Dominick’s Fish

The things we leave behind when we die

Photograph by Sian Kennedy

[In aquariums, fish] were extricated from their natural habitat, relocated into an artificial one, and subordinated to the implicit scopophilia of display. This separation of things from their original—or, in some cases, attributed—context and functions made them into commodities, increasingly susceptible to the projection of cultural desires and anxieties.
—Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom

On a miserable January day last year, I made a list—garbage bags, laundry detergent, socks (black), goldfish food—and headed for Wal-Mart. Normally, shopping at Wal-Mart is about as attractive to me as a tailgate party, because I’m a snob. But something about the grey sky, the wet cold, and the fact that Wal-Mart had successfully driven all the local independent pet stores out of business made me crave a colourful, lurid, trashy experience, ideally with plenty of shrieking children.

The Wal-Mart was packed, of course, the children were high on off-gassing plastic, and the “Seasonal” aisle was loaded with cheap red and pink Valentine’s crap. Perfect. In the pets section, the tanks were glittering with hundreds of bright orange, yellow, scarlet, and white goldfish. I watched them swim in circles, bob for non-existent fish kibble, and bite each other. Entranced by the silky beauty of long, fanned fins, I forgot to buy the damned food for my own motley school of fat, fading, urine-coloured carp.

But when I came back the next day, the tanks were empty, drained of water and life. I asked a pimply clerk where the fish had gone and she shrugged, then made a toilet-flushing sound, a flat whoosh. All that beauty, all those tiny, hungry, bug-eyed lives, gone. (Wal-Mart, of course, denies disposing of unsold fish. While I can’t be sure that the teenage clerk knew what she was talking about, I do know the fish had gone somewhere.)

I immediately had two thoughts. First, I should call the Animal Liberation Front or peta—people who will show up at Wal-Mart in giant goldfish costumes and balaclavas. Second, I must tell my old pal Dominick, a selfdescribed “aquarium nerd” and selftaught ichthyologist, because he’s in the hospital and he’ll be so appalled by the story that it will take his mind off his troubles. A week later, I went to Antwerp and London on assignment. I forgot to call Dominick. When I got back, he was dead.

Dominick Eden died in Saint John, New Brunswick, on February 13, 2006, from lymphoma. He was forty-two years old, a completely original person, and I loved him like a brother.

We met when we were both in our early twenties, while I was attending the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and sharing classes with his partner, Debbie Murphy. We bonded instantly because I too am an aquarium nerd. I’ve kept tanks of fish all my life and know enough about the practice (though hardly as much as Dominick knew) to keep from killing too many of the little pretties.

All fish people understand each other, understand the attraction of creating a perfect world behind glass. It’s a melancholy pursuit, as are all things related to the unknowable quiet of the ocean and a passive pet/owner relationship—something between doll collecting and gardening in that it involves a love of ornamentation and of cultivation. The stillness cherished by fish keepers is often mistaken for an adjunct of the nerdish love of solitude, of libraries and quiet study. But it’s not the same. Fish people are generally quiet sorts, but we’re also fierce lovers of beauty, of colour and light and mystery. We’re like people who collect glass art or solemn abstract paintings—except our art swims around in obsessive-compulsive circles, sometimes bites, and requires the occasional water change.

Over the years, as Dominick built a small real estate empire in Saint John by buying and fixing derelict nineteenth-century apartment buildings and Debbie and I pursued our educations, I became a part of the family. I lived with Deb and Dom on and off, helped take care of their son, Mitchell, and watched them assemble their lives. Through all the renovation upheavals, moves, business gains and losses, family changes, and my own departures and returns, one thing remained constant—Dominick’s fish.

