wonderful man as well. He loved to go on long drives just to see where the roads would take him, and I have vivid memories of him taking me with him and telling me stories the whole time. My younger brother and sister never got to know him, which still saddens me. However, I will always cherish my memories of “Pop-Pop.” Your nephew, Brian is very fortunate that he was able to have such great times with Don, and I have no doubt that he will cherish those memories for the rest of his life as well. Goodness and love have a lasting impact.

  2. That’s beautiful, Kelley. Yes, Don left an impression wherever he was and to whomever he met, especially kids. I will remember that conversation with Brian foever..thank you Don, for being such a “nice man.” We all love and miss you so very much.

  3. I love this post. Thank you Kelley. My partner, Aric, loved being an uncle to our twin nieces. Becoming Uncle Aric was one of the greatest moments of his life, and he adored them. He taught them to pogo dance, to use Chinese yoyos, painted pictures for them, and just had fun being goofy with them. I hate that he won’t see them grow to become women, and that they won’t get to enjoy all of the plans he made for their future visits to Chicago as they grew up. They are only four-years-old and I worry that someday they may not remember their goofy, artistic Uncle Aric who loved them so dearly. I’m so glad that Brian is still talking about Don and remembering him as a kind and loving uncle. It gives me hope for all of us.

  4. This is beautiful. Anyone that has such love for his family and pet family has an incredible heart. It will live on in his families memories. I believe he might have also left a little of his soul with his pet family.

  5. Beautiful post. What lovely special pictures you have to enjoy! I wanted to tell you the story of the little one remembering your husband lifting him high etc. They will always have those memories and having those memories will keep him in his memories always. My nephews were very young when my hubby died, be they always talk about him when they go camping or when they roast marshmallows as he took them on their first camping trip and it warms my heart that they remember. The younger sister wasn’t born when he was alive, so it makes me sad that she will not know him. I do think your hubby is with his pets as mine is also.

  6. A friend of mine sent me to the link to this article. I lost my husband in 2009 to a battle with cancer and we too were cheated out of having a family of our own. His family was abusive prior to his diagnosis and absent during his subsequent illness. More than anything he wanted to be a ‘real’ dad. His eyes would light up and he would put his hand on my belly and talk about all the things he couldn’t wait to do with them. Every small child’s smile is like a small dagger to my heart. Every comment on social networking sights by parent’s talking about their child’s most recent potty training habits is like salt being rubbed in my wounds. I know you get it. And I hate that you have to understand.

  7. You are hardly crazy, and I am a firm believer in the spirit of those we love reaching children and pets. Anyone who might doubt your validity as a family because of the absence of children clearly doesn’t know what your love was like (or what constitutes family). Sweet post… always look forward to more. It is nice to kind of “get to know” Don through your memories.

  8. A heartbreaking read. I can’t imagine your sorrow at the loss of possibility of having kids, but I imagine it’s similar to the sorrow I have when ever year – every day, I see that window of possibility shrink and become less likely. :( *HUGS*

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