Fishes and Little Girls
"Yup, he's a goner." And so begins my personal top ten list of things never to say to a crying child.
Mary came into my office last night, eyes and sniffly nose red from crying, and informed me that Diamond was floating. Diamond is one of three goldfish purchased with her saved-up allowance earlier this week, along with their bowl, food, and other necessities. After the death of our cat Lucy last year, Mary hounded us mercilessly for a new pet, and a few fish seemed a little more practical than her other oft-repeated wish (a horse).
Diamond was a feeder goldfish, and she (he?) cost twenty-eight cents. I made the mistake of forgetting that when you're eight, a pet that costs less than a candy bar can still be deeply valued. Diamond was selected specifically for the contrast between her pearlescent white body and the vivid splotch of fiery orange on the top of her head, and I will readily agree that for a feeder goldfish, she was quite pretty.
Unfortunately, last night she was also quite buoyant, and this is never a good sign when you're a fish. She was still "breathing", or whatever it is that fish do, but she was not a happy fish. Mary was optimistic, though, and over the next hour as I got the kids ready for bed and tucked Peter in, she delivered regular progress reports. She would drag herself wearily into the room, slump against the door frame, and say, "I don't think she's going to make it" before making a dramatic, tearful exit. Five minutes later, she would come bounding back, her tearstained face glowing with the wonder of a true miracle, and proclaim, "She swam all the way across the top of the bowl! She's going to live! I just know she is!"
Upon further examination, though, I realized that Diamond's progress had less to do with healing than with Mary's aggressive approach to nursing. Not too surprisingly, if you jostle a fish's bowl, it will move from one side to the other, and if you poke it repeatedly in the side, it will momentarily overcome even catastrophic illness to attempt escape below the surface. Optimism aside, it did not look good for Diamond.
After biting my tongue and mentally slapping my forehead over my first callous diagnosis, I continued to alternately commiserate and rejoice with Mary over the course of the evening. I had to balance it with at least a small dose of reality, though ... I've had fish before, and this behavior is usually not (as she theorized) a piscine attempt to learn to float just like people do. I didn't want to completely quell her hope, and I also didn't want to be embarrassed the next morning by a fully recovered Diamond swimming around the bowl. But the prognosis wasn't good, and she needed to know that.
The next morning, the worst was confirmed: Diamond had gone to the Great Fishbowl in the Sky. Mary cried, retrieved the fish from the bowl, and we discussed interment options. After debating the merits of a spot in the yard, she settled on the more traditional "burial at sea". We moved the ceremony to the bathroom, and Mary's tears flowed again as she held the tiny body between her fingers, stroked its fishy little head, and sobbed, "I'll never forget you, Diamond." She consigned it to the deep, cried a little more, and flushed.
As it swirled around and around the toilet bowl, Mary emitted an unexpected giggle. "I hope she knew the Fish God." I had to laugh, but my heart ached for her all over again, for the silly little 28-cent fish, for the memories of the cat buried under a patch of tulips in the back yard, and for the many times in her future when she will have to say good-bye to animals who have enriched her life, even if only for three days.
I responded, with a perfectly clear conscience, "Yes, love ... I'm pretty sure God takes care of the fish," and finished silently, "and of the little girls too."