I hate to admit that as a professional pet sitter, I had no idea about how to care for a betta fish. Sure, we had large aquariums growing up, but never just a little fish in a bowl. It couldn't be that difficult, right? Yet, still, I had to do all the research and talk to multiple experts before we brought ours home. The littles had started begging for their own pets, so I figured a fish would be a relatively painless choice. I take care of all sorts of animals, and frankly, if I think of what types of pets I'd like to care for in my family (because you damn well know I'm doing all the work), some are more work than they are worth. Thank goodness I get to satisfy my yearnings to include all things animal into our home in other people's homes.
I digress. The betta seemed like a good choice, and it was. So approximately two years ago, when Porter was five and Campbell was three, armed with my nefound betta knowledge, we set off to find them each a fish and a habitat.
Porter chose "Planty," a blue-ish male with fancy fins, and a bluish habitat to match. Campbell had her heart set on a plain goldfish, but when I told her "no," because they required more care than a betta, she settled on "Goldie," a smaller, plain red male betta, who Campbell deemed a "she." If you want something bad enough these days, it is so. So it was so.
We brought the fish home and set up their individual habitats. You see, you can't put two betta fish together because they will fight to the death. Much like siblings close in age. Not that I have any experience with that. The littles watched their fish quite frequently at the beginning. Actually, more than I thought they would. They enjoyed feeding them and helping to clean their habitats.
I was happy because they were super easy to care for. (The fish, not the children.) Just a minute or so each day, then about thirty minutes on the weekend to do a water change, etc. No big whoop. And they were much more fun than I thought they'd be. They would dance joyfully every time we passed by. Most likely they were eager for food, but we preferred to imagine they loved us.
As with most children, the littles lost a lot of their interest as time passed. So I had to add "feed fish" and "clean fish habitat" to their chore charts. And they did the tasks.
As they got a bit older and their imaginations expanded, they would talk to their fish. They still liked the fun part of betta parenting, at least. Campbell, especially, loved to talk to Goldie and tell her about the day or make up some fancy story for her. I enjoyed watching that.
Goldie was always less active than Planty. In fact, she gave us several scares over the past couple of years. Planty is so active that we have to be careful when feeding him. We can only lift the lid on his habitat for a split second to deposit nourishment in order to prevent his leaping suicide attempts. Twice, now, I've had to rescue him off the table, as he's perfected his dolphin leaps. Goldie, however, had to be poked every now and then to make sure she was still with us. The kids would say "Mommy! Something's wrong with Goldie!" But all she needed was a little nudge. "She's fine. Just resting."
This past Sunday after our family had spent a wonderful day swimming, Porter was checking on the fish and said "Mommy! Something's wrong with Goldie."
"I'm sure she's fine. Just give the tank a little tap. She'll wake up," I said from across the room.
"No. Mommy. This time I really think there's something wrong," he reiterated. Campbell joined him tankside. She agreed.
I rolled my eyes and put down the dinner I was preparing. After two years of this, didn't they know everything was fine?
Only everything wasn't this time. There Goldie was, front and center, upside-down. She'd never rested upside-down before. I gave her tank a little jiggle, and she just swayed back and forth in the water, still upside-down. Shit.
"Um. Guys. I think you're right about Goldie. I know this is really sad, but she's died. I'm so sorry," I broke the final news.
"But, Mommy, her eyes are open," Campbell reasoned. If the fish death wasn't breaking my heart, she surely was.
"I know, baby. Sometimes animals die with their eyes open. She's not moving at all." I gave Campbell a big hug, and so did Porter–which you normally can't get him to do for $100–and told her that I was certain Goldie had passed on.
There were lots of tears and lots of hugs. Campbell asked if she could spend some time alone with Goldie, which I thought was quite mature. She must have seen that on TV, because it couldn't have come from me. So I took Goldie's habitat and placed it on the kitchen table. She sat in front of it and talked to Goldie. After a few minutes of that, I asked her what she'd like to do."We can do a little service for her, if you like, and then we can say goodbye," I suggested.
"What do we do with her? Where will she go?" Campbell asked.
As with most things, I took for granted that she'd know. "Well," I started, "we'll need to flush her down the toilet. That's the best thing for her."
"So she can go to the ocean?" Campbell asked.
"Yes, of course."
"But what about the sharks?'
Porter chimed in, "Sharks only like live prey. Like stuff that is bleeding or swimming around. They won't care about Goldie. They'll just ignore her." Oddly comforting.
Campbell looked at me for reassurance. "That's basically true. Sharks won't care about her at all. They'll leave her at peace."
"Okay," she gave her permission. "I want to make some things she can take with her. Her favorite things."
"Like what?" I asked.
"I need some paper and some markers." She set out to work. She drew a picture of herself, a heart, and a flower. "Goldie loves me, she loves flowers, and I drew a heart because I love her."
"That's really nice, Cam." My hard core child was showing more sentiment in this moment than she had in her life, and all I could worry about was whether we were going to clog the toilet.
No matter. We'd put Daddy on the task if that happened.
We staged Goldie in a smaller, more portable bowl with a bit of water and gave Cam a few more moments with her. She said she was ready, so she carried Goldie and the things she drew to the bathroom and the whole family of five gathered in the small quarters. Not wanting to be left out, the dog came, too. I asked Campbell if she wanted me to pour Goldie in. She said, "No, Mommy. She's my fish. I want to do it." Her maturity surpasses mine in so many ways. Of course she would do it.
She poured Goldie in. She dropped in the heart drawing, then the sketch of herself, then the flower. She looked up and asked "Are you sure about the sharks?"
"Absolutely. She'll be just fine."
She looked down into the bowl. "Bye, Goldie. I love you." Then, without being told, she reached to the handle, paused for a moment, and flushed.
We all stood there for a minute. We were sad. Not as much about the fish as about how touched our tough-as-nails Campbell was. We felt proud of her. And we felt bad for her. There was a collective sigh as we all filed out of the bathroom.
Campbell broke the silence with one more question.
"Can I get a new fish?"