I’m allergic to cats. And dogs. Most anything with fur, really. Also birds. Not really a fan of lizards. Refuse to cohabitate with snakes, spiders, and the like. The only pets my animal-loving kids can really have, not counting Tamagotchis and the creepy animatronic toys that are all the rage these days, are fish.
Last year at the fair, Anya won her first pets. The first was a white goldfish she named Princess Cupcake. Followed by three more goldfish she dubbed Princess Doughnut, Connor, and Bubbles. (Okay, the last one was named by Daddy.)
Bubbles met an untimely end in the fish tank filter, before we sorted out the whole aquarium setup. Anya was sad, but it wasn’t “her” fish, so she wasn’t too broken up about it. But when I looked up from mixing my father’s birthday cake three months later and noticed that Princess Cupcake and Connor had suddenly passed away, I knew their deaths would not be met with such stoicism.
Fall hasn’t been a great time for my family, in Anya’s experience. Both my paternal grandparents passed around the time of my dad’s birthday, and while Anya was not close to either of them, their deaths did affect her deeply. Death thereafter became a frequent topic of discussion for her, particularly as the days grow shorter and the leaves start to turn. In matters of emotion, she rests firmly in the “go big or go home” camp — a matter of great discomfort for me, as I was raised to cover, bury, deny, suppress. I knew that, this time, the fish deaths would not be shrugged off; Chernobyl would look like a spilled Lego box next to her grief. I falter in the face of her emotions, because I simply don’t know how to handle them. I thus made one of the biggest decisions of her young life: I decided to lie to her about the fish.
I’m a rotten liar. But pulling off this ruse was shockingly simple. We were going out to eat that evening in celebration of Dad’s birthday, so we simply sent Anya home with my parents afterwards and stopped by the pet store to pick up replacement fish. We did hit a small snag in that they did not have a convincing replacement for Connor; however, Connor wasn’t the favorite fish, so we decided to take the hit and cop to his death. I was a bit taken aback by the price of Cupcake’s replacement (orange goldfish are cheap; white goldfish are not), but told myself it was worth it to avoid the emotional meltdown we’d face otherwise. Anya was sad to lose Connor. But she was easily distracted with cake and ice cream, and soon recovered. At least it wasn’t Princess Cupcake, she said. Thus was my lie justified.
Connor was later followed in death by our algae eater, Mr. Pickles. But we’d not had him too long, and we replaced him soon after with an angelfish (Princess Angelface), so his passing was but a blip in the radar.
This past Black Friday, Princess Cupcake died. And it was A Thing. Tears, wails, accusations of fish murder (Daddy had just cleaned the tank), pleas for a replacement fish…all the stages of grief, condensed into one exhausting day.
“My first fish!” she sobbed.
I knew, then, that I had to own up to what I’d done.
“Actually, sweetheart, that wasn’t really your first fish.” And I told her the story.
“You lied to me?” she exclaimed, indignant.
“I was trying to spare your feelings. But I see now that I was wrong to do so. It’s not my place to decide what you can handle, and I didn’t help by putting off the pain. I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?”
She hugged me tight, and — though she occasionally throws it up in my face (“No more lying to babies, Mommy!”), she forgave me. We held a brief but touching funeral for Princess Cupcake in the back yard, and buried her beneath Anya’s apple tree. We’ve promised to buy Anya a new fish, and a bigger fish tank (the remaining fish are quite large), and life has gone on — a bit more somber, but still good. The distraction of putting up the Christmas tree helped.
I feel good about having come clean regarding the truth of Princess Cupcake II. And I plan to uphold my promise not to lie to Anya anymore; our relationship is stronger, better, for the honesty. And I am a few steps closer to the parent I want to be.
Granted, I haven’t quite worked out how Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy fit in to this total-honesty thing, but I refuse to strip her childhood of all magic. She needs that magic right now. Princess Angelface isn’t looking too hot today.
Anya will likely be angry when she learns the truth about Santa and the gang. I remember feeling hurt and indignant, and I distrusted my parents for quite a while after they came clean about all that. But now I am an adult and I know more about the world. How it can be cold, and cruel, and relentless. How it can take, and take, and take, for long weeks, months, years, without respite. I know that when you find some small speck of magic, you cup it in your hands and breathe gently on it to keep it alive as long as you can.
I hope she can forgive me for that, too.