"Lassie Sleeps With The Fishes, But I Have Insomnia"
If I have learned anything at all in my life, I have learned one thing. Well, actually two things, since I have also learned that a bulldozer always has the right of way, but that has nothing to do with what we're talking about today. No, what I have learned is this. None of us are immune from tragedy. No matter how smart or rich or important we are, no matter how often we go the gym or give money to the church, tragedy can strike any of us at any time. Even if we are a small and innocent goldfish named Lassie.
And more to the point, when we actually are a small goldfish named Lassie and tragedy strikes us, it is also a tragedy for others -- especially a small, curly-haired, hyperactive girl named Pookie who loves Lassie so much it's almost scary. And naturally enough, that means a crisis for Pookie's Dad -- me.
According to the Top Secret Handbook For Fathers, a very valuable book that has guided me through every family emergency so far, there are two basic responses to the Dead Pet Syndrome, or DPS as we call it. The first is simple: sit the kid down and say, "Sorry, kid, your pet is dead," and then deal with consequences -- which the Handbook warns may include contusions, abrasions, loss of income and ruptured eardrums. This method is brutal, and may seem hard on the kid, but it is honest, direct, and helps teach your child about the harsh and sometimes fatal nature of reality.
The second method for dealing with DPS is a little easier on you, at least at first. It is recommended for younger children, and also for children who hit really hard when they are upset. In this method, you hide the dead pet from the child and quickly replace it with a live one that looks as much as possible like the dead pet, except it should have more movement. The part about looking like the old one is very important, since replacing a goldfish with a hamster will probably not fool anyone, even a four year-old, unless you are a really fast talker.
Both of those methods have much to recommend them. And I would love to tell you which one I think is best. But if you read this column regularly you may have noticed that I try not to give advice too often. That is partly because I don't like to sound preachy, or pretend that I know all the answers. It is also partly because if I have learned anything from the experience of having two kids it is that I don't really know anything, and I am generally so tired and flustered from dealing with them that I am in no position to give anybody advice on anything.
However, I feel very confident about giving out one very clear piece of advice, and it is this: If you live in Florida and it is a hot day, do not put your daughter's dead goldfish into a plastic bag on the front seat of the car and then get stuck in traffic on the way to the pet store to replace the fish with one just like it before your daughter comes home and discovers that her beloved pet is bloated and floating belly up. Especially if it turns out that the plastic bag has holes in it because somebody has been experimenting with finding out what scissors can do. I really feel very good about this advice, and I know I know I am right.
And if this was an advice column, I would now tell you how to get the smell of dead sun-baked goldfish out of automobile upholstery. But this is not an advice column, and anyway I haven't figured that part out yet. So I will stick to saying, don't try this. And for the time being, don't accept a ride in my car. Believe me on this one, this is good advice.
Unfortunately, there are parts of this otherwise great advice I am not so confident about. First, the replacement method is actually a Great Big Fib, the kind we warn our kids not to do because it can lead to jail or a life of selling insurance. And because I am a New Age All-Things-Are-One-So-Eat-Your-Broccoli kind of Dad, I have never been comfortable with lying to my kids, even for their own good. When T.L. Bear's turtle ran away a few years back, I told her what had happened and we talked about whether she wanted a new one, or something else. She said she wanted a pony instead, which I pointed out was a pretty big trade-up from a turtle. She told me that her grief and mental suffering ought to be worth something, and a pony would be a big step on the road to seeing her smile again. I told her that was fine if she would clean up after the pony, and before she agreed to that she needed to imagine cleaning up after her dog if he was 100 times bigger and got into Grandma's chocolate box every day. Her eyes got very big, and we compromised on a hamster. I fully realize that in another five years I won't get away with that, and I hope Harvard Law School can smooth her out a little before then.
But anyway, that was Bear and her turtle, and this was Pookie and a fish. And this time I decided to go the other way, for three good reasons. First, all kids are different and Pookie, at 4, seemed more likely to be devastated by a dead fish than her sister was at 8 when the turtle ran away. My second reason was that I am now smart enough to know that I don't know anything. And finally, and most important, my wife decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I did it.
So there I was in traffic with a fish decomposing on the front seat of my car. And I have to say that it is moments like these that give Fatherhood the surreal glow I have come to enjoy most about the job.
I finally did get all the way to the pet store, and here's another tip you might not have known: if you want really fast service in a store, hold up a leaking bag that contains a warm, decomposing fish. I guarantee that the clerks will find time for you right away, even if they are on the phone or doing their nails.
I got New Lassie home safely, since Pookie hadn't been through the pet store's plastic bags with her scissors. And a week later, New Lassie is doing fine, and if Pookie has noticed any difference she hasn't said. So the fish is fine, Pookie is happy, and that should be a happy ending.
Except that I still feel guilty about the whole thing.
Which puts me in the very strange position of feeling bad because my daughter's pet is alive.