A few weeks ago, Parker’s beloved fish “Soupy” passed away. She had been lucky enough to have him since the previous February, which I think is a pretty impressive lifespan for a Betta fish. She procured this fish after I promised she could have one if she would finally poop in the potty. I figured that the amount I’d spend on the fish would quickly be recouped in the money I would no longer be spending on pull-ups. It was a blatant bribe and it worked like a charm.
She pooped in the potty within a day or so of me making this offer to her; and so we went to the pet store the following day where she picked out a fish, a tank, gravel, food, plastic plants and a small ceramic faux beach scene to tastefully decorate this palace for her new finned friend.
And then she didn’t go in the potty again – for a year. I got hustled.
So here we were again at the pet store, looking for another little buddy with gills. There were dozens of Betta fish each in their own containers. Choosing one would be an overwhelming prospect for someone like Parker – a little girl always so particular and concerned with “getting it right”. I decided to pick out a few different ones – different colors, sizes, etc. and let her go from there.
We narrowed it down to a beautiful big blue one with large fins that fanned out, and a cute little white one with petite fins and adorable blue “freckles” all over its tail fin. They both looked relatively healthy and were actively swimming around – I really didn’t want to have to watch Parker go through another “loss” so soon after Soupy and having to give our beloved dog, Oscar away weeks before that.
Parker examined them both closely and decided on the blue one. I didn’t blame her – it was majestic and dramatic looking – quite a beautiful specimen as fish go. But then as I picked it up to look more closely, I realized that it wasn’t using one of the smaller fins on the underside of its body. After asking the opinion of the employee in the department, she agreed that it wasn’t using its right pectoral fin at all while swimming – it was just limply hanging there. I told Parker that I thought she should get the little white fish with the cute blue freckles instead – it seemed healthier. She told me that she really wanted the blue one and asked what was wrong with it. As I told her that it seemed like one of its fins wasn’t working the way that it should, I was hit with a wave of
nausea shame irony (does irony come in waves? – it certainly seems to in my life).
This was a moment. This was a teachable parenting moment and I was (figuratively) staring it in its face and my expression was as close to a deer in headlights as I’ve ever had. I felt my heart palpitating in my chest. What was I supposed to do here? I want her to have the fish with the best chance of living a (relatively-speaking) long life. I want her to have the healthy, normal
brother fish. I know it’s against every principle I’ve been trying to teach her for the last three years, but I hear myself telling her that she should get the other brother fish. I tell her that the brother fish she wants seems to have something wrong with his fin and so she should probably get the other one. I have what feels like the entire garden from the Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Conservatory in my stomach and I’m hoping my insanely perceptive child is not picking up on my nervousness.
I spend so much time trying to inculcate the importance of acceptance into my daughter – I try to tell her on a daily basis that Owen’s limitations and disabilities do not have to dictate who he is – or who she is. She knows that he looks and sounds and acts differently from other children and I implore her to be understanding of all of the attention he gets that is taken away from her as a result.
I ask her to love him despite his leg and his speech and his behavior and all of the other ways he is different. And she does. And I am so, so proud of that.
Because it is hard to love him sometimes. Especially for her.
Especially because she takes the brunt of his violent outbursts, all of the hitting, the yelling. Because for so much of her short life, she has needed to take a backseat so we can focus on him. We do the very best we can to avoid these things, but they still happen. She needs to have the empathy of a well-adjusted adult, the compassion of a nun, and the patience of a saint – and she does. More so than any four year-old should have to. I tell her everyday how proud I am of her – what a wonderful little girl and big sister she is. How lucky we are to have her – how lucky Owen is to have her. People tell me how incredible she’s going to be as an adult because she has a sibling with Special Needs – how emotionally altruistic, accepting, and mature she will be when she grows up…but for now I would be grateful if she just got to be a four year-old.
All I want for her is that she be given the easiest possible road considering what she has already been through and what she faces in the future. There will be skinned knees and sore throats, “mean girls” and boys who break her heart, missed soccer goals and third strikes, poor quiz grades and missed spelling words – setbacks and disappointments. What can I do to protect her from all of those ordinary childhood things on top of the extraordinary circumstances her brother brings in to her life?
I can try to get her the healthiest fish that I can if she can’t have the healthiest brother. I can hope that she’s not analyzing this as deeply as I am. I can still extol the incredible things that
her brother Nemo can do with his smaller fin – even if it doesn’t work as well as his other one. I can still celebrate all of the amazing things she can do with her own four very capable limbs as well.
I can allow her to be a four year-old by not always linking everything in her life to a lesson, a milestone, her future…her brother.
Sometimes, a fish is just a fish.
And that’s okay.