Of the many heartbreaking chores associated with the death of a loved one perhaps least anticipated is koi pond removal. That was the case when my little sister died anyway. The funeral, the boxing up of her belongings, the placement of the house on the market, those were all gut-wrenching chores but at least they made sense – painful but necessary tasks given the tragic new nature of things. But koi pond removal? That just seemed cruel. It was so non-sequitur. And yet sure enough, those were our new marching orders, handed down from an unloving god via his chosen terrestrial messenger, Marc, the Beaming Realtor.
I imagine in Japan this is probably not even an issue. In Japan when someone dies and you need to get rid of their koi you probably just walk down the alley and bang on the door of the neighborhood old guy. He, no doubt, interned in a Kyoto Zen garden and for the price of an Asahi twelve-pack he and his buddies will quickly and expertly remove the fish for you, all the while dispensing precious wisdom on the transcendental beauty of death and the playoff hopes of the Hanshin Tigers.
We could have used a guy like that.
But this was not Japan. This was Denver, Colorado. On a weekend. And we had a buyer who was ready to purchase my sister’s house provided there was no koi pond in the back yard for their children to drown in. So after a lengthy but ultimately futile google search we found ourselves in the backyard of my sister’s historic Victorian armed with plastic tubs, fishing nets and absolutely no clue what we were doing.
Koi removal is no easy task, the hardest part being the removal of the actual koi themselves. Sure a koi pond may appear teeming with fish, so much so that you’d think you could just reach down and grab one, but that is an undisturbed koi pond; the second you disrupt the tranquility of the water, those koi are nowhere to be seen. Koi ponds are actually designed that way. Koi’s bright colors ensure that the fish are particularly susceptible to attack from neighborhood predators, and so a good koi pond will have nearly impenetrable areas in which the koi can escape and hide. The result of such a cavernous construction makes the chore of removing the koi feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. Or, more accurately, a koi in a koi pond.
So for the first half hour my brother-in-law Sam and I sat on our knees, our sleeves rolled up past our elbows, pointlessly scooping our nets deep into the water for fish that eluded our every attempt. From the porch, my father and older sister shouted advice. My three-year-old nephew Henry, unburdened by the pathos of the situation, just a city kid gone fishin’, kept optimistically shrieking “Did you catch one?! Did you catch a fish?!” But the fish weren’t biting. They were hiding. The task was proving impossible.
And then sky opened up.
The day that I found Lydia, after the call to my older sister and the arrival of the police and the fire truck and the ambulance, the neighbors spilling out into the street, after they took her body away to the morgue, we all sat around her living room in shock. Apart from our occasional sobbing, it was mostly silent. Then we heard the distant thunder. It was still late morning, far too early for the occasional evening showers common in summer, and yet there it was none-the-less. The thunder crackled, then roared, and then it was upon us with an accompanying downpour, a total drenching. Then as quickly as it had descended, it moved on. A passing storm. “That’s her,” my mother said. “That’s Lydia.” And though none of us really said anything, we all agreed. It was her. It was Lydia. Announcing her departure.
It was Lydia in her backyard that day too, I’m sure of it. But not the mighty final gasp of Lydia, the devastating, roll of thunder hear my cry, Lydia. But just Lydia. Absurdist Lydia, with her amazing, weird sense of humor. Lydia who found nothing funnier than donning a hick accent and pretending to be queasy, glazing her eyes over and exhaling painfully in a perfect impression of near-vomiting, beseeching you to just let her rest her head on your shoulder until the spell had passed. Lydia who concocted her own super hero alter-egos, Compulsiva and Neurotica, truly noble figures capable of miraculous feats, when not sidelined by crippling doubt and panic. Which was most of the time. It was the Lydia who collected Coca-Cola proofs of purchase in a drawer because she was convinced one day she could redeem them for a fighter jet, Big Military and Big Soda being so inextricably linked and everything.
That rain felt like it was my little sister fucking with us one last time. Just because she could.
My dad retreated inside, my sister and Henry too – my mother was having trouble stomaching trips to Lydia’s house – and my brother-in-law, in an epiphany, stripped down to his boxers and jumped into the koi pond. Sam began scooping out tub after plastic tub of water. If those koi were going to try and hide, he was going to take away their hiding places. It made sense. We were already soaked, why not just get in there and get the job done? I Huck Finned my pant-legs up to my knees and joined him and for the next half hour or so we emptied that koi pond of water as quickly as we could, the tranquility of the pond demolished by the presence of two pale, half-naked intruders, thrashing around as heavy raindrops pounded the surface of the waves around us. We hit upon a pretty good cadence and put our heads down and got to work.
“Did you catch one?!” Henry shouted through quivering lips, interrupting our soaking reverie. “Did you catch a fish?!”
