Talking about Tommy, or Lessons from Animals (part 1)


Beautiful Tommy coming to greet me.

Not long ago, we mourned Bob the Betta, the fish Charlotte got on her first day of second grade. As I mentioned in that post, Bob was integral in Charlotte’s transition back to Chicago as he gave her something that was unconditionally hers to control. His death hit her hard.

But not so hard that she didn’t want to try again with a new fish. Turns out owning fish is a bit addictive. One of the folks at the wonderful Old Town Aquarium refers to fish-ownership as a “hobby.” Semantically the difference between hobby and pet couldn’t be more clear–a hobby is something you do, something you keep trying until you get it right. You might become obsessed with it and turn it, eventually, into a masterful skill, an avocation, or even a vocation. A pet is a living creature who gives back in affection what you give to it in care and feeding.  Fish straddle the line, it seems, between hobby and pet. But, so do many other pets–ask my mom who has  championship Bichon Frise’s for more than 20 years.

Get another fish we did. First, we did research–best tanks and feeding practices, best lighting and heating, etc. Everyone we know seems suddenly to have (or have had) a betta that’s lived for years–wither with studied care like Mossimo, our niece’s betta who is pampered with precisely-timed feedings and frequent water changes, to our other niece’s betta whose water got murky between changes and who still lived for 2+ years.

Tommy was acquired from Old Town Aquarium (no more pet shop fish for us!) after an appropriate period of mourning and spring break. I didn’t post his picture or talk about him because I didn’t want to jinx him.  Turns out he was jinxed already. We just didn’t know it.

He came home from the aquarium shop vivacious and exciting. He would pop out of his hiding place to greet us when we spoke to the bowl. He jumped to the water’s surface to get his food, swam around excitedly, and went to bed promptly at 9 p.m., swimming into his cave where he stayed until morning. We talked about how he seemed so much healthier than Bob ever did, was more interactive, ate his food instead of sucking it and spitting it out, and fluttered beautifully.

And so it went for 6 weeks. We* fed him, per instructions, every second day, one pellet. We replaced the evaporated water whenever necessary and changed it weekly. We bought him an exercise mirror and after one irresponsible incident, gave it to him for only 5-minute intervals as instructed. In many ways, I fell for Tommy more than I had for Bob. He just spoke to me somehow.

Then one day, Philippe said, “Tommy doesn’t seem quite right.” “It’s after nine, he’s just sleeping,” I responded. This went on for a day or two. Then I noticed Tommy wasn’t eating or surfacing. I called Old Town. They told me to start by changing the water, so I did. The next day, Tommy was floating vertically or lying on the bottom of the tank. Nothing we did could save him and a mere six weeks after we brought him home, dear Tommy was gone. Bob got a box decorated with glitter and paint, a solemn burial ceremony, and tears. Tommy was wrapped loving in a paper towel, slid into a toilet paper roll whose ends we pinched. Charlotte blew bubble while I buried him. (No flushing fish at our house.)

We’re still not sure if he was sick or had an injury, but it doesn’t matter.

Interestingly, Charlotte wasn’t as crushed by Tommy’s death as she had been by Bob. She says that it was because she had experienced Bob’s death and that, also, she watched Tommy get sick and realized what was happening. Could be that the death of the fish coming so close after the death of my great-uncle put into perspective fish vs. human death. I don’t know. Still, she ate fish for dinner the night Tommy died. I couldn’t. She gave one heave, I sobbed when she wasn’t looking and Phil declared “no more fish.” She still doesn’t want to talk about Bob, but she can talk about Tommy. I had to wait for a month after his death to write this post.

And she waited for several days before she asked if we could try again. Stay tuned…

*Of course, “we” means mostly me. We’re working on getting Charlotte to be responsible enough to remember the rhythm and the system. At least she talked to, and about, Tommy every day!

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