When a Fish Dies at the Children’s Hospital and Other Thoughts on Prayer

Or, What a Dying Fish Reminded Me about God

Sarah Condon / 5.26.20

Right now, there are few places with as much contrast as a children’s hospital. Our son, who has broken his arm twice this year, had an appointment last week to get his cast taken off.

This second time around has been harder. The bone was not healing as quickly as it had last fall. There was talk of potentially having to do surgery. Also, he had been in a cast for 12 weeks, and we were all worried about what his arm would even look like. Frankly, when he was recasted at 6 weeks they told us that I might have to cut the cast off at home by myself. Like the Civil War. So, I suppose we should have been relieved to even be getting professional medical attention right now.

Children’s hospitals are typically lush with an optimistic spirit. There are windows everywhere, the walls are brightly painted, and all of the employees seem to be endlessly cheerful. But there was something different about this visit. There were the masks and the temperature taking. I had to open up my phone and sign a legal document to even go inside. Employees stood at elevators to push buttons and only allow families on together. It had the eerie feeling of everyone being scared of themselves and everyone being scared of everyone else. Between the two broken arms, we have spent a lot of time at this children’s hospital over this past year. It is normally a really comforting place. But no one is comfortable in a hospital in May of 2020.

When we finally got up to the orthopedic waiting room I felt another surge of panic. There was a massive plexiglass wall between us and the kind people who work the admissions desk. And they were in masks. It reminded me a bit of prison. Many of the waiting room chairs had been taped off to encourage social distancing. My son immediately pointed out that the television was not even on. This is usually the one distracting comfort we can count on in a medical waiting room. I have no idea why that was deemed not okay. I could only guess that they wanted to discourage people from sitting down.

But I remembered something special. At the back of the waiting room there are two fish tanks full of tropical fish. We love fish in our family. When my panic-stricken child noticed that cartoons were not an option I said, feeling like a pretty decent mom, “Let’s go look at the fish!”

They were magnificent. All sorts of shapes and sizes. There was a really big one with giant saucer eyes who we deemed “cute.” And then my son whispered, “Mama, I think that one is dying.”

In the far corner of the tank there was a small, thin, bioluminescent streaked fish. He was beautiful. And he was actually dying. He kept limping along on his side. The other fish would gather around, one would nip at him, and then he would flounder through the water a few inches away and fall onto his side. It was tragic to watch.

I half-heartedly turned to my child and said, “Do you want to pray for the fish?” Before I even finished the sentence his head was bowed and his eyes were closed and his hands were clasped together.

I prayed that the fish would die quickly and that his fellow fish would leave him alone. I prayed that he would not be in too much pain and that he would find comfort in God’s care.

Over the past few months, churches around the world have had to put so much effort into making sure people feel connected and encouraged. While all of this is culturally necessary, it also feels slightly off-balance. There is a contrast between our “encouraging” spirit and the way we feel at 11pm on a TueWedThursday night. We have to acknowledge this as Christians. We collectively look like the nurse my son saw at the hospital that day. She was exhausted, donning both a mask and a Disney-themed name tag with the character Joy on it. It is hard to feel genuine about encouraging people in the face of fear and death.

Prayer can certainly be a way to encourage. But it is more than that. It is a way of acknowledging the contrast between the way things are and the way we wish things were. It is an honest request for mercy and redemption offered in the face of death to the Merciful Redeemer. It is the feeble plea of a mother and son on behalf of a tiny fish. Because we know that God cares for even the littlest of life. And we find our comfort there.