By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
A few years ago, my husband Tom made a mistake. Without thinking through the consequences, he did something rash and now we’re both paying the price.
Our oldest son, Adam, was 6 at the time, and he asked his dad for a pet fish.
“You’re not really old enough yet to have a fish. You can have a fish when you’re 8,” Tom said, assuming the fish wish was just another passing fancy that would soon be forgotten.
Well, guess what? Six-year-olds have long memories. A week or so before Adam’s eight birthday earlier this month, he said “Remember when Dad said I could have a fish when I’m 8-years-old? I’m going to be 8 soon!”
So what’s a mom to do? The deal was done.
Before you get the wrong impression, let me just say I do not hate fish. In fact, I enjoy them quite a bit, particularly when they’re filleted, fried crispy and served with a side of hot hushpuppies.
But pet fish are another thing entirely. Yes, they’re pretty and soothing to watch, and I like the way the fish tank hums peacefully at night. But fish require maintenance – regular feedings and tank cleaning sessions. Sure, dogs and cats require maintenance, too, but fish can’t repay your efforts by curling up on your lap or wagging their tails when you come home.
There was no going back on the promise, however, so we bought a fish tank and wrapped it for Adam’s eighth birthday. He was thrilled when he opened it and could hardly wait to go to the store to pick out his pet fish. His brother and sister went along, too, and when they came home we were the proud owners of three fish – one fish per kid.
Once the fish tank was furnished with brightly colored gravel and a fake pirate ship, Tom released the three small fish into their new home. Their names are Fishy, Floppy and Ralph.
Floppy and Ralph seemed right at home from the minute they hit the water. But I was a little worried about Fishy, although I didn’t mention anything to Jack, his master. He seemed a little lethargic. He didn’t eat much, and he wouldn’t join in the fish games with his roommates. We supervised Adam when he fed the fish to make sure he didn’t overdo it, and we followed the tank set-up instructions to the letter.
But four days later, Jack came to me right before bedtime and said “Mom, something is wrong with Fishy! Come look!” Of course, I knew exactly what I’d see when we entered Adam’s room. Poor Fishy was lying on his side next to the pirate ship, eyes wide open and not a single fin was flinching. He was gone.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he sleeping? Or is he… dead?” Jack asked, his voice breaking on that last word while the tears welled up in his eyes.
I couldn’t bear it. I rushed him out of the room and into his bed. “Let Dad take a look at Fishy, and we’ll figure out what’s wrong with him, okay?”
I gave Jack a few books to look at while Tom and I whispered to each other in the hallway. Briefly, I considered sending Tom to Wal-Mart on an emergency fish-run to buy a twin to the dear departed Fishy. I was pretty sure Jack wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But then we agreed that, if fish were going to be a part of the household, the kids would have to learn that sometimes fish pass on to the great aquarium in the sky.
So we broke the sad news to Jack, and he cried and I cried with him – not as much over missing Fishy but because I can’t forever keep grief from touching my kids’ lives. He cried himself to sleep that night.
The next day we told Jack he could pick out a new fish and give him a name. “But I like the name of my first fish,” he objected. So we settled on a compromise, and soon Ralph and Floppy welcomed their new roommate named “Fishy 2,” a small Tetra with a neon blue stripe. So far, he’s proving to be a much healthier sequel to the original Fishy.
Ralph, who belongs to Adam, is a pale red fish who looks like he’s on steroids. He’s so fat that I’m certain he’s eating the majority of the fish food. If he keeps this up, he’ll probably be able to bench press the pirate ship soon. And Floppy is a bright yellow fish who is happy to chase Ralph around the tank all day long.
Part of me wishes Tom had never made that promise two years ago, as I know they’ll be more fish funerals to come over the years and tears to go with them. But the other part of me knows that it’s always a good thing for kids to love another living thing and care for it, even if, at some point, they have to learn to say goodbye.
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I so feel your pain (and Adam’s, too). We lost two cats, a fish and a frog – more than I ever could have imagined losing in a year’s time. With each loss, I considered sheltering my little guy from the pain – but just like you, I decided I wouldn’t be doing him any favors if I hid the sad fact that all pets leave us at some point and that death is just an unfortunate fact of life. I think, in some ways, teaching them these things may be harder on us than it is on them.