When a family pet dies, do you fess up or lie to your toddler? First-time father Sean McDonough had to figure it out on the fly.
Back in January, my wife Kristy and I bought our toddler daughter Jocelyn a purple betta fish. A fish that my daughter christened with the poetic and unique moniker: Purple Fish. He cost $5 and his Elsa and Anna themed fish tank cost another $20.
This setup lasted about a two weeks before my wife decided that Purple Fish was “depressed.” We upgraded him to a larger, deluxe tank with filtration and “toys” for him to play with. Purple Fish repaid our kindness by dying two months later. The following is a recreation of my internal monologue as my wife and I awoke to a dead fish and tried to deal with the situation like mature adults:
Step 1: Acceptance. Welp, he’s dead.
Am I…. Am I upset about this? Am I actually upset that this stupid, glorified little carnival prize is dead? Damnit, I am. He was part of the family
Wait a minute. We’re trying to have another baby. And last night we… Oh man, imagine if Kristy’s pregnant and nine months from now the baby’s born with a streak of purple hair? Haha, that’d be INSANE.
Step 2: What’s the plan? We really should have been more prepared for this. What do we do now? Do we lie to Jocelyn? That sets a bad precedent, but does she really need to learn what Death is right now? She can’t even ride a tricycle yet. Is she ready for that? Hell, are we ready?
The answer to that one is a big nope. We decide to take the coward’s way out. Kristy will take Jocelyn to dance class and I’ll secure a replacement purple betta fish.
Step 3: Get through breakfast. Jocelyn wakes up and– Surprise, sweetie! You get to watch TV with breakfast today! Please do that and don’t ask about feeding Purple Fish. Don’t ask to feed him, don’t look at the tank, just hang out and watch cartoons.
Step 4: Secure the asset. They leave for dance class. I dispose of Purple Corpse and start calling pet stores. Nobody has a purple betta fish. I get frustrated and decide I’m just going to drive to a store. You get better service when you show up in person.
OK, Petco. Here we go. Don’t let me down. Show meeee… a purple betta fish!
….Son of a b*tch.
Ah, Fish Store Lady! Hi. I’m looking for a purple betta fish. It is the single most important betta fish that ever lived. Do you have one in the back somewhere?
Step 5: Weave the web of lies. As it turns out, purple is a really rare color. That’s why I’m having so much trouble finding another one. Because of course. I call Kristy to see if she’ll endorse me buying a dark blue colored fish and improvising an explanation later. She doesn’t answer the phone. I’m on my own.
Screw it. Executive decision time. Fish Store Lady, hit me with that Blue Magic.
Step 6: Make the switch, undetected. I drive the fish home, the little plastic cup secured in my cup holder. At one point I stop short and the water in the cup sloshes around violently. Oh God, did I just give this fish terminal whiplash or stress him to death or something?
Now we’re racing against time. Kristy and Jocelyn will be back from dance any minute. I quickly open the little cup and pour the fish into the tank. Wait! Is the water temperature right? Too cold? Too hot? Is he going to go into shock? Whatever. It’s too late now. Fake Purple Fish is just going to have to sink or swim on his own. I’ve got bigger problems.
Problems like, what’s the lie gonna be? We can say Purple Fish just decided to turn blue, but what if she repeats that in school? First of all, she’ll look stupid in class. Second of all, I’m going to have some explaining to do. Neither of those possibilities appeals to me.
Maybe I could write a letter and leave it out for her. “Dear Jocelyn, Glub. I have gone back to the ocean to be with my family. Glub. This is my friend Blue Fish, I’m sure you guys will become great friends. Very Truly Yours, Purple Fish. P.S. Glub, glub.”
But what if she refuses to accept Blue Fish? What if she starts crying and demanding I call Purple Fish and make him come back? Then we’re right back in the corner.
Right about then, my daughter came home. My wife and I exchanged nervous glances. Jocelyn doesn’t even look at the fish tank. She’s hungry and ready for lunch. We decided to punt on the decision.
Step 7: Anxiously chuckle because perhaps we overthought that one. Seven months later, that’s where we are. Jocelyn’s fed the fish repeatedly by now. She’s looked at him, talked to him, but she still hasn’t said a word about the fish changing colors. Blue Fish just lives among us, like if my brunette wife got replaced by a blonde and I just rolled with it. (Which I absolutely wouldn’t. Love you, Honey.)
We still don’t have a plan about what we’ll do if she ever says anything. At this point, I’m just hoping that we can run out the clock until she’s four. If she asks me then why our blue fish is named Purple Fish, I feel comfortable telling her, “You were a baby and you thought it was funny to name a blue fish ‘Purple Fish’.” That’s a stakes-free lie. The real truth is that I’m not that worried about it anymore. The crisis moment passed and there are newer, fresher crises for me to devote my energies to. Because that’s how I parent.