He kept hundreds of fish, of all kinds. He bred them and crossbred them, experimented with habitats and water types, watched them mate and fight and eat each other. They were more than a distraction; they were a kind of miniaturization of his own expanding, multifaceted business enterprises. Dominick liked to create networks, chains of interrelatedness in commerce, in social circles, and in his increasingly exotic collection of fish. The “fish room,” as he nicknamed the den of tanks he kept in the basement of one of his buildings, was a haven, a place to watch his own busy life replicated in a controlled ecosystem.

“At his peak, Dominick had forty-eight tanks on the go,” Debbie remembers. “Fascination drove everything for Dominick, but the hobby grew so large for reasons he couldn’t control—they kept breeding and breeding. But he was happy to be a part of that life cycle. It wasn’t an obsession, but he went through obsessive stages.”

After Dominick died, the last thing on Debbie’s mind was his other family, the one with fins. Not that she didn’t care, but the fish were always Dom’s responsibility, his thing. Plus she had a memorial to organize, all the legal nonsense to plow through, and was sorely in need of sleep and downtime to process her loss.

So the day the East Coast Aquarium Society called from Halifax and offered to perform a “fish rescue” on Dominick’s menagerie (Debbie had never heard of the group and wasn’t aware that Dominick was known to its members), she “panicked, completely panicked. I thought, ‘Holy shit!’ I said, ‘Listen, honey, I’ll call you right back!’ I put the phone down and ran across the street to the fish room and fed the poor things. They were frantic, practically jumping out of the water. I’d forgotten about them for more than a week! I shudder to think what state those things would be in if ecas hadn’t come along.”

The rescue of Dominick’s fish took several weeks to organize and a paramilitary team of fish enthusiasts to perform. Vans were loaded with insulated coolers (to keep the fishes’ water temperature as close to the habitat temperature as possible during transport) and special fish-carrying plastic bags, the thick kind used by pet stores. Fish were divided into sets depending on species, size, and compatibility. Maps to pre-assigned homes where the fish would be “foster tanked” were handed out to the drivers, and the tanks were disassembled and cleaned. Within days, Dominick’s generations of fish were spread across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

ecas president Lisa Borden remembers the morning she arrived at Debbie’s door. “It was mid-March, it was freezing outside, and trying to keep the fish at a reasonable temperature was really difficult. Transferring them from these massive containers to smaller containers and then bringing the temperature back up to normal was the biggest challenge. I got home at 6 a.m. the next day, after I was sure all of the fish would be okay.” She continues: “Dominick had so many fish, and so many different kinds, we had to match up the keeper with the fish to make sure they knew how to keep them alive. There were more than a hundred fish. I wasn’t fully prepared for how much work it would be, because Dominick’s fish were our first rescue.”

A few months later, ecas held an auction of the fish and aquarium equipment. Many of the foster keepers bought the fish they had already been caring for. Dominick’s vast collection of gear was parcelled out to various buyers, and part of the money went back to the organization to cover the cost of the rescue. Dominick’s stacks of fish-raising guides, manuals, and arcane fish hobbyist periodicals (always strewn about his house like old newspapers) form the core of ecas’s new lending library.

“Dominick would be so proud,” Debbie says. “He loved the science of fish keeping. I once watched him perform artificial respiration on a fish. It had flopped out of the tank and he held the stupid bugger in the water and swooshed it back and forth until the water was forced into its gills, bringing it back to life. Who else would do that? ”

In telling people about ecas’s extraordinary rescue, I’ve learned a lot about the way people think about fish as pets. There are two reactions: complete admiration for the organization’s dedication (the minority response) or stunned disbelief that invariably ends with the ugly question, why didn’t Debbie just flush them?

Apparently, even in a society obsessed with pets and pet care—to the point where there are now dog and cat spas—most people don’t consider fish sentient beings worthy of concern, and certainly not creatures deserving of an expensive, exhaustive volunteer rescue effort.

Borden has heard it all before. “Fish are not considered animals first. They’re considered a hobby,” she notes. “And so they don’t have the same value as mammals. It’s important that people realize that aquarium animals are animals, and if they don’t want to or can’t keep them anymore, other people will. If you flush a fish or release it into the wild, it’s a harsh, cruel way for the fish to die. The fish suffer terribly.”

