My daughter’s preschool class just did a month-long unit on the ocean, culminating in a field trip to the aquarium last week. As a “present,” lovely male teacher gave each child an early lesson in death, oops, I mean a goldfish. My daughter, ever the enthusiast, was thrilled by her new pet. She named the thing Seashell and made a birth certificate for it and everything. Now, to lovely male teacher’s credit, he did give us typed instructions on how to take care of a goldfish, as well as an envelope full of fish food. What he did not give us, however, was the stuff that you need to put in the water in order to de-chlorinate it so that the fish doesn’t die from tap water poisoning. This, evidently, was something that I was going to have to buy at Petco, because I have so much extra time in my life to be making trips to Petco.
When we brought Seashell home, I told Harper that I would go to Petco the next day, but of course I forgot. And then I forgot the next day, too, and when Harper stomped into my room the next morning, remembering that I had, indeed, forgotten, and reminding me that if we didn’t change Seashell’s water soon she was going to die, I promised Harper that I would write myself a note to go to Petco that day while she was at school. Which I did, except that I lost the note and forgot all about going to Petco, until, of course, I got home from the market and the nanny informed me that the goldfish was dead. And if you’re interested in learning a nice little factoid about goldfish, dead ones look surprisingly like live ones, except that they don’t move.
I had an hour before I had to pick Harper up from school, so I booked it to Petco and announced to the fish guy that I needed a goldfish. What kind? He wanted to know. I told him the kind that looked like the dead one floating in my kid’s fishbowl at home. I felt like I was a mom in a bad after school special, trying to protect her little four year-old from the harsh reality of death. Except that I wasn’t replacing the fish because I wanted to protect Harper from the harsh reality of death. I was replacing the fish because I wanted to protect myself from the harsh look that Harper would give me when she realized that her fish died because I am a flake. I was protecting myself from becoming Mommy, the Fish Killer.
So anyway, the guys scooped out a goldfish, handed me a bottle of the de-poisoning stuff for the tap water, and told me to clean the tank once a week. To which I replied, “Dude, I’m lucky if I wash my hair once a week.” And then I went home and flushed Seashell down the toilet, cleaned the tank, refilled it with some of the de-poisoning stuff, dropped in the new fish, and placed it back on the shelf in Harper’s room, where she would be none the wiser. And then, when I picked her up from school, I proudly informed her that I had not only remembered to go to Petco, but had also already cleaned Seashell’s tank and fed her. But when we got home, the new Seashell wasn’t looking so hot. She was kind of lying on the bottom of the tank, and her mouth was opening and closing really slowly, and I knew that I had done something wrong, and that it was just a matter of minutes before this fish kicked the bucket, too. But I didn’t care, because as far as Harper knew, I had done my duty my as a mother, and if this Seashell died, then harsh reality of death, here we come.
And there we were, two hours later. Tears were streaming down Harper’s face, and she was in full drama mode, screaming, “Why? Why?” It was all I could do not to explain to her that mommy has too much on her plate, and that as a result, mommy is a squeaky-wheel kind of caretaker. It was all I could do not to tell her that if she didn’t inform me that she was hungry, I would probably forget to feed her, and that the only reason our dog is still alive is because she’s learned to bark at me when I’m on my way out the door in the morning if I’ve forgotten to put food in her bowl. It was all I could do not to tell her that poor little Seashell never even had a chance with me. Instead, I told her that sometimes bad things happen to good fish, that sometimes there are no answers, and I promised to take her to Petco the next day to buy a new goldfish.