My son was four years old when he first popped The Question.
“Mama, why don’t we have a puppy or a kitten at our house?”
As far as I can recall, my response went something like this: “Well, some people do and some people don’t. Do you like puppies and kittens?” (“Yes.”) “Well, that would be fun someday, wouldn’t it? Hey, do you want another cookie?”
And so the crisis was momentarily (and deftly) averted. In the intervening years, when the topic has arisen again, I’ve handled it pretty much the same way. Eventually, though, I will need more heavy-duty techniques than indulge-and-distract, and frankly, I’m not sure I have what it takes.
Intellectually, I see why a pet is probably a bad idea for our family. If, however, my Better Half suddenly decided that our children required the psychological benefits of a furry companion, and the only thing left to do was Convince Mama, doing so would take about as much effort as convincing me to go get a pedicure and then spend the rest of the day reading and drinking lattes at Barnes & Noble.
But that’s not going to happen. If a pet ever joins our household, it will be a Momentous Event, preceded by wars, rumors of wars, and extensive deliberation, and ultimately heralded with much fanfare. Or so I’ve always assumed.
Sometimes, though, life just sneaks up on you.
One bright Saturday in September, I was on my own with the kids. After an afternoon of hayrides, games, and face-painting at a church member’s farm, I made a last-minute decision to check out the Homecoming festivities at my daughter’s preschool. Not because it would be in any way meaningful to my children, but because I’d heard there would be Kids’ Activities, and I wanted to provide enough tactile and body-kinesthetic experiences to justify turning on the Wii as soon as we got home.
So. Weaving our way through a throng of raucous high-schoolers, we located the activities: Beanbag Toss, Sand Art, Squirt the Ping-Pong Ball, Ring Toss, and so on, with all the games promising prizes for the winners. The prize for the Ring Toss? A fish.
If you have children, know any children, or ever were a child, you’ve already guessed that one of my children headed for the Ring Toss the moment he spied the stacks of depressed Wal-Mart-issued fish circling in their clear plastic off-brand homes with lids already beginning to crack. Inwardly, I panicked, having already noted the high-schoolers’ leniency in letting my munchkins stand MUCH closer to their targets than technically allowed by standard Beanbag Toss regulations. Fortunately, the student supervising the Ring Toss made sure my son stood behind the masking tape, and three eagerly-tossed rings landed on the floor in rapid succession.
“Oh, well! Good try, honey!” I told him cheerfully, turning hurriedly to find a safer activity. But then…then a young bystander decided to do her Random Act of Kindness for the day.
“You can have my fish, if you’d like,” said a sweet little girl, who was probably about nine but whose face I will never remember because it all happened so quickly and because it’s hard to observe your surroundings when you’re already consumed by an internal conflict that is making your head explode. Years’ worth of deliberation and debate passed through my mind in nanoseconds.
Wait, are we ready for a pet? I’m not sure we can handle the responsibility. Well, it is just a fish, and they’re really just decorations, anyway, they’re not actually pets. Besides, these carnival fish always die within twenty-four hours anyway, right? Shoot, what if it DOES die and he’s already gotten attached to it? I wonder if we should try to keep it alive. Would he care? If it lives, do we need to buy friends for it? And those neon rocks that go on the bottom of a fishbowl? I wonder if any of the kids’ toys would make good fishbowl decor. He might not mind if it dies – it’s not like he can pet it or anything.
“Aw, that’s very nice of you! Thank you very much!” I said aloud, calmly accepting the scrawny grey fish as if I did this every weekend and, in fact, already owned a thirty-gallon aquarium filled with happy carnival fish who would be delighted to welcome a new friend. And thus, without pomp or circumstance, our household welcomed its First Pet.
If I had any hope that the fish’s existence would be as inauspicious as his adoption, my son quickly demolished them. “I love Fisho!” he declared as soon as we found an empty surface for its home. From then on, checking in on the fish became an important component of my son’s daily schedule. Every hour, he would rush into his room to gaze at his new charge, comment on its appearance (“Look at how his eyes stick out! He’s kind of ugly, but in a cute way, isn’t he?”), and ask to feed it. (“Honey, some of his last meal is still floating around. Let’s give him a break, okay?”) I buried my hopes for the fish’s rapid demise, and instead braced myself for the impending onslaught of fish-related purchases…but twenty-six hours after joining us, as unceremoniously as he had entered our world, Fisho exited it.
“Look, Mama!” called my daughter, who had come to inspect the fish while her brother was out playing with a friend. “He’s sleeping!”
Before I’d even looked for myself, I knew what I was about to see. Fisho, hovering motionless near the bottom of his abode, eyes bulging and sightless, was undeniably and reliably dead. Which my daughter, once she believed me, handled so well that I wondered if she had contributed to the situation. Only one obvious question now remained: Had my son’s professed love for Fisho grown deep enough that this loss would traumatize him for years? The suspense, fortunately, was short-lived.
Barreling through the front door, my son headed straightaway for his room. Peering closely at the fish, he immediately exclaimed, “Hey, Mama – he’s sleeping!”
I chose a matter-of-fact approach. “Actually, honey, I don’t think he’s sleeping.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…it looks like our fish didn’t make it.”
“You mean he’s dead? How do you know?”
“Well, he’s not moving. See how, even if I jiggle his container, he just lies there?”
Wide-eyed, my son jostled the container…and giggled. “Look, now he’s moving!” More jostling, less tentatively this time. “Now he’s really moving!” And with that, delighted giggles overcame him.
When his laughter subsided, I took advantage of the levity. “Do you know how to get rid of dead fish?”
“Throw them in the trash?”
“Actually, that would stink up the bathroom. So you know what? We flush them.”
Wide eyes once more. “In the TOILET?” Another giggling fit ensued. “It’ll be like somebody POOPED a fish!”
And with that, we concluded our First Pet Adventure. Maybe we’re ready for a puppy after all.