Unable to contain himself, he had escaped from the house back to the koi pond, where he now stood shivering in shorts and a T-shirt. His eyes were wide with hope. Sam and I burst out laughing– a big, belly, Jesus-Christ-are-you-fucking-kidding-me laugh, right in Henry’s shivering face. It was all so ridiculous. All of it: life, death, family, fish. The things we’re forced to do for one another. The mounting indignities in the fallout of someone’s death. The heartbreak of loving someone so dearly and being forced to watch them spin out of control, into something they are not, someone they are not, someone haunted and helpless, some entirely new stranger apart from themselves, and yet a stranger who you will ultimately remember as powerfully, if not more powerfully, than that original self, the shadow eclipsing the form. All of it was just too much to not laugh at in the moment: rainstorms and real estate, suicide and koi.
Self-conscious, Henry was taken aback in they way any three-year old would be in the face of two of his heroes seemingly mocking him, but we quickly caught ourselves and assured him we were not laughing at him, we were laughing at our good fortune! Because remarkably, we had begun catching fish. Lots of fish! We had emptied enough water that the surface of the koi pond had sunk, and now our plastic-tubs were yielding koi – actual koi! – with every scoop. The rain soon slowed to a drizzle, and while my dad remained dry, inside, watching through a window, my sister joined a now-delighted Henry with a towel and umbrella and the two of them began transferring the koi into a tub we had designated for just such a purpose, handing each empty bucket back to us like busy townspeople team-working a flood. Eventually we emptied the pond of water and turned our attention to the removal of large rocks and filthy clumps of kelp. Next we shoveled out the mucky soil.
Soon enough we stood in the middle of what was no longer a koi pond, but merely a pit, a blank canvas for new homeowners to do with as they pleased. The soaking wet patio and the two large tubs full of luminescent, orange and white fish were the only signs that a koi pond had ever even been there.
I loaded the buckets into my car and drove them carefully to a nearby Japanese restaurant that had agreed to take them. A waiter greeted me at a side entrance and I helped him carry the heavy tubs to the back, Zen garden where we poured the fish into an enormous pond. I watched them swim off happily. Koi are a hardy fish, durable, and highly adaptable. They’d be just fine. It would be a good new home for them.
The next day I returned to Lydia’s house to make one last pass on her backyard. As I was doing so I noticed a bright flicker of orange in the chasm of the pond: a small koi almost motionless in a tiny pocket of water deep in a corner of the pit. It had somehow escaped our efforts. Climbing down into the koi pond I used a small net to scoop up the fish and was elated to find that it was still alive. It must have spent the entire night there.
I wondered what it must have thought during the night. I speculated as to the somber notions that must have entered the recesses of its koi brain. Was it terrified there in the dark, nearly immobile in the sad little corner of what was once its home. Did it feel hopelessly alone? Did it imagine death? And if it did imagine death, was it okay with it? I mean certainly initially there must have been some panic, some trepidation at this new, inescapable turn of events, but once it became certain that this was it, did a calm wash over it? Maybe even a happiness? Was it ready to die? Ready to be released from all of the pain, all of the fright?
Lydia, of course, would have cautioned me against such thinking. She was an animal lover, designed her own major in college – Animal Behavior – and she would scold people for anthropomorphizing whenever she caught them doing it. We didn’t know what animals thought, or even how, she argued, so don’t do them the disservice of transferring your thoughts onto them. She found the behavior condescending, so high was her regard for animals.
I put my speculation aside and drove the koi fish over to the Japanese restaurant. The same waiter greeted me at the same side entrance and again I followed him to the back, Zen garden where he poured the fish into the massive pond. We watched as the little orange koi swam off into its new home and rejoined its friends and family. I was happy to be able to save it. And I knew Lydia would have been happy as well. Anthropomorphization or no, she was filled with compassion for all things, animate or inanimate. If she dropped a piece of movie popcorn on the theater floor, she would drop another piece so that it wouldn’t be lonely. If we passed a dead animal on the side of the road, she would murmur a near-silent prayer. Rest in peace, little doodle, she would say, a Ned Flander’s farewell wish to the last remaining morsel of food in one of her favorite episodes of The Simpsons. Lydia would be elated that that koi fish was back amongst its family and friends. I was glad that I could do that for her.
As I drove off from the restaurant that day I thought to myself that I would make a point of trying to visit my sister’s koi fish often in their new home, imagining that I would go see them for years to come. I imagined that it would bring me solace somehow. Koi can live up to 200 years. One famous koi named Hanako was reported to live for 225 years, passing between several owners as he outlived each of them in turn. Maybe the fish I rescued would be the next Hanako. Maybe I would one day introduce my kids to the ancient fish I had saved. But I haven’t been back to the restaurant since that day and I don’t know if I ever will. I haven’t seen any of the fish from Lydia’s koi pond since we rescued them that weekend.
Rest in peace, little doodles.
A few days later Marc the Beaming Realtor informed us that the potential buyers had bailed on the purchase of my sister’s house. They had started asking questions to some of the neighbors and found out that the young woman who had lived there previous had killed herself inside. So they chose not to buy the historic Victorian. A nice gay couple moved in shortly thereafter.
I wonder if they even know a beautiful koi pond once existed in their backyard.