“I got a Finding Dory,” the Toddler announced when the babysitter brought her home from the peewee camp at our neighborhood park. It had been another girl’s birthday, and that camper’s mother brought fish as party favors for all 20 kids.
When I saw the blue betta in that tiny plastic cup, I cringed; the fish could barely turn around. He was so listless, I thought that the water had become toxic from his poop, or that he was oxygen-deprived because the cup had a cap on it.
Silently, I seethed. My husband and I foster three sisters. The Toddler is the oldest — at 3 years; the Infant clocks in at 18 months and the Newborn is six months. We have two dogs, both rescues, and an aquatic turtle we built a small pond for after it wandered into our back yard and never left. Our hands were full with responsibilities we chose without having another life foisted on us.
I popped off the lid of the cup, and filled a Brita pitcher to use as a temporary home. While I waited for the water to come to room temperature, I texted my husband the news and laid odds that the fish wouldn’t live a week.
Finding Dory perked up when I moved him to the pitcher, but his fins were shriveled and tattered, so I wasn’t holding out much hope. I kept the pitcher on the kitchen counter, out of reach of the dogs, and the Toddler and Infant took turns standing on a chair to watch him, enthralled. The Toddler kept petting the side of the plastic pitcher. “That’s my Finding Dory,” she said and let out a hearty, open-mouthed laugh that put all of her tiny baby teeth on prominent display.
I ranted on Facebook, and a work acquaintance confessed to giving hermit crabs to the attendees at her nephew’s birthday. She said the kids thought she was the greatest. Last year, a neighbor found herself the unwitting recipient of two aquatic turtles when her child celebrated her fourth birthday. They died a few months later, bringing more trauma to a kid who was already struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce.
And that was my fear. The Toddler had already suffered so much in her short life — what new ordeal would the death of a pet be? My Facebook rant ended with: “I’m not religious but please, God, don’t let me kill this poor critter.”
A friend offered to let us put Finding Dory in her pond. Another suggested my husband take him to work as a desk buddy. But the Toddler was already thoroughly attached, dashing to look at the fish each day when she woke up, and checking on it as soon as she came home. I couldn’t justify creating a definite loss to ward off the potential heartache of a death.
Three years old is young to understand death, but the Toddler and I had talked about it. She’d told me she missed her mom on the days they didn’t have visits, and I’d told her I missed my mom, too. She asked where my mom was and I found myself trying to explain, fumbling with words like “always asleep” and “not able to move or breathe.” She grasped some of it, but I thought she wouldn’t fully understand until she saw a dead bird in our yard or a squirrel that didn’t quite make it across our busy street.
But when Finding Dory arrived home in his weak, sickly state, I knew what animal would truly illuminate that concept and I hated that it would be one the Toddler loved. I don’t think any parent looks forward to that moment, but it’s an especially awful one to navigate when you’re trying to support a child through the loss of her home and her family.
We did our best for Finding Dory, got him a proper bowl with gravel and a plant, but our best wasn’t enough. A month after he arrived, I noticed he was more listless than usual, and my husband explained to the Toddler that Finding Dory was sick. The next day, I found the fish floating at the top of the bowl, his deep blue scales turning a washed-out gray.
When the Toddler came home from Head Start, she asked how Finding Dory was doing. I explained he had died, and the Toddler sobbed, inconsolable, for over an hour.
My husband asked the Toddler if she wanted to bury Finding Dory in the yard, under a plant. He explained that as his body broke down, it would help the plant grow. The Toddler liked that idea, so my husband moved a clump of bunch grass and dug a hole. Together, they picked out a large, flat river stone to use as a marker.
We carried Finding Dory outside in the silver lid of a jar. The Infant tried to eat dirt while my husband replanted the bunch grass over the grave and the Toddler played a song on her whistle. There were plans to finish the ceremony by blowing bubbles, but things came to an abrupt halt when the Newborn had an explosive poop that overflowed her diaper onto my jeans and shoes.
I thought it was a fitting commentary on the whole situation.
Georgene Smith Goodin lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin, and their three foster children. Follow her on Twitter @gsmithgoodin, or read more of her writing at Georgenesmithgoodin.blogspot.com.
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