Last June I sent Sam and Jamie to a day camp conducted by their pre-school teachers in a sponsored venue. It was a way for the teachers to make extra cash over the summer break. And why not? It’s better than staying at home in front of the TV, as I had a full day of meetings that summer day. For Jamie’s group, they would learn pretty much what they’d learn in their regular classroom. For Sam’s the teacher said they would focus more on a particular life value, so it all sounded wonderful.
I wasn’t expecting to come home to a pet.
As I walked through the door, Sam greeted me with a glass cube with colorful things inside. The water was swishing to and fro from her movements, and it took me a while to realize that I had to get it, or else Red (this is eventually what she named her fish — go figure) might swish out. The poor fish was probably already stressed from the big movements.
Apparently at Sam’s camp that day, they gave each student a Fighting fish to bring home and care for. She was given a pack of fish food too. The teachers taught the kids how to feed their fish and told them about changing the water every so often. What a way to teach responsibility and care for others, don’t you think?!
Both Sam and Jamie were over the moon at the thought of their “pet”. Finally, a live toy, and one that got past their parents’ consent at that! We’d been holding out on the persistent requests of owning a pet, knowing fully well that I’d end up caring for it in the long run. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t say no to Red though because she got home before I did that day. In fact she already had a spot on one of our bedroom night stands. It’s a good thing I read somewhere that Betta fish can’t stand cold temperatures which is why the girls allowed me to move her outside.
At first they each wanted to feed it and we ran the risk of having a totally overfed fish. I expected this to be a phase that they’d get tired of eventually, so in light of the “value” and the reason why Red was in my house in the first place, I decided I’d just let Sam take care of her until her interests moved onto other things (she’s 4 and a half after all). Then I’d find a way for this little fish to mysteriously and magically disappear. Or swim away into the ocean. Whatever.
But it’s been three months and everyday at some point, they’d remember Red. She only needs to be fed once a day, and to my surprise they really would think of her for that period of time. Sometimes it was in the context of “We forgot to feed Red mom!” just as we’re about to close the lights. And Sam will not have it that Red isn’t fed, so she and Jamie would go back out and drop a few sprinkles of fish food before being comfortable enough to fall asleep.
The research I’ve done said that this fish attacks other fish in the same tank, so it’s better off alone. But the girls have seemed to develop a rapport with this fish, and in return, Red responds to the girls. She swims up at the sight of them coming near, in anticipation of the food maybe (Pavlov’s theory at work!) – but it’s exciting to them nonetheless. “Red knows we’re here mom! Hi Red!” Jamie will say. They love watching her eat and swim around her 64 cu in home, and they tap the glass as a way to play with her (she’ll run or she’ll come near). Jamie has even taken to talking to Red on occasion because when she tiptoes to peer into Red’s glass home, they come eye-to-eye.
I am quite surprised that fish is still alive. Surprised but also relieved. Because I wouldn’t know what to say to Sam if Red went belly up. Sam already has so many existential questions about God and the soul and heaven that I’m not quite ready to answer. I’m not sure how to explain what happens when fish die, particularly since she thinks Red is now her fishy friend. Even I have started to lean over and converse with Red. “She might answer you back,” my mom chuckled one time when she saw me.
And so it has gotten to that point: I’ve made it my personal mission to keep Red alive for as long as possible. My husband has been pretty attentive towards Red too (he insisted I read up on how to properly change her water to be on the safe side and we don’t send her into shock). I think he’s just equally fearful of the barrage of questions Sam will churn out, or the “Why’s” that Jamie asks at exactly the right moments if anything unfortunate happens to Red, and we will not hear the end of it for a long time. So much so that when Sam noticed that Red’s bag of food had only a few sprinkles left in them, she sent us all into a panic.
“Oh no Mom, Red might be hungry. Poor Red she won’t eat.”
“What will happen if she goes belly up Mom?!”
“Is there a fishy heaven if she dies mom? She can’t die!”
“You need to buy Fish Food Mom! Hurry! We have to do it NOW!” All this at 9PM in the dark from an almost 5-yr old.
Needless to say, the next morning — fish food purchase was at the top of my to-do list.
And while we’re on the subject, Jamie in turn, has not stopped asking: “I want a real Bunny pet dad!”