I don’t like fish as pets. I don’t really like fish as food for that matter.
Despite my lack of fish fondness, I couldn’t help but be excited the other night when I watched our dented Ping-Pong balls bounce into the tiny fish-bowls of colored water at the fair. I had purchased a plastic hat of balls for 2yo because he loves nothing more than to throw things at other things. I figured, even if he doesn’t win a fish, he still gets to throw things and keep the hat, so it’s a win-win situation.
Halfway through his 20-something batch of balls, he loudly declared, “I not wanna pay dis game anymore!” Smart parents would have handed over the remaining balls and walked away. Not us, of course. After all, we spent $5 on that hat of balls and they were going to get thrown. Jim’s first ball sailed through the air and bounced squarely into a bowl of red water – because of course it did. We went through the rest of the balls until there was one left. I offered it to 2yo who insisted that I throw it, so I nonchalantly tossed it at the table. It plopped into another bowl and we were now two fish richer and $5 poorer than we had been just 15 minutes earlier.
At that point, 8yo returned from her sky ride excursion with her grandfather and wanted to play as well. Already burdened with fish, we gave her $2 for a small bowl. She’s usually terrible at this game, but three balls into her turn she also won a fish. It was a shiny gold color (not the typical orange) and she named it Bubbles. 2yo named my fish after himself and Jim refused to name his. So, with our stroller cup holders full of fish, we moved on.
For the remainder of the evening, I reminded both kids (especially 8yo) that carnival-game fish generally don’t survive very long and it’s possible that some or all of them could be dead by morning.
“I know” she said. “Besides, I already have a fish.” This is true, because she has a beta fish in her bedroom that absolutely refuses to die. I’m sending it to college with her.
By morning, one fish (Jim’s unnamed one that 8yo had lovingly monikered “no-name”) had already kicked the bucket, but Bubbles and 2yo’s namesake were still kicking. We ran some errands and returned home a short while later. 8yo was first in the house and ran back outside with tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Bubbles is dead!”
Ironically, we had just picked up a cheap fishbowl starter kit at the store for our remaining fish. Since 2yo’s fish was still kicking, I scooped out the two dead fish from the jar they had been in overnight and prepped the bowl for our survivor. Once the still-living fish was settled in his new home, we took the two dead fish in a cup to the bathroom for a quick funeral.
The entire time, 8yo had remained stoic despite her disappointment. She knew the deal – fish die all the time. Unfortunately, the funeral ended up being more drawn out than anticipated when we got to the bathroom and realized the last person in there had forgotten to flush. I didn’t want to insult the dead fish by flushing them in someone’s pee, so I flushed the toilet before dropping them in. What I hadn’t expected was how long it would take for the bowl to refill before being able to flush it again. Those two dead fish swirled around in the slowly-filling bowl while 2yo jumped around yelling “tan I fush dem now?!” I watched as 8yo stared at the dead fish and I saw a clear understanding of mortality wash over her face. Tears began falling and, just as 2yo pulled the lever and the fish slipped away, the sobs came.
It was immediately apparent that this was about more than dead fish – it was about life and that moment in childhood we’ve all had when one realizes how finite it is. It brought back memories of lying in my darkened bedroom as a child sobbing over that fact that everyone I knew was going to die someday. “Oh honey…” I said as she ran out of the room.
I found her like this on the living room floor:
Sometimes, it just hurts. Most of the time we can protect ourselves from thinking about how small we are and how short our time is, but every now and then it surfaces. 8yo has been fortunate in her short life to not have lost anyone close, but she knows it’s coming one day. We snuggled on the couch and she cried it out. She recovered eventually and the rest of her day was fine.
We returned to that fair that night, but stayed far away from the fish game. As of this moment, 2yo’s new fishy friend is still alive and swimming high on a shelf in his bedroom: