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!

Requiem for a Fish

This is Bob.

This is Bob.

In Memory of Bob the Betta

?? to March 20, 2013

 I was going to call this entry “Death Before Breakfast,” but I didn’t want to startle anyone.

We found our beloved Betta fish Bob lying on his side on the bottom of his bowl yesterday morning. I choked back tears as I quickly carried the bowl into the kitchen so that Charlotte wouldn’t see the body. Charlotte’s first reaction was, “Can we go to the store today and get a new fish?” Then, realizing that while a new fish would be nice (and she still wants one) it wouldn’t be Bob, she burst into hysterical tears and was nearly inconsolable. She told me that at recess she told her friends she wasn’t in the mood to play. Instead, she sat in the corner talking to her imaginary friend Purple Bubba and crying a little bit.

Today, though she seemed a lot better at breakfast, she went to the school counselor to discuss her sadness. We got the following report from the counselor: “Charlotte’s English teacher referred Charlotte to my office today for support around the loss of your family’s pet fish. We drew some pictures, wrote a letter to Bob, and brainstormed some ideas of what to do about her sad feelings and if she missed him.”

As Philippe wrote to me later in the day, this is both sad and awesome. Sad that our little girl is so distraught, awesome that she sought support, and beautiful that her school is such a caring environment.


I loved Bob because he was cute and he was my first fish.

It had been clear to me and Philippe that Bob had not been well for a month or so. He’d gotten lethargic, wasn’t eating, and occasionally had something dangling from his belly. On Saturday he started nosing around in his gravel. That behavior was odd and concerning enough that I had Philippe research what I meant.  He found several articles stating that I meant the fish was trying to hide. We must not have read far enough because I now believe that Bob was looking for a place to hide so that he could die in peace.

Bob was our compromise pet. We had discussed getting a tadpole for about a year, with the idea of releasing a bullfrog at the pond near our house in Arlington. Once it was clear that we were moving, I had reservations. First, I didn’t really want to move an aquarium cross-country (two cats was hard enough). Second, I was unable to quickly find out if bullfrogs are native or invasive in Illinois and we didn’t want to harm the ecosystem.  We lit on the idea of a fish and Charlotte picked out Bob on her first day back to the Lycée.


Dear Bob, I already miss you. Do you remember how you used to scare me when you slept on your side? And the bubble nest? It was all so funny!….

Philippe realized more than I did that in some way the fish was instrumental in her transition back to Chicago. He lived on her dresser in our corporate apartment and she talked to him daily. Looking back I wonder if he gave some kind of stability to that uncertain time (“Where will we live when we leave this apartment? Will our next home be?”) and made the plain, white room really hers. As we moved to our new house and lived (and continue to live) out of boxes, Bob offered Chicago continuity. And, perhaps, a feeling of control.

She tried to be responsible for feeding him, but the beginning of the school year, with its increasingly heavy homework load, threw her off. In the past few weeks, she’d gotten better about remembering to do it.

More than anything, Bob was Charlotte’s first pet. Sure, she has Miles and Esther, but they’ve been in the family longer than she has. Bob was hers—she chose him, she picked out his gravel colors and tank toys, and she was very proud of him. Often, she would leave Bubba sitting by his tank so they could keep each other company while she was at school. She was looking forward to celebrating her birthday with Bob looking on from the sideboard.

Bob and Bubba share a moment.

Bob and Bubba share a moment.

We were hoping Bob would have an average Betta lifespan and be with us for a year or three, and we’re all a little stunned. Phil and I feel helpless—we can take a sick cat to the vet, but what do you do for a sick fish?

In some small way, this loss will have a silver lining eventually. Last month I accidentally killed Charlotte’s spinach plant (don’t ask!). Now she’s lost Bob.  When our dear Esther-kitty leaves us, Charlotte will have had a taste of how hard it is to lose someone you love. And as much as we have our pets for their companionship and cuteness, as parents we agree that they are also instrumental in teaching responsibility and, sadly, loss.

So, Bob, I hope you’ve swum on to deeper seas and are in some beautiful reef somewhere knowing that a little family in Chicago mourns you. And I thank you for all that you gave us, even briefly. As Charlotte knowingly said (paraphrased), the depth of her sadness is directly related to how much you put into her life. May your memory be for a blessing.