The pet that wouldn’t die

I wish the family pet would just die already.

Oh, calm down. I’m not talking about a loving dog who has been a member of the family for years, or a sweet kitty who warms our hearth every night and purrs my children to sleep.

No, I’m talking about a fish. A stupid, lousy, neon orange fish I bought for $6.99 two years ago, who, in my defense, I’m pretty sure wants to die as well. In fact, I’m convinced this animal would have long ago dispatched himself to the giant Pet Smart in the sky if he could only figure out how.

As a parent, I wanted my children to have an “easy” pet, like a gold fish, so they could learn three important life lessons. The first is what is involved in caring for another living being. The second is that they are not ready to care for a dog. The third — well, I’m getting there.

I should have known things wouldn’t go according to plan when we went to the pet store and my children zipped right past the humble gold fish and stopped before a tank of fish in screaming neon colors.

“These ones!” my son cried, and my daughter began jumping up and down. Who was I to disagree?

I should have disagreed. In fact, as the Person in Charge, I should have made a hasty retreat out the door when Jana, the Very Serious Fish Attendant, starting piling enough equipment into my cart to wire a small command center, all while giving me detailed instructions on the many things I would need to do to keep these fish alive.

She looked me up and down.

“These are very delicate fish,” she said. “We have a very high standard of water quality.”

I nodded, suddenly aware that I must be wearing my T-shirt that said TOTAL F—ING MORON, because she was looking at me like I had just drooled on her.

“We also have a very generous exchange policy,” she continued smugly. “If either fish dies in the first 72 hours, bring it back for a new one. All we ask is that you bring a sample of the water from your tank so we can determine the issue.”

“Does that happen a lot?” I asked.

“Yes,” she responded.

“Why the hell do you sell them?” is what I wanted to ask. Instead I smiled and nodded.

Three hours later, after I had prepped and set up and arranged their tank to incredibly specific instructions, bright orange Jack (named by and for my son) and bright green Walter (named for his best friend) were swimming happily. My children watched them rapturously for an entire 20 seconds before asking me to put on the Disney channel.

True to Jana’s word, the next morning Walter the Fish wasn’t looking so hot. This had me worried, as Walter the Human was coming over to play, and I didn’t know the extent of psychological damage it would cause him to see his namesake nose down in the gravel.

When Walter arrived, he and Jack ran off to see the fish before I could stop them.

“Boys,” I called out, “keep in mind Walter the Fish is kind of sick. He caught a cold and he’s not feeling well.”

When I reached Jack’s room the boys were standing nose-to-glass with the aquarium, watching Walter’s lifeless body floating belly up at the surface.

Walter the Human looked at me with a 5-year-old’s unwavering authority.

“He doesn’t look sick to me. He looks dead.”

“HA-HA-HA! Walter, don’t be so SILLY!” I cried shrilly, fooling no one. “He’s just sick. SICK!”

Walter shook his head.

“Jack, your fish is totally dead.”

“HE’S NAPPING!” I shouted, flicking his body away from its crash course with the gurgling filter.

That night, after my husband had surreptitiously managed to replace Walter the Fish — (“See, he’s all better!”) — I did some Internet research on our new pets.

It turns out the breed — which I will not name for fear of a lawsuit — is trademarked by a company that creates them specifically for their garish coloring. This means that, like all creatures of strategic breeding, they are high maintenance and more susceptible to all sorts of ills. These fish would be dead within a few months, according to several unauthorized pages.

This actually cheered me up. By now it had become clear the level of care these creatures required was beyond my children’s capabilities, and instead of becoming a lesson for them on how to take care of something, the fish became simply two more bodies in the house I had to feed and clean up after.

Every week I siphoned one-third (no more, no less) of the water from their tank using a length of tubing from the hardware store and a turkey baster. I added fresh water and pH-balancing solution. I delicately scrubbing the sides of their tank and dutifully changed their air filter after soaking the new one in lukewarm water to dislodge any carbon particles from the outside.

This didn’t mean I loved the things. They were just fish, after all, who seemed terrified of my kids and only interested in me because I fed them.

I’m not even sure how long it took me to notice Walter the Second was missing. It simply occurred to me one day that I hadn’t seen him in a while and so I scanned the tank for his little green body. Noticing that the pirate ship ornament had fallen over, I reached in to lift it up.

I found Walter. All 527 pieces of him. The poor thing must have become trapped when the ship had fallen over. There wasn’t even a body to bury, just a billowing cloud of neon green fish parts that needed to be scooped from the water while Jack the Fish swam in frantic circles.

“How do we tell the kids?” I asked my husband that night.

“If they don’t ask, don’t tell them,” he answered.

“But this is the most important part of pet ownership for a child.”

He looked at me in confusion.

“What is?”

“Death. Everyone knows that you get pets so kids can learn about dying.”

I could have sworn he inched away from me.

“What are you talking about? Where did you even come up with that?”

“V.C. Andrews.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the reference, V.C. Andrews was an author who wrote a number of disturbing books devoured by teenage girls (and really weird adults) in the 1980s. The plot lines revolved around things like incest, emotional abuse and inherited wealth. Kind of like the American Girls.

In addition to some horrific scenes now etched into my psyche, the books imparted the knowledge that pets teach children about death.

My husband, wise man, conceded that was one way to look at it, but suggested it would be easier to teach kids about dead pets when said pets weren’t in tiny pieces on their way to the local sewage treatment plant.

He was right, which meant I had just missed my second opportunity to teach my kids about death. Damn.

At this point, to make this parenting venture pay off, I need Jack to pass away at a convenient time, in one piece, so I can sit my children down and gently explain the circle of life while soft music plays.

But of course, this is NEVER going to happen. That’s because this fish is obviously some sort of anomaly, a freak of nature sent by the universe because the Powers That Be decided that the circus that is my life needed another ring.

His life expectancy was six months and he is still alive two years later. He has outlived two companions and survived the stress of moving to a new house, the water in his tank sloshing on the floor of my car as I drove 15 mph, old ladies blowing past me giving me the finger.

He has become my earthly perdition. My children will be off at college and I’ll still be siphoning his water and scrubbing his tank with arthritic hands. My grandchildren will glance at him when they come for visits before asking for the Disney channel. I’ll probably even have to make provisions for him in my will, because I have a feeling the earnest little f—ker is going to outlive us all.

But despite how much I want him to die, I’m not about to kill him.

What kind of heartless, crazy a—hole do you think I am?


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