An honest take on life and parenthood

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish

on July 14, 2014

Chances are, if you have a toddler, you also have a fish.

A couple of Christmases ago, my mother gave the Pooh a Betta fish. I looked at this coral red fish with her glamorous fins, and crossed my fingers for her survival.

The Pooh named her Baby Fish. She endured the five hour drive home to Providence from my mom’s house in New Jersey, sloshing all the way up I-95 in her bowl, safely anchored in a cardboard box on the floor of my car.

Once home, I put her bowl on the kitchen island, so that she could watch our activity and we could enjoy her company. Once she acclimated, she was a cheerful little creature who greeted us every morning for breakfast.


Baby Fish

Baby Fish

Baby Fish turned out to be an easy pet. We fed her tiny orange pellets and dried worms, and I eventually replaced her plastic plant for a living aquatic plant, where she loved to nap and rest. I cleaned her bowl once a week, and the water stayed remarkably clear although we used no filter.

I took pictures of her swimming happily in her bowl, and posted them to Facebook. One friend noted the cleanliness of her bowl (and her survival), and asked me for tips, since her family had not had much luck with Bettas. I modestly told her that I fed Baby Fish only once a day, cleaned her bowl once a week, and kept her stimulated in a central location in the house.

I felt proud of myself, like a fish whisperer.

Summer passed into fall, and Baby Fish began to slow down imperceptibly. Bit by bit, she seemed less lively, though she seemed to perk up when I’d change her bowl, using slightly warmer water.

But as the months wore on through Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas, she became increasingly lethargic and introverted. She spent more time at the bottom of her bowl, and showed little interest in food.

One afternoon in mid-February, it happened. I found Baby Fish motionless and floating diagonally in her bowl, face pointed down, tail up.

I chose not to hide Baby Fish’s passing from the Pooh. We teach kids about birth, I reasoned, so I should teach her about death as well, and this presented an opportunity without heavy emotional baggage.

I broke the news to the Pooh. She started to cry, while immediately asking for a new fish through her tears. Although I was surprised by her reaction, I promised her that we could go get a new fish.

A few hours later, we opened the doors to Aqualife, our local fish store on Wickenden Street in Providence.

The Pooh looked at the Bettas and chose a small fish, which was deep orange with a counter shimmer of blue on her body. When asked to name her fish, she opted to recycle the name of Baby Fish.

I asked the owner of Aqualife for possible causes of Baby Fish I’s death. She told me that Bettas are tropical fish. If the water gets too cold, they die.

Baby Fish I had frozen to death in my New England kitchen.

Numb with guilt, I bought a $10 heat stick for Baby Fish II’s bowl, and left the shop with the Pooh and our new little fish.

We went home. I found a small box of Maggi bouillon cubes and emptied it to become Baby Fish I’s coffin. I gently wrapped Baby Fish I in toilet paper and slid her into the brown and yellow cardboard box.


The coffin

The coffin

The Pooh and I put on our coats and went outside. The Pooh chose a quiet spot under a rhododendron bush for Baby Fish I’s final resting place. I used a garden spade to dig a hole in the winter ground, and placed the small cardboard box in it. I decided to say a few words.

“Baby Fish, you were a good little fish and good company.” The Pooh gave a huge sob. I put a hand on her shoulder. “We loved having you as a member of the family and hope that you enjoy fish heaven.” The Pooh started crying. I bent down and held her until she quieted.

I scooped the dirt over Baby Fish I’s coffin and patted it flat. We found a lone purple pansy in a flower pot that had somehow survived the winter, and placed it on Baby Fish I’s grave.

We returned to the warm house to make Baby Fish II at home.

Baby Fish II was a feisty little thing, who darted around the bowl. She seemed ravenous, so I fed her. She ate far more than Baby Fish I, and soon she tripled in size. She lost some of her feistiness, and swam regally around her bowl, the plump queen of her watery kingdom.

I faithfully kept the heat stick in her bowl, which kept the water bathtub warm in spite of the cold winter temperatures.


Baby Fish II

Baby Fish II

About five months in, her bowl had started to accumulate a buildup near the top rim, so I decided to clean it. After seeing all of those touching commercials of people using Dawn dish detergent to clean wildlife after oil spills, I decided that it must be safe for fish.

I used a dot of Dawn dish liquid to clean the bowl, and rinsed it out. The bowl sparkled. I added fresh water, water conditioner, and her live plant.

I dumped Baby Fish II back into the clean bowl from a glass of water.

Within a day or two, she started acting strangely. She would dart around the bowl suddenly, then become lethargic for hours. She blew excessive amounts of bubbles. Her appetite vacillated. Her eyes started to lose their shimmer.

Worried, I took her back to Aqualife for a diagnosis.

The owner shook her head and informed me that Baby Fish II was too overweight, and that I should cut back on her food. Obediently, I cut back from the 10 pellets/day she had been eating to 2 pellets a day.

Two days later, Baby Fish was dead.

