Dead Goldfish, Wooden Spoons and Divorce

Nice Knowing You

The goldfish was not going to make it. As I laid a neatly folded pile of laundry on my six-year-old’s dresser, my eyes were drawn to the fish bowl where “Finny” was doing the telltale “side float swim” and it was clear he wasn’t long for this world. Luckily, my kindergartner wasn’t there to witness Finny’s desperate attempt to hold onto his quaint life on her dresser, with the rainbow rocks and green plastic tree. His pathetic side float was heart-wrenching for me to see, surely this would devastate her.

I was thankful she was at her Dad’s for the next few days, although I was still getting used to the idea of her being gone. I kept thinking that Finny, too was learning to adjust to the comings and goings of our new home and his new roommates. Gracie was a precocious six-year-old who was small for her age, with curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She would bound up the apartment stairs Mondays, Tuesdays, and every other weekend, immediately sticking her tiny face up to the clear glass bowl. “FINNNNN-EEEEEE!”, she would yell, as though he would respond with a lick to the cheek or a lap around the apartment.

This was now part of our shiny, new routine. The fish and the new home. After school, greet the fish. Talk to fish while mom gets snack. Feed the fish. At bed time we told stories about the adventures of Finny the Fish. The fish was our “life after divorce” mascot and the I was beginning to think it was the best $3.47 I’d ever spent.

Timing is Everything

Finny was my rebound guy. He was my little splurge to show I could be a cool “mom of divorce” and somehow show a six-year-old there were some perks to this otherwise bad situation. “I get to have a fish at Mommy’s” kinda thing. The 110 pound yellow lab stayed with the ex, given the size limitations of our new apartment. A pet in a bowl did not require a yard or a schedule. Dad had the dog. Mom had the fish.

Gracie's drawing of Finny and his imaginary friend.
Gracie’s drawing of Finny and his imaginary friend.

I admit, there was a lot riding on this little fish. Divorce sucks. And divorce with kids sucks even more. The fish wasn’t supposed to make it all go away, the fish was just supposed be a cute distraction, like any good rebound. So when the side float swimming began that unusually warm winter day in December, I knew before the little guy took his last spin around the bowl, I’d be going to the pet store for Finny 2.0 before she bounded up those stairs.

One Fish, Two Fish

Dammit if my kid hadn’t picked that one unique looking goldfish with the black speckle smudge by his eyes. I found one I thought would pass the scrutiny of a hyper-observant kindergartner, did the farewell flush for Finny The First, and had Finny The Second neatly tucked in his rainbow rocks new home before she was home. Despite her comments about the black speckle looking lighter, which I said meant he was growing, she was none the wiser. Crisis averted.

What I did not gamble on was that Finny The Second would succumb to a similar fate several weeks later, despite my best attempts at alkalizing the water, getting a better fish food, and keeping the bowl in a moderately temperate spot. My ability to pick a fish with a vitality for long term commitment was somehow becoming an ironic parallel to my ability to pick a husband. I’d find that humorous one day, I was sure of it.

It was upon the impending death of the third goldfish that I really began to panic. My mother had come into town to help me move the last of the “single life” sundries into my new apartment. We had just gotten Gracie to bed and were unpacking boxes in the kitchen. I’d since moved Finny’s bowl to a spot near the dishwasher, worrying it was too cold on the dresser. As I placed colored coffee mugs in the woodgrain cabinet, I glanced down to see the familiar pattern of a little orange fish, side swimming his way to the float of death. DAMMIT!

Mercy, Mercy Me

I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, unpacking boxes in the single life apartment that I didn’t know I’d have again, and I had just killed my daughter’s goldfish. Again. For those of you keeping track at home, this was the third fish to die on my watch and in that moment, I was sure it was going to be the death of me. This was a fish death I could not hide, as Finny The Third had inconveniently chosen to begin his approach to the Big Fish Bowl in the sky with my daughter sleeping in the other room. The pet store had long since closed for the night. There would be no goldfish with black speckle to greet her when she woke the next morning.

“Shit!,” I said through tears and a quivering voice, my mom still placing dishes in the cabinet. I’m not much of a crier and don’t typically indulge in emotional meltdowns, but the moment sort of called for it. “Oh my god, I’m a horrible mother,” I sobbed. “You’re not supposed to kill your daughter’s goldfish when you and her Dad are getting divorced!”
I was beginning to slowly unravel as I considered my own sideways swim/float existence, now staring up helplessly at me from a fishbowl. One fin up and one fin down. I feel you, little fish. I feel you.

A Fish Only a Mother Could Love

My mother, ever the “fixer” and optimist, picked up a wooden spoon from the jar by the stove and began to stir the water of the fish bowl very quickly, as though this would solve my problem. What it did do was give Finny The Third the ability to swim in the swirl of water, and thus the illusion that he was back to normal, as the velocity of the water carried him around the bowl. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to pretend it was working.

“He’s fine!” she said with conviction. “Totally fine! See?” Until the eddy of the wooden spoon slowed and he returned to his one sided float and he wasn’t fine. She picked up the spoon again.

“Mom, I don’t think that is going to help,” I said, as I began to laugh and cry at her sweet but illogical attempt to save this fish with a wooden spoon. The same wooden spoon she used to smack her children’s backsides when they got out of line was now being used to rescue a very important fish and her broken daughter.

The moment hit me just then as I saw my own mother desperately trying to revive that dying fish with a wooden spoon. She did not want her child to be in pain or feel the hurt of the world. She wanted to kiss my boo boo and make it all better. She would have done anything to keep that goldfish alive for me, goldfish CPR or swirling the water with a wooden spoon, anything to take away the hurt. Which is exactly what I was trying to do for my own daughter, trying to save her from the cruel realities of life and the pain of losing something she loved. Full circle moment.

And So It Goes…

I knew I would have to tell Gracie that Finny had died. I’d have to explain to her that fish die just like the spider in Charlotte’s Web, which we had read earlier that year. And while she did cry when I told her about her Finny, she was soon asking when we could get another fishy friend. She missed the fishy stories, feeding time, and the idea of her little friend waiting in a glass bowl when she came to her new home. I never told her there had been two others.

Not long after Finny left us, we got “Pearl”, an iridescent white Beta fish, with pink streaks on the tail, pink rocks and matching pink castle. Pearl lived through three elementary school teachers, a move to a new home, new stepdad, and even a new baby sister. So when she died four years later, we gave her a proper burial in a blue toilet in Gracie’s bathroom.

Fish die. Moms and Dads get divorced. You don’t make the team or the boy breaks up with you. Sometimes sad things happen in life. They knock us to our knees and they make us cry. But they don’t break you or define you.

The other thing my mom taught me was, “This too, shall pass.” Life goes on even after bad things happen. There’s still some good to be had in the world. Eventually I had to stop replacing Finny and pull back the curtain to the sometimes harsh reality of life. It’s still going to be okay, even when the goldfish dies.