But perhaps the perception of disposability is also part of a shift in contemporary culture’s approach to the material realities of death—in particular, how to deal with what the deceased leave behind. In my own family, what to keep and what to toss before my mother passes—the heirloom versus Goodwill issue—has become an ongoing discussion. My mother, now eighty and recently widowed, is looking around her packed house and torturing herself over how much she has amassed, hoarded, and preserved. Her generation was brought up to believe that throwing things away was wasteful, decadent, even indecent. But contemporary culture tells her that a cluttered house is a burden, to both oneself and one’s loved ones.

The minimalist message fuels everything from ikea storage unit designs to condo sales to reality television and decorating shows. On tlc’s Clean Sweep, the perky hosts find a house full of “junk” and clear it out for the hapless homeowner, thus allegedly setting the lucky guest free of all sorts of emotional baggage as well. These days, we are all supposed to be sleek, tidy, unburdened by material goods, and ready to drop off the Earth at any moment without worrying that we’ll leave a trail of unwanted pinwheel crystal behind. Good luck.

And yet, despite the anti-clutter, clean your-closet mantra, mixed messages still abound when it comes to material acquisition and attachments. We are asked to shop daily, then asked to pay people to come and empty our houses of all the things we’ve bought, because we mustn’t become hoarders. We are told to be social, to make lasting friends, and to fall in love, all while being flooded with requests to join Facebook and become “friends” with hundreds of people we are highly unlikely to ever touch, hear, or truly know.

No wonder deciding what to do with one’s things when the Reaper gives you the hooded nod is so confusing and stress-inducing—everything is valuable but nothing is worth keeping. “I kept one of Dom’s tanks, in the basement,” Debbie tells me. “I still forget about it, like I forgot about Dom’s fish when he was alive, and so I have one sad bastard fish left in there. One. I am not a pet person, but I’m determined to keep at least one tank alive. God help me, I’m failing miserably, but I’m trying.”

Amid all the sadness around Dominick’s death, the care given to his lowly (and certainly unappreciative) fish fills me with a kind of careful hope. Obviously, not everyone buys into the notion that after we die everything we cared for dies with us or that we only exist as long as we are an active part of the property/equity nexus, that we are nothing more than what we hold while we can.

I understand now that we are also what we hold dear, that such care resonates, and that the objects of our attentions and affections, no matter how slimy or scaly, can, and should, outlast us. We are not what we own; we are what we cherish.

“The day the ecas people came, I bawled my eyes out,” Debbie remembers. “I mean, these were living things. It sounds weird to say, but they were breathing, in a way, for Dominick, because of him. By the time Dominick died, most of those fish were fourth-, fifth-, tenth-generation fish from his breeding program. Their entire cosmos revolved around Dominick. It was a surreal event watching them leave his fish room. I was shocked at how much I cared, because fish, I have to admit, gross me out.”

After orchestrating the rescue of Dominick’s fish, Borden, thirty-two and still in university, made thorough post-mortem arrangements for her own watery pets. “Debbie’s need to know that Dominick’s fish were going to good homes had a profound effect on me. I’ve asked my partner to think about what will happen to my fish if I can’t take care of them.”

Clean, purge, sell off, or recycle all you want, but remember that nothing is truly disposable. The concept of disposability is itself false, a convenient conceit. It all ends up somewhere.

Responsible people recognize this and make plans. To truly cherish something is to acknowledge that that cherished thing has meaning with or without you—even if (or perhaps especially when) this acknowledgement creates a kind of preservation anxiety for yourself or others. Accepting that objects (or life forms, like fish, so unlike ourselves that we consider them near-objects) have power is not sentimental—it’s practical. To pretend otherwise diminishes everything you’ve lived for.

R.M. Vaughan
RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist.