Kids, pets, and death. They just go together.
Kind of depressing. I know.
I think every child needs a pet. They can be emotionally comforting—the pets, I mean (and, children can too). They can provide solace when people can’t (again, the pets, and, I guess, children too). And, they (yes, pets, once again) can help a child better understand the death of a loved one. Or, they can be the dead loved one (most definitely pets, hopefully not children). It’s that latter one—the pet—that this story involves.
Like most children do, mine wanted a pet. We all wanted a dog. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that having a dog would be good for any of us. We had a small toddler, Cindy was working full time, I was going to school full time, the place we were renting was a two-bedroom… we had three children… in one room… You could call it cramped, we called it cozy. It wasn’t cramped until we had the fourth child. No space. No time. No dog. So there.
But, I digress… Anyway, there came a time when Cindy and I felt we (her, me, the children) could handle a cat. Cats are relatively self-sufficient and don’t really require much. (but they do… they really do… I think I’m overdoing it on the ellipsis… what are you gonna do…?) So, we got a cat. It had special problems. It was deaf. It drooled. It had an underbite. Its tongue would kinda hang out—thus the drool. And, its eyes were two different colors. Not that both eyes had two colors in them. No. Each eye was a different color from the other eye. It also liked to jump into the bathtub—when it was full of water—when our children took their baths, and then it would walk about the tub. It was a weird cat.
Due to some problems, that cat needed to be put down. So, it was.
When we moved into our house, my oldest child received two kittens for pets. Sadly, one died a few days after we brought it home. We found out the whole litter had been sick and died. So, now we were down to one kitten. The deal was supposed to be that when she moved out (my daughter, not the cat), the cat(s) would go with her (the cat, not the… er, wait… yeah, that’s right). Well, my wife and daughter conspiratorially conspired to stab me in the back and they gave the cat to my youngest daughter on her birthday (the daughter’s birthday, not the cat’s). Now, the cat is still here. In my home. With us. I don’t like cats. But, I got the cat(s) because, like I said before: I think every child needs a pet.
Several years ago we were able to get a dog. He was the greatest dog. Porthos was a great friend. He cared for the family and really made the kids feel good. It still hurts when I think about him. He was a good dog. The best dog. Sorry, I need to move on.
So, anyway, before all that. Before the cats and our dog. Oh, I forgot about the turtles. Oh, the turtles… We once had four red-eared sliders. The children took pretty good care of them. Eventually, though, as some kids do, ours become tired of taking care of them. It’s not easy to play with turtles. Also, it’s not easy to explain to a five-year-old child—and expect them to fully comprehend—that that turtle will still be there when they come home from college (the child, not the turtle). Yeah. After about ten years of turtle sitting, they moved to a good home (the turtles, not the children).
Also, with the turtles, four had died. One was eaten by the other three. Apparently, when turtles are young, some are more carnivore than herbivore, and then, when they are older, it goes the other way. Yeah. With the first four, two had died, and one had been mostly eaten by the other three—as already mentioned. So, then we got two more because, well, you need to have four turtles. And, if you don’t know why you need four turtles, watch a movie or two, or more, or any number of animated or live-action television shows. Hopefully, you’ll figure it out. If not…
Okay, so, let’s go back before all those other pets. Back to when my firstborn, Sarah, first wanted a pet. Back to when a goldfish would do. But, not a goldfish.
Fish are pretty simple. They swim. Sure they poop and pee in the water… You know what, never mind that. So, yeah, the goldfish. My daughter wanted a pet. Cindy and I couldn’t handle much more than a fish and children, so, a fish. A goldfish. Except, goldfish are boring. Very boring. And they die. Easily. And a lot. Frequently.
We got a beta fish. It had cool colors. It only needs a small space. It is fun to look at. Not like some stupid orange goldfish. No, sir. We got a beta! Sarah named him Mr. Goldfish. Of course. What else?
Mr. Goldfish came home with us and he lived for a good long while. I want to say about a year, maybe less. Anyway, it was long enough that when it died it was mildly traumatic for our daughter. So, whaddya you do? You get another Mr. Goldfish. Sure. Why not? That’s how life works, right? Grandma dies, you simply get another one. Makes total sense, right? No. But you can still get another fish. So, we did. Another Mr. Goldfish. He died. It was sick. He lived with us for less than a week. Poop.
Back to the story. Another Mr. Goldfish. Which, was okay—in a way. The second Mr. Goldfish looked nothing like the first one. The first one was blues with red. The second one was reds with black. The third one was much more like the first. As I type this, I realize that it may seem like my wife and I were trying to pull a fast one on our daughter. Like, “Oh shoot, dear. It’s dead. What do we do?” “Quick run to the store and get another one while I flush this one. She’ll never know.” That’s not how it went. It was more like, “Mr. Goldfish is dead, sweety.” “Can I get another one?” “Sure. Let’s go pick one out.” We’re not monsters.
By the third one, we had a system. We had done a ton of research. We had tried all kinds of tricks and things to keep the fish healthy. We added stuff to the water. We had a little thermal temperature gauge on the bowl to help us regulate Mr. Goldfish’s water temperature. We bought special food. That fish was on easy street. It really was. Turns out, Easy Street was a Dead End.
To this day I still don’t understand it. It was a normal day. I was cleaning Mr. Goldfish’s bowl. We had put Mr. Goldfish into another bowl of room-temperature water—with his stress enzyme added (it helped destress him, not stress him out. it was meant to help the fish, not hurt him. I can’t stress this enough). I cleaned the rocks and plants. Rinsed them. Rerinsed them. Then, rinsed them, again-again. They were clean. The bowl was clean. New water was added. The temperature was watched and regulated, carefully. Very carefully. The stress enzyme was added. Everything was normal. It was all fine. It really was. Except, somehow, it wasn’t.
I picked up the bowl that Mr. Goldfish was using as temporary housing. I gently tipped it over, so that he could spill into his freshly cleaned watery home. Then, Mr. Goldfish did something I have never seen any fish do. He began to swim (yes, I know fish swim, but, not like this). Mr. Goldfish shot to the bottom of his bowl and then began to swim in circles. His loops were like a Ferris wheel, going up and down, around and around. Not side to side like a merry-go-round. As he did this, he went faster and faster. Mr. Goldfish was doing a trick? Maybe? Then, on his last upward arc, Mr. Goldfish stopped swimming. At the three-quarter mark of the loop, you could see it. All just momentum now.
At the apex of that last circle, Mr. Goldfish began to sink. As he began to drift down to the bottom of the bowl. The freshly churned waters caused his body to drift back and forth… like a pendulum whose time was up. Wafting on the breeze of water waves that he, himself, had just made. Mr. Goldfish hit bottom only to rise back to the surface because that’s what the dead bodies of pet fish do.
“Sarah, Mr. Goldfish just died. Again.”
We have only ever had fish in our home again when they are battered, in stick form, and with plenty of tartar sauce.