It was the summer of 2008 and I was at home with the 2 year old firefighter and the 4 week monkey and I thought to myself “you know what we really need to lessen my workload and hasten my c-section recovery?”
In a moment of “let’s distract the two year old with a shiny object (aka, a fish)” I headed to Petsmart with the boys and let the firefighter choose his very first pet. He named his Betta fish (a male) Trissy. To this day, we have no idea where the name came from. For the next two years Trissy occupied the counter in our main floor powder room, which meant that not only did I have two small children as company every time I wanted to use the washroom, I had a fish swimming circles nearby.
The more the merrier.
When we moved last summer Trissy survived a jostling car ride to our new house and perked up quite a bit upon arrival in his new abode: no more dark and dreary powder room for this ‘exceeding life span expectations’ fish. Oh no, this time he moved up in the world – all the way to the kitchen counter. Hustle, bustle, and sunshine.
At the ripe old age of three Trissy welcomed a new member to our family (keep in mind he survived the arrival of our kitten the year before): a blue Betta named Larry. The monkey, at the age of 3, got to choose his first pet and he chose his own fish whom he named Larry, which is the name he bestows upon every person, animal, and inanimate object resembling a living thing. Larry moved into his own tank next door to Trissy and after a brief episode of frantic circling and posturing, was moved to the other end of the counter.
And life, with sporadic cleaning and feedings, continued.
The firefighter noticed that Trissy was no longer swimming. In fact he was laying nose up in his tank, un-moving. Had we discovered Trissy there’s a slim chance we may have done a midnight switch-a-roo with a doppelganger Betta but the former grief-counsellor in me has a hard time skirting the issue of death, even with my five-year old.
I can hear the snickering of seasoned parents all over the world. Because you know this is going to end badly.
This is not the first time the topic of death has been dealt with in our home. Two years ago a family member died very unexpectedly and through tears we had to explain to the three year old firefighter that someone he adored had died. I can tell you that no amount of professional experience prepares you for that moment. I called a former colleague at 7:30 in the morning sobbing and had her walk me through what I needed to do because when its your own family, everything you know gets lost in the sadness.
In January our dog was euthanized after we received a diagnosis of un-treatable bladder cancer and the firefighter was heartbroken.
So I felt prepared for the death of our fish even though it was sad because he’s been a constant fixture in our lives for the last three years and quite frankly the least demanding (and least expensive) of all our family members. Just $8 in fish food a year and a quick tank swish when murky water appeared.
The firefighter seemed non-nonplussed when we explained that Trissy was neither sleeping nor playing hide-and-seek with Larry. He was dead. He was old, in fish years, and his body stopped working. And no, if we brought him to the river, he wouldn’t just swim away with the other fishes. In our non-denominational, non-religious household there is no heaven or ‘better place’. And in spite of my ‘age-appropriate honesty is the best policy’ when it comes to death we’ve avoided talk of cremation so in the firefighter’s mind Trissy needed to return to the earth from which he came.
Of course all this happened as I was standing in the driveway, one foot in my best friends car, ready to hit the town with my girlfriends. But there were no tears and only a matter-of-fact “okay he died” and so I headed out and we left Trissy in his tank for visitation purposes.
The next morning we reminded the firefighter that we needed to say goodbye to Trissy and the mask of acceptance fell away. We let him make the decisions, through his tears. He wanted Trissy buried in something, not just in the ground, so he decorated an envelope with rainbows and bright colours. He wanted him buried under the tree in the backyard and wanted a rock on top so he could remember where he was.
I delicately scooped Trissy out of his tank and placed him on a piece of paper towel while the firefighter sat at the kitchen table, back turned towards me, decorating the envelope. There was some suspicious black ‘scunge’ in the tank and so I thought it best to check on Larry’s tank to ensure we wouldn’t suffer another untimely (black) fishy death.
Larry was doing swimmingly, so swimmingly in fact, that he slid right out his tank, right past the awaiting fish-holding container, and into the sink as I attempted to get his tank ready for cleaning. And then, spoon in hand in a frantic attempt to retrieve his flopping body, he slid right down the drain.
You have no idea how badly I wish I was kidding. There ‘s no ‘ha…gotcha!’ to this story.
My husband always warned me to put the plug in the drain before I cleaned the fish tanks.
I cheerily finished cleaning Larry’s bowl and returned it to the counter, informing the firefighter he’d gone inside his little rock house because he was sad about Trissy. Because at this point screw honesty; blatant lies were required to salvage this day.
After Trissy was placed in his final resting place the firefighter sat in my lap on the patio and cried and I thought to myself “to hell with honest parenting we should have just switched the damn fish and praised a miraculous overnight recovery”
Because at the end of the day we ended up at PetSmart anyways, buying the closest Larry look-alike we could find and sneaking it back into our house hidden in bags. Forget gradual integration for optimal fish health; Larry 2 was dumped unceremoniously into his tank with the lid slammed shut behind him, right next door to Trissy 2, chosen carefully by the firefighter ‘so we’ll never forget Trissy and how much we loved him’.
And my desire for parental honesty at all costs went down the drain right behind Larry.