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What Really Happened to That Goldfish?

The cover of 'The Goldfish Went on Vacation'

How do you tell your 3-year-old son that his father, your husband, is dying of brain cancer? The short answer is you can't — but you must. And so you do, and somehow you endure. That is the major lesson learned, and now taught, by Patty Dann in her brief, touching memoir about loss and what comes after.

Through a collage of deftly told vignettes, Dann — best known as author of Mermaids, the novel on which Cher's hit movie was based — chronicles with necessarily dark irony the nightmare mutation of a gently learned husband who was fluent in multiple languages to a man whose brain could no longer remember the purpose of a paper clip. She takes her title from the weasely way another mother explained the far lesser loss of a pet goldfish to her 4-year-old: "The goldfish went on vacation." Determined to tell the truth, but unsure how to comfort her son (let alone herself), Dann turned to Sallie Sanburn, a children's therapist who is an expert in issues of trauma and loss. Sanburn's basic message: Honesty is the only policy.

Out of a family tragedy, Dann has created a book to help others live. But the most incisive lessons come from Dann's son. "How come Grandpa got to be 94 and Dad was only 50?" the child asks, before responding to his own question: "I think sometimes God runs out of numbers."

Diane Cole is author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report.

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Diane Cole