Throughout high school and college, I’d been given many opportunities to test my hand at nurturing. I think it was then that I decided I should never have children. I recall a plant given to me once – one of those hard-to-kill types. I was delighted to see it live beyond the first week. When the second week went by and it was still green and full of life, I figured it was time to start celebrating some milestones. For every week that passed, I rewarded myself with a little shopping trip. It was my incentive to keep the thing watered and happy. I didn’t go all out, maybe a pair of shoes, a dress or some make-up. It was always just something little to keep me wanting more, which was ultimately good for the plant.
One afternoon while sitting at my computer, diligently doing my homework, I heard a noise coming from the other room. A faint rustling. A mouse? Creeped out, I padded to the living room and looked around, only to find nothing there. So I went back to what I was doing.
Sometime around midnight or so, I heard the noise again in my sleep. In case you’re wondering, I sleep like a black ops agent, so every noise wakes me. It stopped me in my tracks (wherever I was making tracks in dreamland). Though my spine tingled at the thought of what might be lurking in my dark apartment, I got up anyway to investigate. Grabbing a rolled up magazine, armed and ready to swat someone or something in the head like a fly, I headed for the living room. Nothing. What the hell is going on??
With hardly a wink of sleep that night, I scrambled out of bed the next morning to double check. There wasn’t a single shred of evidence to justify the noise. How maddening.
It wasn’t until about dinner time the next evening, when I sat down with my meager college-budget entrée of canned vegetables and salsa, that I noticed the noise again. Louder. A few of the leaves had fallen off of my plant, and lay strewn about on the floor. That’s strange. I picked them up and threw them into the pot. (I suppose I was thinking the leaves would make good compost, but I guess that’s kind of like someone throwing a pile of clipped toenails onto my bed at night while I slept).
The noise was awfully close to the plant, so I moved it out of the way, praying that I wouldn’t find a little critter; a discovery that I simply could not deal with like a mouse or a trapped squirrel flapping lifelessly in my heater vent. To my shock and horror, I found a pile of dried up leaves heaped behind the plant. It had been shedding all of this time, and I didn’t have a clue. Son of a bitch! You’ve been deceiving me all the while! I reached for one of the leaves and it easily broke, falling to the floor with the others. I shook the plant and more leaves fell. What the hell? Was this plant just making believe I was doing a good job? As I stood there, contemplating my failure, a blast of heat suddenly hit my shins. At the time, I lived in an apartment where heat and water was paid, so I kept the temp to 80 degrees, just because I could. Although I had been watering the thing every day, the heat had been effectively drying it out. No! Disappointed in myself again, I placed the tree out by the dumpster, hoping some aspiring greenthumb might pick it up and save its life. That was the end to my weekly shopping trips.
Four years later, I became pregnant with my oldest daughter. Needless to say, I was a little concerned. When the nurse handed her to me at discharge, I glanced up and asked, “Are you sure about this?”
She smiled. “You’ll be fine.”
And she was right, human babies are much easier to take care of than plants or animals. Who knew?
On my daughter’s third birthday, my husband and I decided to take on a little more responsibility, though I was completely nervous about the idea. We bought my daughter a fish.
I took the time to decorate the fish tank with little knickknacks, adorning the gravelly bottom with places to hide for those times I’d be inducing a stroke by chasing him with a big green net. Putting my skills to the test, I bought a tropical fish, instead of your run-of-the-mill, fifty-cent goldfishes.
There were so many variables that spelled trouble for me: the heat had to be at a certain temperature, the pH had to be right, the filter had to be efficient and the amount of food had to be just enough. This fish required more comforts than a diva on tour. But I managed to get my daughter from newborn to 3 years old, so I was willing to cater to this aquatic prima donna.
The fish did okay until one afternoon, while I was cleaning my daughter’s room, I noticed that he began to just sort of drift with the water current. Limp? Hard to tell on the other side of the glass. The only time he moved was when he managed to get pulled by the suction of the filter; flipping around the bottom of it for dear life to avoid being sucked into oblivion. I tapped on the glass. Was this some newfangled meditation exercise among tropical fish? He didn’t flinch and eventually made his way to the surface, where he flipped upside down; the universal signal for ‘this ain’t workin’ out.’
In a panic, I scooped him out of the water, thinking that a couple seconds closer to his last breath might force him to realize how much he enjoyed life. I dumped him back into the tank and he continued to float. Unmoving. Dead. Desperate to keep my daughter from making the discovery on her own, I plucked him from the tank and quickly flushed him down the toilet.
She didn’t seem to notice the huge, empty fish tank at first.
But when half the day went by, and I began feeling cocky and victorious, she approached me, innocently asking where her fishy went. The guilt was overwhelming. So I did what any parent would do in the same situation. I lied.
“Maybe he’s just hiding,” I said. It worked briefly, she ran back upstairs to see if that was the case.
When it was clear that he was not hiding, she returned.
“Well, maybe he buried himself under the rocks. Fish like to do that sometimes.” Like when their lifeless carcasses are being sucked into the gravel by the force of the filter system. This was too much. I had to do something. I couldn’t sit here and relive the moment over and over again, knowing that this was entirely based on my repeated failure to sustain life. I wasn’t interested in telling her that he’d kicked the bucket, subjecting myself to the incessant questions that would surely follow.
