There’ve been three deaths in our immediate family in the past 48 hours. Wait, lemme go downstairs and check.
Squishy, Squirmy, Stripey, and now–uh, another one–were found one at a time, white-eyed and motionless, in our new aquarium. They were tiger barbs. Now they’re not.
Yes yes, we took all appropriate steps in setting the thing up. I’ve had many aquaria in my life, enough to know precisely why these fish died: They died because fish are dying machines.
I tried to prepare the kids for this before we even walked out the door of Cheap Flushable Pets Warehouse. “I want you to know something,” I said. “Aquarium fish have a habit of dying. Often. And for no apparent reason. I just want you to be ready for that.”
But they were too busy cooing new names to the little terminal creatures through the walls of their plastic-bag ICUs to hear Daddy Cassandra moaning about the future.
“You’ll be my Squishy-wishy!” Erin cooed to her bag. “And you’re Stripey!”
The future arrived the next morning when I switched on the aquarium light and found Squishy stuck to the filter intake.
The girls feet were on the stairs. I panicked, grabbed the net, scooped the sushi, darted into the bathroom.
I emerged nonchalantly. “Morning girls!”
Erin looked at me suspiciously. “Why do you have that?”
I looked down at the net in my hand. “This?” I quickly realized that all possible cover stories for emerging from a bathroom with a dripping net are far worse than the truth. “Sweetie, I’m sorry, but one of your fish died during the night.”
“Which one?” She walked to the tank calmly and peered in. “Oh. Squishy is gone.”
“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. It’s okay. I still have four.” It was a “5 for $5” deal on tiger barbs.
By the time she returned from school, another fish had swum the tunnel of light — another of her tigers.
By dinnertime, a third. “What the heck!” she said, mostly angry that the Fish Reaper was swinging his filleting scythe so selectively at her herd. Laney’s and Connor’s fish, all non-tigers, were still happily playing Who’s Behind the Bamboo, oblivious to the carnage around them.
“Can I touch it?” she said, staring at the sad little thing.
“Sure you can.” My kids’ ease with such things amazes me. Dead things have always called up a deep terror in me. And I’ve seen plenty: in addition to countless childhood pets, there was my father (aneurysm), grandfather (can’t recall), a restaurant patron (heart), a sheep in Scotland (drowned), and a man on a train platform in Vienna. I’ve always been shaken by the realization that such a thin line exists between life and death — that you are here, and then, often without warning, you are nowhere. The man in Vienna, like me, was preparing to board a train to Munich. Moments before, he probably had quite the same plans as mine. Instead, he cancelled every remaining appointment he had by crumpling to the platform, dead.
I scooped up Stripey and held the net out toward Erin. My nine-year-old self would have…well, he wouldn’t have asked to touch it in the first place. But if somehow he had, nine-year-old Dale would have poked it with one fingertip, then fled to the bathroom to scrub that fingertip raw. To get the death off. I hate dead things.
What I really hate, I think, is the reminder that one day I’ll end up Stuck To The Filter myself.
But Erin didn’t poke it and run. “Oh, Stripey,” she said as she picked it up with two fingers and laid it in her other palm. She stroked its side. “He’s so soft.” Laney joined her. Then Erin walked to the bathroom, said goodbye, and flushed.
I promised we’d pop on over to Aqua Hospice tomorrow. And if she points at another tiger barb, I’ll just reach into the tank, squish it, and hand the guy a buck.