This is not going to be a pretty message. Nope, nothing pretty about this one.
But sometimes life’s most meaningful messages don’t come in pretty packages.
This is my story…
My oldest daughter received an aquarium for her eighth birthday.
The process of immersing herself in the research of all things “fishy” for an entire month leading up to her birthday was all very “Hands Free.”
And the way my daughters gasped in sheer delight when the colorful fish were freed into the tank was about as “Hands Free” as you can possibly get.
The epitome of “Hands Free” was how someone who is not much into fish or sitting still, for that matter, found herself perched on the ottoman in front of the tank mesmerized by its tranquility when no one else around.
Yes, even my control freak ultra planner drill sergeant side has been slowed down by the aquarium.
So just as I was about to declare the fish tank experience one of the greatest producers of Hands Free behavior on my journey to grasp what matters EVER, things took a different turn.
Things turned dark, as dark as they could possibly get.
From the warm and fuzzy connected feeling that is life at its fullest, we were thrust into the cold and heart-wrenching feeling that is death in its finality.
I told you this was not going to be pretty.
I know, I know. We were warned. Brad the All-Knowing Fish Salesman warned us that keeping fish alive was very difficult; he didn’t sugar coat it. In fact, his exact words were, “Even people who are experienced aquarium experts are often unable to keep their fish alive.”
We should have run. Run, as fast as we could to the furry four-legged side of the pet store. I know. I know.
But I kept thinking we had something the “fish experts” didn’t have. After all, this was a Hands Free mission sparked by my eight-year-old daughter’s quest to grasp what really matters.
Yes, it would turn out beautifully, just like the other Hands Free experiences on this journey have so far.
I was sure the loving Hands Free connection that radiated from us would be enough to sustain these fish.
Plus, my husband was determined to make it work.
He did everything as instructed by Fish Salesman Brad to prepare the tank and make the water optimal for its inhabitants.
Our kitchen counter was lined with overpriced products like, “Stress Coat,” and “Nutrafin Aquarium Supplement.” In addition to products that promised to reduce ammonia and nitrate toxicity in the water.
Yes, oh yes, fish would not only LIVE in this aquarium, they would THRIVE in this aquarium.
Yet for some reason, I kept hearing Brad’s voice like a bad song I couldn’t get out of my head, “Very hard to keep alive…alive…alive….”
Just to be on the safe side, I instructed my daughter not to name any of the fish…not until they survived the initial transfer.
But then my daughter declared one of the fish, “Rachel’s fish.”
Really? My very own fish? The cute neon orange one?
I just had to name it.
I just HAD to go and name it, didn’t I? Why couldn’t I have just taken my own advice and allowed him to remain anonymous.
The next day, guess who was floating belly up in the tank? Yes, my little Orange Blossom.
I won’t lie. I was disturbed.
As a child, I couldn’t bear to watch Bambi’s mother get shot, and I still close my eyes during that scene. I was the girl who tried to get the mean boys to stop frying ants with the magnifying glass at recess. I still carry house spiders outside on a piece of paper (if they aren’t huge). I just don’t like seeing anything die, regardless how tiny it is.
Yet, I could see one small positive in the demise of little Orange Blossom…at least it was my fish that perished and not my children’s fish.
Not yet, anyway.
So a few days passed. Fish began mysteriously disappearing. Waverunner 1 was first and then Waverunner 2, shortly thereafter. (Yes, we named them. We just couldn’t help it. Their red and blue stripes looked exactly like the swim cap my daughter wore for her Waverunner swim team. We just HAD to name them.)
Why, oh why, did we have to name them?
Again, disturbing…very disturbing.
We all gathered around the tank in disbelief. I had an inkling of what was going on, but I couldn’t imagine speaking the words. It was so Hannibal Lecter-ish.
My eight-year-old was only a few seconds behind. After all, she was the one who educated us about “aggressive” fish and informed us that she wanted no part of those kind of fish.
“Someone is eating them!!!” she realized with disgust.
We all pressed our noses against the glass as if the culprit would have a skull tattoo on his tail or an excessively bulging belly.
Now who could it be?
We all concluded it was the silver mollie. It was the fastest one in the tank and kind of had a bossy attitude about it.
My husband bagged up “Killer” and took my daughters with him to the pet store hoping to replace “aggressive” with “docile.”
They arrived home a few hours later and were quite busy making noise in the kitchen.
When I walked out, I saw an addition to the fish tank. Our delightful dwarf frog had been upgraded to a one bedroom condo equipped with a tiny terra cotta hiding pot, faux greenery, and trendy blue rocks. Pottery Barn for Frogs. Really?
“The frog is a carnivore!” my oldest daughter announced.
“He is the one who has been eating everyone!” she further explained in layman’s terms in case Mom was clueless.
Oh no. No way. I could not believe that. Cute little skydiving Mr. Dwarf Frog???
