What taking care of a tiny fish or two taught me during my first year of marriage
There comes a time in most adult lives, I imagine, where people say to themselves, "Hey, I'm getting pretty good at this whole self-care thing. I eat regular meals and I even exercise once a month, maybe I should try taking care of something else that's living." For me, that point came around six months after I got married. My husband, Jeremy, has always been more of the nurturer of us two. He's basically a ready-made father complete with a dad body that would look excellent in a fanny back. I’ve never really thought of myself as a provider, but more as someone who enjoyed the perks of being provided for. I figured if I wanted to be a parent someday soon, I had to start somewhere and likely start small.
I drew up a plan. I'd take care of plants first to test out my nurturing abilities. On my desk at work sat a lovely succulent that I nicknamed Stevie and quickly over watered until he was soppy. I learnt then that you can love a plant to death. Stevie was followed by an orchid named Eleanor Rigby that went from a blooming treasure to an arid desert in a matter of weeks. My failures made me think that maybe the plants weren't working out because my whole heart wasn't in it. You can't exactly have a in depth conversation with a plant, can you?
I moved on to the next logical step. I bought a tiny betta fish that I named Winona Ryder, after my favorite 90s starlet. I figured that if the real Winona could make it through the various ups and downs of existence, so could mine. Some may know that bettas are called Siamese Fighting Fish for a reason. These tropical fish from Thailand are famous for not being able to be housed together if they're male, because the alphas will turn on each other. Yet, when I first laid eyes on my beautiful boy, Wino, he was the timidest thing ever. He didn't even flare out his beard like the other male bettas generally do when they feel threatened. In my opinion, he was perfection incarnate, with his dark red fins and aquamarine body. “How hard could it be to keep a fish alive?” I thought.
From the very first moment I brought my boy back to the office I showed signs of being an amateur fish parent. His fins quickly clenched up from stress in his tank before I realized that he didn’t like his new digs. The tank was far too small and the water wasn’t keeping an even temperature, as it’s drafty at my desk. My pride quickly dwindled as I called my husband into the office afterhours to help with the situation. He came equipped with a five-gallon tank with a heater, filter, beautiful plastic plants to explore and lights overhead. It was practically a fish mansion. I had to admit, despite having me as his primary caregiver, Wino started to thrive for a while.
That all changed about two months into it, when I noticed his stomach start to bloat as he struggled to stay afloat. What did I do in a past life to deserve this? I started furiously looking up online fish forums where other betta parents described similar situations, only to realize what he had was swim bladder disorder, a common ailment for bettas from either eating too much or genetic defects. In blunt terms, my little guy was constipated. I tried feeding him thawed peas because the fiber supposedly passes right through them, and whenever anyone at the office casually asked how he was doing I'd throw my hands up and exclaim, "my poor, sweet boy Winona!"
He seemed to be struggling off and on without getting worse until I noticed that his back was also slightly bent at an odd angle. Had I bought the biggest fish dud on earth? I probably spent hundreds of dollars trying to fix my $10 fish just to prove that I wasn't a horrible caretaker. In retrospect, he was most likely sick to begin with, and the bent back was a sign of bacterial infection I wasn't familiar with. By the time my mother came to visit my husband and me in Toronto in July, Wino had to be transported to our home so that we could keep an eye on him as his situation deteriorated.
It was my rock of a mom who took one look at the sad, almost finless soul who was lying on the bottom of the tank and told me it was time to say goodbye. We looked up the most humane way to euthanize a dying fish, and headed to the store for vodka and clove oil. Who knew that the staple ingredient in most of my favorite cocktails could also be used for such a dark purpose? As for the clove oil, I can’t even smell the stuff anymore without getting a bit weepy. I prepped the mixtures the morning of Canada Day (if you must go out, may as well be on a symbolic day) and assured my betta that this was going to be the end of his suffering. I doubt he understood a single word, but as a person prone to anthropomorphizing I thought I detected a glimmer of relief in his orb-like eyes.
Sadly, four months into my journey of fish parenthood, Wino passed over to the pond in the great beyond. The strangest part about it was that I had my husband check at least ten times that it had indeed happened, and that I was not in some sort of weird state of existence. I’d heard of the term “magical thinking” before but didn’t really think that it applied to something like a pet fish. Both Jer and I, grown adults, shed a tear over this creature that had touched us so dearly in so little time. I promised myself I was done with both the adventure and heartbreak of fish keeping forever. I even debated getting a Wino Forever tattoo on my arm to close that chapter in my life.
I probably would have kept this promise, if not for a fiery, aggressive and altogether jerky orange betta that caught my eye when he continued to flare at me on the shelf of our local pet store. I abandoned all reservations, and called our new betta boy Augustus. His ginger fins are shaped like a long trailing veil which often confuses people into thinking that he’s swimming upside down. His dark eyes and Billy Idol sneer make him look like he’s constantly up to no good. Auggie hasn't replaced our old boy but he brings his own kind of joy. He's fearless and a natural explorer. He loves his real aquarium plants and even jumps when he sees my finger hovering above his tank as if to say, "feed me, Momma."
Having never been a mother to another human, I cannot in my right mind equate one to the other. I see my friends starting families and there is a constant effort on their part, to stay awake, to feed and nurture their little ones, to co-parent. They might be new parents but their identities are now intricately woven into their next generation, their focus now fixated on someone else’s future. I can still go home at 5pm and close off my tank light and drink wine while watching television with my husband. I do not have to be constantly present and alert. What taking care of a little aquatic life has done instead, is help me mentally prepare myself for the next big nurturing steps in my life. My husband and I have consulted fish store specialists together to pick out everything from the substrate in the tank to the sunken logs that so delight bettas. It might seem excessive to some, but you know you’ve picked the right partner if they don’t mind getting a million texts from you describing how the fish’s day went while you’re apart.
The first thing I do when I come into the office these days is say hello to Auggie. Our first guy, Wino, taught me that no matter how much I worry about those that I love, it doesn't affect the nature of the outcome. I'm much calmer now with our orange betta. I'm less of a perfectionist, and I don't blame myself incessantly if something goes wrong. I spend more time just enjoying watching him swim, and weave his way in and out of plants. I think that's a valuable lesson for those taking care of plants or fish or dogs or cats or even little humans. To know that your journey as a provider takes time, that you can't do it alone, and that you're probably doing much better than you think, simply by opening your heart to the bravery of loving even the tiniest of creatures.