The moon nightlight shined brightly as the gentle piano sounds of George Winston calmed the room. Ellie was fast asleep excited for a sleepover at Grandma’s house the next day. Chloe was still awake but softly singing to her doll waiting for sleep to take her. I feigned a smile at Chloe, hoping it’d be soon that she drifted off for I had something else on my mind. The room was peaceful, and calm. The time was fairly early too. If this was happening on any other day I’d be preparing for a bedtime victory party with my open evening. But all I could picture was that motionless body quietly circling the tank with that blank stare looking out into nothing.
It all started about a week ago when Ellie said, “My teacher said I can bring a fish home if it’s okay with my mom and dad. Can I? pleeeeease (puppy dog look)?”
I just assumed she was making up stories or talking about a pretend fish so I completely dismissed this request. But sure enough at the end of the week, her preschool teachers were passing out goldfish to anyone willing to take them home. Every kid was bursting with joy and excitement as they clutched the plastic ZipLoc bag with their swimming miracle inside. Did we really have an option to say “no”?
“Look mom! Look Dad! I named him NEMO!” said every kid as their parents greeted them.
But just as much as every kid had pure unfiltered genuine excitement, every parent seemed to fake it.
“Oh, wow, umm, a fish, that’s… wonderful,” we all said with weary half-smiling faces. All of us knowing that this was going to end with only one outcome. And it would probably be without as much excitement as it was starting with.
I looked at the other dads, who had the same look on their faces as I did, and jokingly told them I couldn’t wait to teach Ellie about death. Little did I know my lesson would come sooner than I expected. This was going to be tough. She loved her little fish so much already. Ellie held her goldfish, Nemo-girl (as she informed me her goldfish was a girl and not a boy), all the way home with such care.
“Daddy, slow down and be careful. Nemo-girl doesn’t like the bumps, she’s just a little fishy,” she repeated to me at least three times during the five minute drive home.
Once we got home, I found a temporary home for Nemo-girl until I could secure more suitable permanent housing for her. We filled up the bowl, added some fish food, sat the bowl on the piano, and then Ellie watched with a big smile.
“Hi Nemo-girl, Welcome to your new home!” she greeted.
I watched on with a worried smile.
As the day went on, the newness of the fish wore off a bit. The kids played, watched a few shows, they begged for snacks and went about their same shenanigans as usual. As their interest faded, mine began to grow. As I sat in the room alone, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a little flicker of bright orange every now and then. We aren’tpet owners, and the last time I had a pet (our beloved dog Maggie) I was in high school. I’m actually pretty grumpy about pets (gasp! I know). I don’t hate them or anything, but all my love for animals died when my dog died back when I was in high school (Bow wow old friend, bow wow). With the absence of having a pet for so long, I had forgotten how much security a pet can offer. And as I sat in the room alone with the flicker of this fish across the room, I suddenly remembered. Huh, this stupid little fish. It’s strange how I found the presence of this little tiny gold fish, comforting. Maybe this whole fish thing wasn’t a bad idea after all? I think I was starting to like Nemo-girl.
While all this was going on, Aya had no idea we’d acquired a fish and that it was quickly becoming a major part of the family. Not only was she not at home, but she was on a business trip in Mexico all week. She was going to be in for a big surprise when she walked through the door. I was a little worried about her reaction, but I was more worried for the fish. One time when we were at an aquarium, Aya announced that seeing all these fish made her hungry. Watch out Nemo-girl (Little did I know that Aya wouldn’t even have the opportunity to get hungry after seeing the fish).
After dinner we played Mozart for the fish and Ellie danced the ballet for her. Chloe watched on in amazement. “Fish fish!”
When it was bedtime, Ellie didn’t want to say goodnight.
“Daddy! Can she sleep in my room!? She can see my room and my new birthday present!” Ellie said eagerly.
“Sure, why not!” I replied, getting wrapped up into the excitement too.
But as I sat the bowl down on her dresser, I noticed that something didn’t seem quite right. I’m no expert on fish, but something was just off. Not thinking too much of it, I continued on with the bedtime routine. By the start of the bedtime story it’s condition didn’t seem to be improving though. And soon after, that’s when it happened. Nemo-girl’s little fishy mouth stopping moving and her tiny fishy fins stopped fluttering. With the girls completely absorbed in my telling of the Lorax, Nemo-girl slowly floated to the top of her bowl with her eyes staring blankly at me. Luckily, Ellie didn’t notice this before she fell asleep.
After both she and Chloe dozed off, I removed the body. Working quietly under moonlight with them sleeping nearby, I felt like I was living an episode of the Sopranos. I found new meaning to the phrase “sleeps with the fishes.”
Instead of going with immediate disposal, I decided to leave the bowl out for a morning viewing. I thought Ellie might want some closure before I made more eternal arrangements. However, I did feel a little weird going to sleep knowing there was a dead fish floating in a bowl on my kitchen counter.
The next morning, Ellie came running in shouting, “Daddy daddy, where’s my fish!?”
And that’s when we had “the talk.” I’ve dealt with some pretty important parenting tasks in my short five years as a parent, but this felt like a defining moment. Like a rite of passage into the next stage of parenting. I think I did alright. I assured her that this was normal and it wasn’t her fault. She took the news really well too. She was sad, but not devastated. It was a good call on the viewing too because she did want to see the fish again. And oddly enough she really wanted to touch it.
With Nemo-girl out of the picture, I gave Ellie the option of getting a new fish, which she readily agreed to and stated, “I’m going to name her Nemo-girl again.”
With my sympathy meter broken from overload, we didn’t just get the 13 cent replacement fish. We got two goldfish. The three dollar goldfish. And of course we added in gravel, a small little under water house, real plants, a real fish tank, and a filter. I found it funny how a free goldfish from school turned into a $48 lesson on death. To see the looks on Ellie and Chloe’s faces when they watch the fish swim is totally worth it though. Ellie named her fish Nemo-girl again, and named Chloe’s fish Carola. So it’s official now. We have pet fish. And we owe it all to little Nemo-girl and her untimely passing.
Goodbye Nemo-girl (the first). You were in our lives not yet 12 hours, but you brought so much happiness to one little girl. And you may have even put a small crack in my icy non-animal-loving heart. Flap your fins and wiggle your tail freely as you now swim in the infinite ocean on the other side. Sleep well my friend.