So what about the silver mollie? I felt badly he was mistakenly accused of wrong doing (serious wrong-doing) when he was totally innocent.
Well, they informed he was traded…like a baseball card. I guess that is how the unfeeling fish world works.
In his place, my daughter chose a “cleaner fish,” because the one we originally bought never, and I mean never, comes out from behind the rock. (And yes, we checked; he is surprisingly alive unlike everyone else.)
I have to admit, the new cleaner fish was pretty cool. He actually resembled a small shark (minus the sharp teeth). He gently scaled the sides of the tank sucking off algae and bacteria. We all sat hypnotically watching his slow, methodical movements for several minutes.
At this point, I felt like I needed a Who’s Still Alive re-cap…a fish roll call, of sorts.
“So let’s review,” I began, although my daughters were still fixated on our novel new addition.
“Now we have two cleaner fish, two clown fish (both being from our original fish purchase), a neon green tetra…”
“Which is my fish!” my youngest daughter interjected.
“…And a newly purchased Mickey Mouse platy,” I concluded.
The water had been tested for high levels of nitrates and ammonia. The temperature of the water was ideal. The compatibility of the fish was checked and double-checked. And the carnivorous frog had been removed. Surely things would be O.K now.
Two hours later…
Remember the cool new cleaner fish I was just telling you about? Well, he was dead.
“Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous!” I could not believe what my oldest daughter was reporting and stormed out to the aquarium to see for myself.
I began a mumbling rant about how we should have just gotten a cat.
“I can keep a cat alive, no problem!” I huffed under my breath.
My four-year-old daughter stood in front of the tank with her shoulders slumped. Clearly she had seen one fish cadaver too many.
She ran into my arms and began sobbing into my chest.
“Mama, are you gonna die, too?”
No way. This is NOT the Hands Free moment I placed my order for when we bought this fish tank!
Now both girls were crying as their daddy removed the now hard as a rock “cleaner fish,” who was not around long enough to even get a decent name!
My four-year-old prayer warrior suggested it was time to ask for God’s help in the matter. She informed everyone she was going to pray.
She said the loveliest prayer for as many of the dead fish she could remember, (after all, there had been so many), and then she squeezed her eyes tightly as she pleaded for the other fish to “just stay alive.”
We miraculously made it almost two weeks without an aquatic casualty.
And then my youngest daughter’s neon green tetra became a victim of The Tube (innocently referred to in the instruction manual as The Filter, which really should have a warning label for slender fish).
Before she could even think about crying, my oldest daughter quickly reminded her of all the other fish that were still alive.
I heard my eight-year-old whip out her Ultra Sunshiny Kindergarten Teacher Voice to consoling her heart-broken little sister.
“See, we still have two clown fish and the first cleaner fish we ever bought, which we can’t see because he hides all the time, but we know he is there because look how clean the tank is?”
Little sister seemed to be buying it, so Big Sister continued, “Then over here, we have the fish with the Mickey Mouse symbol on his tail, but don’t worry, no one wrote on him, his tail is naturally like that. And of course, look at Mr. Froggy!”
She pointed to Froggy’s private, deluxe accommodations next to the tank, “Just look at how much fun Mr. Froggy is having!”
And right on cue, Froggy did a little free-fall move from the top of the bowl to the bottom.
My youngest daughter actually smiled.
Shew. Crisis diverted. You know I am not one to promote “distraction.” But in this case, my oldest child used it well.
As per instructions, it was time to clean the tank. My husband did exactly as the instructions read. Once he was finished, we all admired the glow of the tank, the smell of the fresh clear water, and the lively movements of our happy little inhabitants.
In my mind, I was at peace.
OK, so we may not have them ALL, but we have enough, and it looks like they are going to stay around now.
“Can we name the other clown fish now, Mama? His brother, Oreo, has had a name for weeks now,” my oldest daughter reminded me.
“Yes, you can name the clown fish with the little orange spots,” I agreed.
After all, things were finally looking stable.
She decided on “Bubbles.”
We just HAD to name him, didn’t we?
You know where this is going, but I must continue anyway.
My youngest child runs around the house a few hours later shouting, “Bubbles is dead! Bubbles is dead!”
First I had to remember WHO Bubbles was, (we had literally just named him), and then I experienced the feeling of anger, sadness, frustration, and disbelief that was becoming way too familiar.
When I arrived at the tank, not only was Bubbles dead, but so was the Mickey Mouse platy.
Now this was getting ridiculous.
I had to find something (or someone) to blame for this most recent fish massacre.
BUT….I had to be very careful. If I was too accusatory or critical, I might lose my tank cleaner, and I am talking about my Human Tank Cleaner. You can’t buy one of those at the pet store.
“What do you think happened this time?” I calmly asked my husband, my Human Tank Cleaner, who also looked quite depressed.
