On All Hallows Eve, under cover of darkness, Terry, Max, and I conducted a short — but touching — funeral for a fly.
It… wasn’t how I had expected to spend the evening of Halloween, tbh.
The fly, however, had come into our lives the day before, having apparently passed away at some point during Max’s after school club.
“Quick heads up,” said one of the other mums, when I saw her in the car park, on my way to collect Max. “I’m pretty sure you’re bringing a dead fly home tonight. Max is very attached to it.”
Sure enough, as soon as I walked into the room the club is held in I saw Max huddled in a corner, surrounded by concerned onlookers, and crouched over what turned out to be a small pink shrine to what was very obviously a deceased fly:
“I don’t think there’s much that can be done for him, Max,” I said carefully, once Max had tearfully explained that he wanted to keep him forever. “I think this fly is… well, no longer alive.”
“He is!” said Max, lower lip trembling ominously. “He’s alive! We need to take him home and look after him.”
I learned forward and pretended to examine the patient, who was, sadly, unresponsive. His vital signs were… look, I don’t actually watch hospital dramas, OK? He was dead, is what I’m trying to say. I knew it. Carol-Anne, who runs the after school club, knew it. I’m pretty sure Max knew it too, actually. But, for reasons known only to himself, he was determined not to admit it.
For a long moment, the three of us stood looking down at the dead fly on his bed of cotton wool. There was a strip of green card attached to the shrine. “Pia” it said, in Max’s handwriting.
“Pia!” I said brightly. “That’s a nice name for a fly!”
“Thats’ not his name, Mummy,” said Max, looking at me as if I was the one trying to argue a deceased insect back to life. “It’s what you write on gravestones.”
“Oh! I think you mean R.I.P.,” I said. “That means—”
“It’s PIA, Mummy,” said Max. “PIA. Can we take him home now?”
By this point, a slightly larger crowd had gathered, and I was starting to feel like I was in the “Dead Parrot” sketch from Monty Python. “I know a dead fly when I see it!” I wanted to shout. “And this is an EX-FLY!”
I knew that saying this would be to risk more tears, however (From Max, I mean, not from me. I hardly ever cry in public these days…), so I picked up the shrine and carefully carried it out to the car.
At home, I placed it on the kitchen worktop, and Terry and I tried to gently explain to Max that his little friend hadn’t made it, and that the best thing we could do for him now would be to lay him to rest. Outside. And ideally without the cardboard shrine thing.
“He still has his wings,” said Max, who’d been awake since 5am that morning, and was now paying the emotional price. “So he’s fine.”
There was to be no reasoning with him that night; he was emotionally invested in this fly in a way I was completely unequipped to deal with — especially given that I, too, had been awake since 5am that morning, when Max had come into the bedroom to ask if it was time to get up yet.
There were tears. There were tantrums. There… was absolutely no way we could just get rid of the damn thing without it causing untold levels of trauma, so we put The Fly to one side, hoping things would seem clearer in the morning.
“Maybe he could make a miraculous ‘recovery’,” I suggested, hopefully, once Max was in bed. “And fly away in the night, never to be seen again? That would be the easiest thing to do.”
Would it be the right thing, though, we wondered? Should we lie to our child, and allow him to believe the fly had, indeed, risen from the dead? Or would that just be setting him up for future heartache, and us up for yet more difficult questions about Jesus when Christmas rolled around again?
“Look, Max,” I said the next morning, deciding to tackle the issue head-on. “The fly hasn’t moved. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Of COURSE, I do, Mummy,” said Max, doing a credible impression of a snarky 15-year-old. “I still want to keep him, though, OK?”
He went to school. He came home. We went trick-or-treating. Then his friend Lincoln came round to trade sugary treats, and I decided it was time the fly left the building.
“OK, boys,” I said briskly, carrying the insect shrine over to where they were sitting gorging themselves on their Trick of Treat spoils, while watching You Tube videos about The Titanic. “The fly is going outside now.”
