You learn a lot about people when they are grieving for a fish.
After one-and-a-half years, at least nine lives and more medicine than I have ingested in fifty years on this planet, our betta, Bluestar, has gone to his reward.
When I say “our betta,” I mean, of course, the bowl-housed betta for which my daughter begged and pleaded and, not unpredictably, swiftly pronounced “kinda boring,” thereby bequeathing his care to my husband and me. We thought he was neat-o.
Bluestar’s passing was not unexpected. We had anticipated this moment for six months, which was when Bluey began to perfect his dead fish float. Tim or I would wake up and shuffle to his bowl to feed him, only to find our blue-finned friend lying motionless on his side near his heater. We’d gather the family around the bowl, say a prayer and plan the funeral. Before we could decide which spot in the yard was most suitable for his final resting place, however, Blue would leap from his coma, take a crazed victory lap around the bowl and come to stare at us, his fins fluttering in what appeared to be piscine glee.
“Hey, lookit me! Didn’t I look like a dead fish? Didn’t I? Hahahaha! So what’s a guy got to do to get a meal around here?”
As the months went on and Blue’s impersonation of Dead Mr. Limpet began to last longer and longer, he was less able to wring sympathy from his mourners. Some of them, anyway. Tim decided to hold his tears until we figured out a way to take a fish’s vitals, though he must be credited for continuing to search for new and better fish medications.
Carolyn, to whom I have turned for consolation and advice innumerable times in our long and enduring friendship is, I am sorry to say, crap at comforting the bereaved when they are grieving a fish. Oh, yes you are, Carolyn.
Her kids had fish for years, and she gave Bluestar two of his favorite toys, so naturally I would appeal to her in times of concern: “I think Bluestar is sick. He’s growing white fuzz balls on his fins! What do I do?”
“Take him to the vet at Wal-Mart. Hahahaha.”
“I didn’t know there were vets at Wal-Mart.”
“Oh, sure. You take in the sick fish, and they give him back–better than ever. Hahahahaha!”
“Where are the vets? In back of the pet section? I’m not sure our Wal-Mart has a veterinarian.”
“Wendy, just take the fish to Wal-Mart. Your betta will live for years. Hahahahahaha!”
“Carolyn, honestly, I don’t think our Wal-Mart—“
She made the sound of a toilet flushing.
Oh. My. God. Without even a proper burial!
When Bluestar’s eyesight began to wane and he regularly over- or undershot his food, I bought a hand feeder. Nifty little gadget, but it takes time and a lot of patience to get the hang of it, and Blue, as it turned out, didn’t have enough left of either.
Ironically, Carolyn was with me when I discovered, for the last time, Bluestar on his side.
Carolyn peered into the bowl. “He’s faking.”
“He is not, not this time.” I felt my nose begin to tickle. “This is different. This time he’s at the bottom of the bowl.”
“Wendy,” Carolyn’s lovely eldest daughter pointed out quite gently, “fish float to the top when they’re dead. He’s probably just sleeping again.” She said nothing about Wal-Mart, for which I bless her.
“Thank you, honey.” I nodded. “But Bluestar always did things his own way. I’m sure he’s passed on this time.” And he had.
After we buried the little guy, disinfected his bowl, toys and heater and packed up his belongings and meds up to give to some other family embarking on fish ownership, I began to contemplate our various responses to Blue’s brief-ish life. I wonder if the way we each reacted reflects the fact that lately we’ve all given some thought to dying? Maybe this is how we’re going to treat our own elder years, particularly when we come to the point where our mortality seems more imminent than philosophical.
Tim will be proactive but stoic. Carolyn will request that her children set her off on an ice float like an ancient Eskimo, and you will hear the sound of her laughter echoing on the air. I will be propped up with pillows, surrounded by costly supplements, squinting at my laptop and dangerously raising my cortisol levels as I Google alternative treatments.
It bears some thought. Watching Bluestar live taught me how to enjoy life even when my bowl is smaller than I would like it to be. Now his death is pretty instructive.
Our daughter, by the way, did tear up when she realized that her pet, the one she had chosen so painstakingly from all the many containers of bettas at the pet store, was gone for good. “Is he really dead this time?”
“Do we have to get rid of his body?”
“Is it gonna stink?”
“Not if we do it soon.”
“Can we have a funeral?”
“And then get pizza?”