My first brush with mortality involved flushing a surprisingly high number of 50-cent goldfish down the toilet.
I met my first three goldfish — Moby, Isabella and a third name (either Kelly or Nellie, probably) — in my elementary school’s art classroom. The school held a carnival every year, with different events in each room. Go to Mrs. Harrison’s classroom for the cakewalk, the cafeteria for the raffle and so on. Art, of course, had carnival games, one of which was a simple ring toss that rewarded you with a tiny friend.
My sister and I begged my parents to let us try for a goldfish. Our parents were both historically very anti-pet, a stance they would firmly readopt the moment they finally managed to throw out the goldfish tank a few years later. My mother had grown up in the woods with pets that were more akin to wild animals than man’s best friends and couldn’t shake the mental image of dogs and cats that bit. When I asked for a puppy, she once told me, “You want to take something to the park? Take your little brother.” My father, similarly, had no love for animals and felt absolutely no need to fight my mother on the issue.
Maybe it was the classroom’s paint fumes that finally swayed her into letting us try for a fish. Maybe she figured if she let us have a goldfish, certainly the most inoffensive pet, we would stop asking for puppies and kittens. In either case, by the end of the day we were at the local pet store, buying fish food, a tank and a tiny filter.
My father set up the tank and filter in my bedroom, placing it on top of the dresser. I was immediately in love. Two of the fish were mine, one was my sister’s and all of them were wonderful.
That first day, I took about 100 pictures of them and, like an overenthusiastic first-time mother, started making a PowerPoint slideshow to chronicle their lives. (My bedroom doubled as my parents’ office. As a result, I had grown quite proficient at making completely pointless PowerPoint slideshows, an experience I could never quite articulate on future job applications.)
I was convinced we would live long and happy lives together, so I went to sleep, mere feet from my new best friends.
When I closed my eyes, I had three beautiful fish. The next morning, my tank held only two.
Despite the tank having a cute plastic lid, I searched the area to make sure my fish hadn’t jumped out. I found nothing. It was only when my father took apart the filter that we learned the truth.
The fish had always been a little thing, and the filter was simply one big hole. She had swum too close and, like a deleted scene from Finding Nemo, had been sucked up, crushed and ground like hamburger meat. My father didn’t let me see the body.
After flushing my friend down the pipes, he lowered the toilet seat. A closed-casket funeral. I returned to my PowerPoint and typed in a death date.
Immediately afterward, I begged my father to uninstall the filter, but he refused. “How,” he asked, “are we supposed to keep this tank clean without a filter?” And so, later that afternoon, my second fish got sucked up and diced, just like the first. We held a second bathroom funeral that evening, and another line of text got added to the PowerPoint.
At this point, I was understandably distraught, but my father still wouldn’t remove or even unplug the filter. The remaining fish was Isabella, my sister’s, and she was the biggest by far. My father insisted she was too large to be sucked up. I tried to convince myself that he was right.
The next day, while I was sitting on my bed, I was interrupted suddenly by a rather unpleasant slurping and grinding sound. I raced to the tank. The filter, it seemed, had gained its final victim. There were no fish left.
A healthy goldfish can live for 10 to 15 years, although some can survive up to 30, depending on the variety. It had been two days.
At that point, my father took out the filter instructions for the first time. As it turned out, he had put it together wrong. Our machine was missing a small cap that was supposed to stop fish from being sucked up. The crucial piece had accidentally been kicked under my dresser.
In my mother’s ideal world, this would have been the end of things. We would have thrown the tank and supplies out and moved on with our lives, pet-free once again. But even she and my father felt a bit bad about the situation, so by the next day, three new fish swam around in the now-safe tank. Content to leave all thoughts of death behind me, I started a new PowerPoint and took new pictures.
NOTE: My father is a really great parent. This entire 48 hours was just a continuous lapse of judgment for almost everyone involved.