I found her floating diagonally in her bowl, face down, tail up, just after clearing dinner.

The Pooh was in the next room, and my husband was still at the kitchen table. I waved my arms and gave a low whistle to capture his attention.

“What?” he said, looking up from his laptop.

As I motioned to the bowl with my eyes and tipped my head in its direction, his face fell. He got up. We looked at the dead fish together.

Of one cowardly mind, we began to plot.

“I think I should ‘take her to the vet’ tomorrow.” I whispered.

He whispered back, “Just slip out in the morning when my mom arrives. Say you are going to the fish doctor. Then swap it out.”

I left Baby Fish II in her bowl overnight. By morning, her body had started to decompose. Her beautiful red scales now had a sickly white film, and the bowl reeked.

As the Pooh slept in, I dumped out most of the water, and scooped out Baby Fish II’s body, carefully placing it in a glass of water that I moved to an unnoticed corner of the kitchen counter.

As soon as my mother in law arrived and the Pooh was awake, I announced that I was taking Baby Fish II to the fish doctor, and scooted out the door with cardboard box containing a fishbowl without a fish.

The owner of Aqualife recognized me from my visit two days prior. I confessed that I had used Dawn to wash the glass of Baby Fish II’s bowl. She shook her head again at me.

“So you’re saying I poisoned the fish?”

“Yes. You can’t use detergents. If you want to clean the bowl, use aquarium salt or borax.”

Baby Fish I: frozen to death. Baby Fish II: poisoned. I had gone from fish whisperer to hapless fish serial killer in a few short months.

Consumed by guilt, I looked among the assortment of Betta fish at Aqualife and chose a replacement fish that resembled Baby Fish II as much as possible. It was a male fish, and he was smaller, but he would have to do.

I brought him home, and announced that Baby Fish was all better. The Pooh glanced at Baby Fish III, and seemed satisfied.

Once the Pooh was distracted and playing with her grandmother, I slipped outside and buried Baby Fish II in an unmarked grave in the furthest corner of the yard. I said a mental prayer and marked the spot with a flowering branch.

In the days and weeks that followed, the Pooh didn’t notice anything amiss. My husband and I congratulated ourselves for pulling off the switch.

But just yesterday, the Pooh was in a mood. On overcast, rainy days, she is cranky, and small things irritate her. She passed by Baby Fish III’s bowl, stopped, and looked closely at her (well, really him).

“Mommy, when we first got Baby Fish, she had blue on her body. Where is the blue?”

Oh crap.

Just then, my husband called me. I distracted the Pooh for a moment.

“She’s on to us,” I whispered in a panic.

He said, “Just remind her that her eyes changed from blue to brown.”

I hung up and turned to her. “Well, my love, as we grow, we change. Baby Fish is a little older now, so she lost the blue on her body. Remember how your eyes were blue when you were a baby?”


“Now what color are they?”


“That’s right. And do you remember how your hair was curly, and now it is straight?”

“Yes. But, Mommy, Baby Fish used to have blue on her! And she also has white on her fins now, look! She didn’t have that before!” Her voice rose in indignation, as she yelled and stomped around in fabulous four year old fashion.

Meanwhile, I stayed calm, holding desperately on to my ruse, reassuring her that Baby Fish was growing and changing every day, just as she was.

But I knew I was a fraud.

I wish I could share some pithy insights on teaching your children about death, but I’m not feeling terribly confident these days. I’m just another bumbling liar of a parent, brought low by three Betta fish and a keen-eyed child.

I’m not feeling confident about fish care either. Clearly, I am no fish whisperer. I can only tell you that if you have a Betta fish, be sure to keep the water warm, don’t overfeed them, and never, ever use detergent to clean the bowl.

And keep a few tiny cardboard boxes around. They might just come in handy someday.


Baby Fish III. Who is still alive. (And shhh! a boy).

Baby Fish III. Who is still alive. (And shhh! a boy).


5 responses to “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish

  1. jgroeber says:

    Yes, yes! My children received beta fish for a PARTY FAVOR for a mermaid-themed party. Four kids, four fish! Seriously?! Thank goodness it wasn’t a Hello Kitty party or my house would be over-run with cats. And I don’t want pets. I don’t want plants. It’s hard enough keeping 4 kids alive. And yet, these fish have survived for a handful of months in my home. I know though that we’re only one long weekend away from needing the small box (or four.) So glad to hear you survived it. (And I may have even chuckled a bit while reading…)


  2. That mom who gave those Betta fish was a sadistic cow. Oh wait…did I just say that?! Kudos to you for keeping those babies alive along with your own four kids. Lordy.


  3. Some fish are built stronger than others. My mom had a Beta fish that lasted forever and another that only lasted a week. They both died in the same diagonal direction.


  4. appleandpebble says:

    I really like the way you write and tell a story -im definitely going to follow you for new adventures with the pooh. About the fish: yes indeed, bettas need warm water and its best to have a lid (with little wholes) on his bowl because those fish can jump!


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