My kids had a fish.
(You know where this is going …)
Not just any fish: a beautiful, blue Betta fish with full, fluttering fins. They named him Spikey Goodfish — “Spikey” for the spikes on his long, plume-like fins, and “Goodfish” because my 3-year-old said he was, quote, “A good fish.”
We’d gotten Spikey Goodfish at the local big-box pet store. Rescued him, really, one of the many Betta fish kept in tiny cups on a back shelf. We set up a tank, and each boy picked out an aquarium decoration for his habitat (a pirate ship and a turtle, if it matters). My husband seeded the floor with gravel and added several live plants.
And so thrived Spikey Goodfish.
The boys climbed stools to look at him, perched atop a low bookshelf, and argued over whose turn it was to feed him fish pellets. After a while, the novelty wore off, but Spikey Goodfish was still very much apart of the household.
And there’s no doubt that Spikey Goodfish did, indeed, love life. We know this because he made bubble nests in the corner of the tank, and Bettas only do that when they feel happy and safe enough to attract a mate. If you were a Betta, you couldn’t do much better than to be Spikey Goodfish.
Until my husband woke up and found Spikey Goodfish doing the side-float of death. He scooped him out and delivered him to the place where all good fish go (i.e. the toilet).
We quickly conferenced, and came up with two options:
- Tell the kids the fish was dead.
- Buy another fish and never mention it again.
“What do you want to do?” he asked desperately.
I didn’t think about it. “What time does the pet store open?”
So, during the course of the day, I took the kids out, and my husband went to the local pet store to pick out the closest ringer for Spikey Goodfish he could find. While the kids and I played around town, my husband dipped the cup and got Spikey Newfish used to the water, then dumped him in and pretended nothing happened.
Spikey Newfish didn’t really resemble Spikey Goodfish, but the kids didn’t notice. If you aren’t expecting a fish switcheroo, why would you scrutinize your fish’s exact coloring or the particular spikiness of his spikes?
We lied about our kid’s fish dying. I’m not proud of it. But I did it, and I’d do it again.
Because here’s how telling them would have gone down:
“Spikey Goodfish died.”
“Died means your body stops working. It means you aren’t here anymore.”
“You mean Spikey Goodfish’s body doesn’t work? And he won’t be our fish anymore?”
“No, he won’t be your fish anymore. But when you’re ready, we can go to the pet store and get a new fish.”
“I don’t want a new fish! I want Spikey Goodfiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish!”
**Cue wracking sobs and murmurs of, “It’s okay to be sad, he was your fish and you loved him, etc.”**
**hiccup** “Why did Spikey Goodfish die?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
“Will I die? Will you die?”
Oh heck no. Not happening.
My sons are 3 and 5. They believe the world is a magical place, a good place, a happy place. There is no death in their world, and I didn’t want to break the big news of mortality: yes, your fish died. Yes, the dogs will die. Yes, you and I will die and we can’t stop it, and we hope it’ll be a long, long time from now, but we don’t really know when. This is not magical and wonderful. In fact, this is the exact opposite of magical and wonderful.
I don’t want to share it yet, thanks. I want to keep my kids innocent a little longer. I can’t hold it off forever, but I can preserve it just a little longer with just a little lie.
Some people will claim I have no right to mask the death of Spikey Goodfish. I should use it as the chance to teach my kids, gently, about mortality. Things die. We’re sad for a while and then we go on with life. We get a new fish. Life marches on.
I don’t like to lie to my kids, but I wasn’t prepared to explain mortality on a Tuesday morning in June. Three and 5 is young enough, still, to be shielded. To think your fish lives on, despite his different coloring. To keep, for one more morning at least, the belief in a perfectly magical world.More On