I’d like to think it was my no-nonsense approach to this that worked where all else had failed, but I’m pretty sure it was just the sugar. Either way, though, this time Max put up no protest, and he and his friend came to stand next to the shrine, both respectfully silent.
“Would you like to say a few words”?” I asked, wondering if I should maybe give them a few lines of Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night or something. “To say goodbye?”
“Goodbye, Fly,” said Max, solemnly.
“Goodbye, Fly,” said Lincoln, who had only just met the fly, and yet who seemed to have instinctively understood its significance to his friend.
And then we took the body outside, and, well, I’ll be honest with you, I put it in the bin. Because it was freezing, and pitch dark. And also because it was a fly.
As far as Max is concerned, however, the fly lies buried in the corner of the garden closest to the sandpit, and near the fairy lantern. He intends to visit him there often, he told me that night. He… hasn’t mentioned it since.
I’m still not sure if this was the right way to handle this. I mean, it was just a fly. I’m sure a lot of people would argue that it’s ridiculous for even a child to feel sad about the death of a fly, and that we shouldn’t have humored Max in this outpouring of emotion over it. Then again, earlier this week I saw a lot of people arguing that it was ridiculous to feel sad about the death of Matthew Perry: an actual human, who, they claimed, we should not feel anything for, because we did not know him, and there are far worse things in the world than the death of some actor from an ancient TV show.
(As a side note, I’m always fascinated by all these internet people who are apparently only capable of caring about one thing at a time, and have a strict hierarchy of which things should be cared about. I mean, how wild is that?!)
Now, I’m not for a second comparing the death of a human to the sad loss of Max’s pet fly, may he PIA. I mean, I hope to God that goes without saying. But, online, it was depressingly obvious that some people do think like that about the deaths of those they don’t know, or deem “unimportant” in the oft-quoted ‘great scheme of things’.
On Mumsnet, for instance (Which, granted, isn’t a particularly good example of empathy), every thread that was started on the subject was quickly filled with sneering responses from people claiming never to have heard of Matthew Perry, and telling anyone who dared to be upset by his death that they obviously need to get out more. “You don’t even know him,” they said in a ‘gotchya’ tone. “Seriously, who cares?”
Like a lot of you, though, I’m of a generation for whom Friends is a very particular cultural reference point; almost like a shared language whereby you know that if you use the word “pivot”, say, in a sentence, everyone around you will instantly yell back, “PIVOTTTT!” And then you’ll all laugh, and know you have found your people.
In discussions with my own friends about whether we were a Monica, a Rachel, or a Phoebe, meanwhile, I’d always secretly think I was probably a Chandler: not on account of the razor-sharp wit, or hilarious one-liners, sadly, but simply because Chandler was so intensely awkward that literally everything was more difficult for him. “Hi, I’m Chandler,” he once said. “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable.” And I felt that in my soul, you know?
Remember The One With the Blackout, when Chandler was trapped in an ATM vestibule with a Victoria’s Secret model, and found he was literally unable to behave normally around her? That’s me. Not around Victoria’s Secret models specifically, you understand, but just around… well, people, really.
I know Matthew Perry wasn’t Chandler, of course. Chandler Bing (Or Chanandler Bong, as I like to think of him…) lives on, in 236 episodes of Friends, almost all of which I’ve seen multiple times now, and could quote large pieces of dialogue from without even thinking about it. And I think that’s why this celebrity death feels maybe a little more personal to some of us, even though we feel like we have to qualify our sadness by saying things like, “I never normally get like this over celebrity deaths!” and “Of course I also feel sad about all of the other, much worse, things that are happening in the world!”
But I guess we feel the way we feel, whether it be about flies, celebrities, or any of the other things we humans are capable of feeling about things. Sometimes we feel all the things at once, that’s OK, too; especially when you’re five, but also when you’re… well, a bit older than that.
So,PIA, Matthew Perry. (And PIA, Fly.)
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