I killed our pet fish Lyria today. It wasn’t even a fair game of Whodunnit?. Everyone knew the culprit from the get-go: Mommy. In the kitchen. With a fish net and a colander. And I readily confessed to the crime. One minute I was cleaning Lyria’s tank, and the next minute she was belly up.
She was more alternating between fits of swimming and the Dead Fish Float, but in any case, she was clearly not going to make it. My daughters handled the upset surprisingly well. In fact, it took them all of five seconds to mourn her untimely demise before asking me if now they can get a dog.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t as immediately come to terms with the loss. It would have been easy if Lyria had just died. I mean, I still would have been left wondering what in the world happened, and I still would have felt terrible, but at least I could have just moved on. Instead, Lyria seemed as surprised as me that the day had taken a tragic turn, and she just wasn’t ready to let go.
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We bought our daughters, Maddy and Stella, two Beta fish back in the fall to quiet their insistent pleas for a pet. They chose them with care and immediately fell in love, naming them Mia and Lyria after characters in a television show. Mia, Stella’s fish, took up residence next to our microwave. She didn’t last too long. I suspect it’s because we nuked her with radiation every time we cooked bacon, but I couldn’t say with any kind of certainty. Lyria, on the other hand, fared quite well in our home. She was an avid swimmer who delighted in watching movies and observing the girls’ gymnastics routines, and I was fond of her. She was low maintenance and passed time quietly and contentedly.
What kind of existence does a fish have? It’s hard to say. But as I watched Lyria struggle to survive this morning, I couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering. It’s ridiculous, really, to be torn up by a fish; I am a standpat sushi enthusiast, for crying out loud! But this is not the first time I’ve had to manage such tension. In high school, I believed that if you can’t kill it, you shouldn’t eat it, so I slaughtered a chicken and watched a cow’s throat slit in an abattoir because I detested the idea of being so disconnected from…well, life. Becoming a mother has only exacerbated my tendency towards excessive empathy with the small, the vulnerable, and the defenseless.
Lyria’s life had value. All life has value. And, in spite of her being “just” a fish, I was burdened by the responsibilities inherent to valuing life. Should I leave her to die on her own of what were decidedly NOT natural causes, or should I do the merciful thing and just flush her down the toilet?
Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought, and I don’t judge them harshly. In fact, I envy them. Not giving a shit about a pet fish would make everything so much less complicated, but I somehow manage to turn all decisions into exacting statements about my principles and ethics. This does not make me feel sanctimonious; it makes me feel absurd and schmaltzy. In fact, while I struggled to make the “right” decision, Lyria died. In the end, my lack of resolve deprived me of any agency at all.
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We must have convictions so we can act accordingly when faced with difficult decisions. It’s only by living through trying experiences that we develop any kind of cocksureness, but we have to be prepared for the fact that there are some situations for which we may never be free of doubt. Maybe the impending death of a pet fish calls into question our readiness to take a stand when real shit hits the fan, Or maybe the response to the death of “just” a pet fish is the true test of our understanding that everything we do has reverberative consequences. To feel your way through life isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If my girls end up embarrassingly inclined towards indecision when it comes to true ownership of their choices, if they end up astraddle on issues of great import (whether others appreciate it or not), they’ll have gotten that from me. But I’m not all that terrible, you know.
Even if I killed the fish.
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(And I really am sorry.)