Our fish died last week. It is especially embarrassing to admit in the wake of his death that, at first, we didn’t really want him.
Three years ago when our babysitter, who was graduating from college and leaving the area, asked if we’d be interested in taking her fish I said, without any reservations, “No, thanks.” It wasn’t that taking care of a small, iridescent blue and purple betta fish would require so much work. It was that it felt like caring for a four year old, a baby who rarely slept, and ourselves pushed the limits of our capacities. It was only recently that we’d killed all but a single sprig of a low-maintenance houseplant through pure neglect. We were not people who needed more.
“I’ve looked into taking him with me on the plane out West, but it’s just really complicated,” she said.
Living in a college town you hear the horror stories of dogs left locked in closets, pets abandoned outside the pet store, and much worse done by probably well meaning, but clearly clueless and immature students. Here she was researching the options to bring a $3, three year old fish home with her.
I immediately said yes.
We grew used to having Freddy around, even fond of him. It was as soothing to watch him swish and swirl as he swam in circles as it was terrifying to find him napping inside his ceramic shark, when only his tail, flopped out flat and perfectly still, was visible.
At the kids’ insistence I made him a tiny Christmas stocking while they constructed a faux mantle to hang behind his bowl. The girl went through a phase when she kissed his bowl every morning and night. They argued feverishly about who would get to place the grey rocks back in the bowl during water changes.
Admittedly there were times when his water got cloudy before it was changed and a meal was missed here and there, but that wasn’t any worse than the kids fared with missed washings and yogurt occassionally passing for dinner. It was hard to tell what Freddy thought about the whole thing, but he kept living, which we took as a good sign.
Because he was a betta fish beyond his prime, I had be preparing for his death pretty much since he came to live with us. Before leaving for Uruguay we told the kids that chances were good he would be dead before we got home. 365 days was a long time for a fish. He wasn’t dead. Our neighbors had managed to nurse him through the polar vortex in a poorly heated house.
In the end, like it almost always does, death caught us off balance. There was no chance to prepare the kids with pep talks about mortality, the circle of life, or of flesh eventually turning into the dirt that feeds life. One morning last week there was just a dead fish in a bowl.
The kids were sad, but quickly practical. “All animals die,” said the boy to his sister. “We’ll die someday because we’re animals, too.” The girl now calmly points to the empty bowl stowed on a shelf and informs visitors that Freddy is not in it because he’s dead. Then, because she is three, she will lie down on the ground and pretend she too is dead. When she pretends to be dead she also asks that you put her in the freezer, which is a story for another time.
What are you supposed to do with an aquatic pet when they die? The kids had opinions about his funeral arrangements, but neither of them wanted any part in the actual internment. I buried Freddy in the backyard and covered the spot with a couple of bricks to deter the neighborhood cats from making a late night snack of him.
And then I cried. Not the tears of gasping, gulping grief, but a misty sadness of saying goodbye to something we hadn’t wanted, but ended up loving; and a creature we kept alive and healthy at a time when we thought we couldn’t.