For Christmas last year, I gave my step-kids a tropical fish tank. They went to the pet store with me and chose three fish each, and named them fabulously ridiculous names: Kitty (yup), Snowy (this one made sense, she’s all white), Cube, Bartleby, Pickle and one more I can’t remember.
My husband had kept fish before and he knew about pH, letting the tank “settle,” correct temperature and all that stuff. For a short while, everything was fine. C was terrifically dutiful about remembering to feed the fish morning and evening. Many hours were spent discussing the various fish personalities, which fish was the fastest, whose fish was better, etc. After bedtime stories, the light from the fish tank was a nice nightlite. Everyone liked the fish.
One day, after we had the fish for a few weeks, I got a phone call. “Honey?”
There is a tone of voice that my husband has (maybe all husbands?) that says, “something is wrong, I don’t really want to tell you, and the bad thing is either your fault or my fault.”
“Honey, the kids are crying, they are really upset,” he says. “One of the fish died. They found it this morning.”
My heart sank. I felt awful. The fish were supposed to be a happy thing, a good thing. I knew eventually they would die, but not after a few weeks. I felt like a step-parent failure. Here I was, bringing grief and DEATH into their lives. Nice work, sister.
Dad talked to the kids about pet death, we prayed for the living fish and for the soul of the departed fish, and brought the carcass to the pet store. They couldn’t see anything wrong with it. They tested our water, which they said was fine. Mysterious death. Even better.
Within the next few weeks, two more fish died. At this point, I started calling the fish tank the “Tank of Death.” When the second one died, B was crushed, and C was a little upset, but there were no tears. By the time the third one died, the kids were getting a little disgusted and were like, “Oh, well. Fish died.”
Awesome, I thought. Not only have I brought DEATH to their little psyches, I have also brought the capacity to be blase about DEATH. Super. Way to go, step-mom.
Everything stabilized for a while, and D decided to get one more fish and see how things went. That fish seemed to do well. It was untouched by the powers of the Tank of Death. Then one day I got to the house and the kids were nearly coming out of their skins they were so excited.
“Snowy had BABIES!” They screamed. Sure enough. The Tank of Death was full of teeny, tiny white fish careening around the tank. Lots and lots of teeny white fish. It freaked me out at first. I thought fish had to lay eggs or something, and the thought of fish eggs in the tank kind of grossed me out, I don’t know why. But it turns out these kind of fish are “live birth” fish.
Soon after that, Snowy had more babies. And then even more. It got a little freaky. I re-christened the Tank of Death the “Tank of Life and Death.” Then Cube, who everyone had decided was the father, up and died. That made four of the original six dead. Cube was C’s favorite, and actually, my favorite too. He was the most manic of the fish and so he was always fun to watch dart around. We were bummed about that.
Now the babies are much bigger and hang out happily with Snowy, Kitty and Pickle the Second. We have trouble counting how many of them there are because they move around so fast, but we think it’s about 25.
It isn’t often that God provides such an obvious metaphor for not giving up on things in the face of grief and loss. Nor is it all that often that in the universe of parenting things sort of “right” themselves. So I am very grateful that the Tank of Death is now the Tank of Life and Death.