Dr. Dolittle's Malpractice Case

Monday, November 13, 2006

Life is composed of accidental moments. They are glimpses of who we are and how we live.

My mother is an animal lover. Not of the kitten calendar variety but of nature at large.

I have seen my mother carefully carry a bowl of water to a large, black snake that appeared on our stoop one hot summer afternoon. When I saw the snake lap up the water and flick its tongue gratefully at my mother, I knew she was the real Dr. Dolittle.

I have never seen my mother kill anything. One Saturday morning, a seed pod she had displayed among the fossils and smooth stones on her windowsill hatched out a thousand miniature praying mantises. My mother woke up my sister, father and me, and the four of us spent the morning carefully ferrying hundreds of tiny praying mantises, each no larger than an eyelash, outside on pieces of paper.

You would expect that anyone who loves animals as much as my mother would be living in squalor surrounded by two dozen cats. But my mother is compulsively neat and cleans the house like an Olympian.

Although I didn't inherit my mother's neat gene, I did inherit her respect of animals, which is how I ended up with my goldfish. He was rescued from a friend's apartment, where he had sat on top of a radiator desolately confined to a small water bottle. He was in quarantine after killing off all of the fish in Shannon's tank.

I gave him a proper home. A real fishbowl, complete with plants, a snail, and because I didn't really believe Shannon, some fish friends. It took him two weeks to kill them off. After a while, the plants died, and so did the snail.

I was left with my killer goldfish patrolling his bowl like a junkyard dog. I wasn't really sure how to handle him, so I let him live au naturel, feeding him but never changing the water. It turned a deep murky green, and furry slime crept up the sides of the bowl. The water was so thick you couldn't actually see my fish unless you peered down from the top. Through the dark, filmy water, you'd see a flash of orange darting around aggressively.

But he lived for three years. He was the longest-living goldfish I had ever heard of.

And then he met my mother. A plumber was coming to my apartment, and I couldn't take time off from work, so my mother volunteered to stay at my place.

Afterward, I found a note from Mom that said the dishwasher had been repaired successfully and that she had vacuumed the hallway, baked a lasagna and cleaned the fishbowl. The fish! I ran to the living room, where the fishbowl sparkled unusually in the sun.

From across the room, I could see him floating upside down in the crystal clear water. He had a stunned expression on his face. He had lived through three years of squalor with me but couldn't handle one day of clean living with my mother. I called Mom later to thank her for the food and for letting the plumber in.

I didn't have the heart to mention the fish.

Mom brushed off my thank-you and launched into a topic she had clearly been mulling over: "I didn't know you had a fish." "Yeah." "Don't you think he would be happier with a few other fish?" "Probably." I sighed, remembering how happy he looked killing off the other fish years ago.

"No plants or even a snail!" "No." "I'm going to buy some plants for him," Mom announced brightly. "Oh, you don't need to do that." "A plant would be good for him, and really, Adele, that water was very dirty!"

After I hung up, I sat on the couch for a while and stared at my fish floating in the clear water. Then I flushed him down the toilet and grabbed my keys. I had just enough time to buy another fish before Mom showed up with some fish friends, plants and a snail.

-- Adele Levine, Wheaton

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