I was deeply touched and comforted when following my mother’s death, a connected series of encounters with fish in general and koi in particular occurred. The art direction and style of rendering or materials varied a lot. Sometimes it was watercolor, sometimes sculpture, sometimes koi appreared as decoration on a restaurant menu or a door pull. More recently, they were a pair of koi plates loaded with cookies.

The book Moby Dick found its way into my reading list, and a show at one of my favorite museums was dedicated to Melville’s book. I met a member of a women’s art collective called La Balleine and went to visit the monument created in the 1950s they had helped to restore. Sometimes I had the experience of seeing a “symbolic signficance” with live fish.

These encounters with fish that were more than fish had an effect of stopping time and filling me up with a sense of wonder and rendered a little awestruck. Encounters with watery worlds just multiplied, and I still wonder whether I conjured them up or they came “swimming” to me.

Each time I would encounter this reoccurring sign it was for me like a present left in this case a bit anonymously at my gate. It felt like a gift from some wise source. In my grieving my mother, having this series of “contacts” seemed a privilege that I deserved for having an open mind and for accepting that these things can happen and do. It was a bright spot because it was a way for me to stay connected to her.

The symbol was a sign I guess I felt that I was not alone. This was healing in itself. Though it was also a game of sorts that I could engage in that tested out my belief system. It confirmed to me that though I was sad and mourning her I had not exhausted all ways of being with her. I had not entirely lost her. It was like I could tap into the lifetime of exchanges she and I had shared through this symbol. It was a simple gesture that might between two living people be instead a smile, a hand squeeze or blowing a kiss.

The first koi that presented itself to me was significant. My mother had painted a lily pond and had given the painting she had done many years before to my sister as a gift. Not long before she died, my sister had asked her to please add a koi to the painting. My mother had taken the painting home. She did not have a chance to paint in the koi. But, a few days after my mother died my brother had taken himself to the koi pond where she had painted and while he looked down he got a sense of knowing that she was with him. At that instant a koi came up to the surface of the water and he felt like this was our mother who had come to greet him. Of all the family members theirs was perhaps the strongest family bond. He looked up at the sky, he said, and uttered the words “Thanks, Mom.”

While this was happening in San Diego, I myself was up in the Bay Area clearing out a closet and found an item I was looking for and had given up hope of ever finding. It was a minor thing but felt at the time like a major coup. I felt like it was my mother who had directed me to it, and for some reason I, too, uttered the same words “Thanks, Mom” aloud. Then my brother called and told me the story of his speaking those same words out loud and his pleasant encounter with the koi. And he also then told the story of how my mother had been asked to add a koi to the painting of the lily pond. And so I entered a world of conjuring watery imagery in my personal reflections.

The reason I had been clearing out a closet is that we were moving to Paris. My mother’s death came about two weeks before we were set to fly to France for a year-long work sabbatical. I was concerned about going so far away from the location where we had all encircled my mother and where the life went out of her with her last breath at the hospital. I visualized this distance I was going as a kind of ripple like extension away from this moment of her death that I had witnessed with almost every close family member there. I was being carried far away from the zero point of that event and that geographic centerpoint. Before I left, as we were packing up our things I came across an origami fish and set it on a magazine scrap of a lotus pond I had found while packing the house. It remained there all year in storage like a little shrine.

It is often said when Americans go the Continent that they are going to cross the “pond.” For me, it seemed that my mother followed. She swam across the pond as a fish, maybe a koi, maybe she changed and shape shifted at will. She first let me know she was there as we made our way through the Asian exhibit at the San Francisco International Airport. In the last display case as we headed to our gate I caught sight of a ceramic plate adorned with two koi. In Paris, our apartment in the 11th Arrondissement was located near Le Poisson Bleu, an adorable little children’s craft workshop center. It was painted blue and had a whimsical goldfish logo. This ruelle became my favorite route out of our neighborhood.

We decided to get our daughter some art supplies at an art supply shop near our house one day. While my husband and daughter were hunting for the goods we came for, I had a sudden urgent need to go upstairs to the shop’s upper floor. There in the stairwell I came upon the store’s exhibit area. The painter was someone who had a fascination with koi, and each of the dozen or so works on display were of groups or individual koi. It struck me too when I saw the woman’s face: this seems like someone my mother would have immediately clicked with. I took down the woman’s website and looked her up online so I could stare at the koi when I wanted at home.

Koi showed up all over Paris and I still find them greeting me in galleries and on city sidewalks, in magazines and koi ponds. I recall that while my mother lay in her bed hooked up to life support in her last lucid moments, oxygen mask and all, I had brought my iPhone out and for some reason showed her photos of nudibrancs, the colorful slug-like creatures of the sea. I thought it would be an antidote to the hospital room to give her a quick look at the natural world she would not see again.

Maybe it had some effect on her last imprints of this world. Though, there really was no need for me to stock her mind with images of the sea. We had grown up five blocks from the Pacific Ocean, and we had been there when tide pools teemed with life. When you could stick your toes into sea anemones and identify cowries and fish native to this stretch of the coast.

My father is now writing a book based on underwater characters from the ocean as a tribute. The painting of the lily pond hangs on my sister’s wall (sans koi). I have come to think that koi are everywhere but mostly now they are there for me. Certainly so as each time I see them it is like I am witnessing a slow progression of images connected through time. Perhaps somehow curated by a very creative person. I have come to think of the author as my mother staring up at me like she did for my brother at the lily pond.

The koi is there, we just can’t always see it.

Katherine Relf-Canas 2012

Katherine Relf-Canas

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and other projects. She also volunteers for PSE, an NGO that runs a unique school in Cambodia that serves and supports children and families in poverty. She is now involved with the recently established American Friends of PSE. She has written for blogs and contributed to literary sites and parenting magazines since 1996. Katherine began writing about the healing power of art for this site in 2012, and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010.

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