Goldie, as my daughter so appropriately named him, was a black and white speckled molly. While my husband kept her occupied that afternoon playing in the backyard, I hustled out to pick up another one. I arrived to the pet store, utterly distressed to find that there were no black and white speckled mollies left; only orange and white. “What the hell kind of fish store doesn’t have black and white mollies!” I grumbled, tossing my shopping basket into a stray cart as I stormed past the bewildered employees.
Luckily there was another pet store just down the road from the first. I suppose they remained competitive with one another thanks to people like me, who have a knack for encouraging animal suicide. I hastily grabbed a molly; took him home and without giving him the proper introduction into the water, still stagnant from the last corpse, I dumped him out of the plastic bag. Mission accomplished. I called to my daughter out in the backyard. “Hey! I found Goldie!”
In the middle of kickball, she ran to the house and up to her room, elated to find her beloved black and white fish swimming happily about. All was good again. I smiled at my husband who smiled back at me. It’s not easy being a parent, but sometimes you just pull it off.
The screams shattered my deep slumber the following morning as I awoke in alarm.
“Goldie isn’t swimming mommy. I think he’s sick!”
I looked to the ceiling and sighed. Why must you torment me so? OK it was time.
Reluctantly, I grabbed the net and scooped him up. She followed me to the bathroom in procession, asking, what are you doing? And where are you taking him? When we arrived at the porcelain casket, hardly recovering from its last punishment, I told her that just like her favorite movie, Nemo, this fishy wanted to go back to the ocean to be with his family. Tears welled in her eyes.
“What do you mean, mommy?”
Using the cartoon, I compared the fish’s love for his mother to her own, and explained how he could conceivably give a damn about some female who defecated a clump of gelatinous eggs into a plastic novelty stuck in the gravel for all the other fish at the store to feast upon.
Her acceptance surprised me.
At any rate, we bought another fish the following day. After 3 weeks, he too met his ultimate demise and I went through the same ritual with my daughter. I let her say a few words and pretend to kiss him before we flushed him down the toilet.
Another day, another fish.
I seemed to be having a hard time accepting that I was just not meant to care for anything that wasn’t 99% genetically identical to me. As you may have guessed, this fish didn’t have a happy ending. He too went belly up and once again, we went through the burial process.
Eventually, I had to start alternating fish stores each time I bought a new one. The employees began to recognize me and I could hardly stand to hear the lectures, recommending that I check for fungus, test my heater, let the water run through the filter for a while before introducing the fish, not feed them tablespoons of fish food all at once, blah blah blah. I did all of these things.
Perhaps I wasn’t buying the right fish.
This was beginning to get expensive, so I told my daughter, "Look, after this one, we really need to stop buying fish, OK?” I don’t think she honestly believed that I would let a big beautiful fish tank sit empty on her dresser, but she nodded anyway.
I arrived at the fish store, again, and asked the guy if they had a special breed of tropical fish. “One that could survive if, by chance, it was thrown out on to the hot summer pavement and run over by a Mack truck.” He looked at me strange but offered a hardier version. Unfortunately, the one the clerk suggested wasn’t made of adamantine, so its odds were slim out of the gate. We took the new guy home.
I was thrilled to see that he was living beyond the first week, but I had been through this level of disappointment before, so I didn’t get too excited. Two weeks later, he was still there. And two weeks beyond that, I couldn’t believe I was still having to feed him every morning.
On my way to grab some laundry out of my daughter’s room one afternoon, I caught her running from her bedroom to the bathroom with the fishnet, dripping contaminated fish water as she scuttled along.
Horrified, I nabbed her arm that hovered over the toilet. “What are you doing!?!”
She looked up at me with the same expression I imagine I had on my face when my mom caught me stealing a drag off one of her cigarettes. Crap.
“He wanted to go home to his mommy, so I was going to let him go see her,” she responded, as though she shared joint custody and was sending him off for the weekend.
I’d just made my morning rounds a few moments earlier, so I knew the fish was doing well. “No honey, we don’t just send fish to their mommies unless they are really sick. And he wasn’t sick.”
“Well, he misses her.”
“Let’s put him back.”
She huffed and said, “OK, mom. The truth is, I don’t want this fish anymore. I want a new one.”
There it was. She had become so desensitized to the whole Circle of Life thing and it was all my fault. Perhaps I should have explained the real deal to her instead of going on about the emotional attachments of animated Disney characters.
I caught a glimpse of the fish; his eyeball peering at me through a hole in the netting, looking as if to say, Can we move this along? I’m beginning to feel the sensation of death creeping up on me.
So we put the fish back in the tank and I finally sat down to explain the process of life and death to my daughter. She was a little teary-eyed to learn that her fish – all 4 of them - weren’t happily swimming the seas with their mother; but by now were likely nothing more than a mass of decayed tissue floating on the surface in a clump of greasy pond scum before it is skimmed off and sent through our pipes as the tap water she brushed her teeth with that morning. I think the explanation left her with some unanswered questions, but I felt better having come clean with the truth.
Our fish managed to survive the rest of the year. With one success under my belt, I decided it was time to move on to something else. We retired the fish tank and have begun shopping for a puppy…..