“For some reason they didn’t survive the water change,” he surmised.
Oh that’s nice…blame it on the innocent fish…make it sound like it was their fault.
“The salesman said fish are really hard to keep alive,” he added.
Yeah. I think I got that.
Again, another “Shoulda got a cat” comment slipped out under my breath.
I over went to console my oldest child, who now looked like she had finally reached her breaking point.
“I just don’t understand, Mama. Why? Why do all my fish keep dying? Oreo and the practically invisible cleaner fish are the only ones left!”
And for someone who really did not know what to say, something quite good came out of my mouth.
“Honey, those fish are just glad they didn’t die in the pet store.”
Huh? Even I wasn’t sure where this was going.
She stopped crying immediately looking at me like she needed more…wanted to hear more of this (potentially lame) theory.
“Well, all your fish were chosen. That is what fish wait for…someone to chose them from all the others. You know, life doesn’t really start until you get out of the pet store aquarium and actually have a home. While they were here, they looked out of the glass and not did see a store; they saw a home. They saw the same joyful faces day after day. They saw that they had been chosen. So they died happy.”
She was considering. I was holding my breath.
The agony on her face softened, “You’re right. That would be terrible to die in a pet store,” she agreed.
“And now they are in fish heaven! Having fun swimming around with all their friends,” my ever-happy youngest daughter chimed in.
We all looked lovingly at Oreo, our one sole survivor (if you don’t count the “cleaner fish” who spends his whole life hiding behind a rock).
And now, another week has passed. He has been with us for six weeks now.
I still find myself sitting at the tank, despite the fact there is much less to look at in there now.
I am kind of in awe of little Oreo and wonder if he could talk, what he might say is his secret to survival.
I think Oreo would suggest these three things for longevity:
Live large- Living a little on the plump side prevents you from getting sucked up into The Tube AND you are just a bit too big to fit inside a dwarf frog’s mouth.
Go Slow- There’s no need to rush, people. What’s the hurry? Slow down and feel the bubbles, check out the sights. And when the heater accidently gets unplugged, your slowness will conserve energy.
Be Happy- When someone takes a look at you, smile. Smiling big might just get you selected from a sea of other bubble blowers so you can get out there and see what real life is like.
The death of seven fish was not something I thought I would write about on my Hands Free blog. There is definitely nothing warm and fuzzy or inspiring about it.
But there is a critical Hands Free lesson here.
When I watch little Oreo swimming alone slowly in his great big tank, it is almost as if there is a sign on top that reads:
LIFE IS PRECIOUS.
One day you could be going along quite happily and then suddenly you might find yourself fighting for your life, or worse, you might find yourself flat on your back wondering where your life went.
LIFE IS PRECIOUS.
I can’t help but think about the fish that do end up dying in the pet store, never getting out to see what real life and real joy look like staring back at them.
I think it might be a lot like dying with a cell phone against your ear or a to-do-list in your hand…like you “managed” life, but never got to the “living” part.
I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty.
Update: Since this writing, Oreo has passed away, but his message lives on. In fact, because of Oreo’s passing, I heard this exchange between a father and his daughter:
“Keeping fish alive is a lot harder than we thought it would be. The book I was reading said most people give up after two months. But we’re not going to give up. We’ll get the water figured out and then we’ll get more fish.”
“O.K., Daddy. Let’s not give up.”
The Hands Free lessons of the fish tank just keep coming.
What are your dreams? What do you want to accomplish in life in order to grasp what really matters to you? It may take several tries; sometimes you may get discouraged, but don’t give up. Don’t settle for life at the pet store. Get out there and live life… even if it means a little heartache along the way.
I love that your oldest daughter consoled her little sister. So sweet. 🙂
David L Sturgeon says
Rachel Guppies are easy to take care of, they usually live for a long time. They come in beautiful colors. Most of the time you will find little baby fish swimming around. They don’t swim very fast. They are docile. methinks you would enjoy them.
Rachel Macy Stafford says
Thank you, David! This is very helpful information! I especially love the part about “easy to take care of” and “live for a long time!” I will keep you posted! 🙂
Indiana Lori says
Oh gracious! This makes Cyrus’ parasites seem like small potatoes! I remembered you mentioned your husband wasn’t a big “cat” person, but they last for 16 years. Just building a case for you here!
Many hugs to the persistent girls who are giving fish a shot at happiness!
Wendy D says
We bought a feeder goldfish from a department store. My hubs never let the water adjust to the right temperature, never added chemicals and half the time forgot to feed him. He lived two years and then died from overgrazing. Middle son was 2 and poured the whole jar of food in. Talking about being happy when you go! We bought 5 more a few months later, lost one quickly, second to go was a year and a half and the remaining three have spent the last two years in my brothers pond.
Wonder if that’s like retiring to their beach house? Haha…
I love your explanations to your kids. You are a very smart mama.