“Can you go feed Google?” I asked my six-year-old daughter, Maddie, this morning.
Google is our betta fish.
“Okay!” she said brightly.
When she returned, she gave me a report.
“I gave four pellets. That’s the right amount. Google ate them all.”
I smiled at her. “That’s great! Google seems to be really hanging in there, huh?”
“Yep! I think he’s going to be okay,” she agreed cheerfully.
Then a pause, and she asked me something unexpected.
“Mommy? How is your mom doing?” (Sometimes she says grandma. Sometimes she says “your mom.”)
“She’s doing great!” I told her.
Because she is. This week has been wonderful.
“Oh! That’s good! I think maybe she’s like Google!”
Maddie whisked away to get her book bag and things ready for school.
I just stood there with a lump in my throat at this thought my first-grade daughter had just dropped on me like a bomb.
A few months ago, we got two betta fish. One for each of my daughters.
They each had their own bowl. I did my best to condition the water and acclimate them.
Even still, I warned my girls repeatedly at the fragility of these kinds of fish. It was a stressful 24 hours for all of us, wondering if tragedy was going to strike.
I even told them not to name the fish yet.
“Listen,” I said. “I know you are very happy about these fish, but we have to wait and see at least a couple days to be certain they will make it.”
They nodded solemnly and took my dose of pragmatism like a bitter pill.
Sure enough, a day later, one of the fish died. It was the one Zoey had selected.
Zoey is a deep and sensitive 10-year-old, but she handled it okay.
Maddie’s fish soldiered on. In another day, she named it “Google.”
We had an empty 5-gallon aquarium, so I decided we’d move Google from the small bowl to a luxury aquatic apartment.
I bought real plants, new ornaments, a new filter, and gravel. I prepped it perfectly and moved Google in. I even made a modification to the pump to slow the water current so Google could swim more easily.
Google, in the lovely zen garden aquarium, looked magnificent and happy with the sun shining through the tank in the window.
Yes – the tank was in the window.
After a few days the algae began to bloom. And bloom. And bloom. Sheets of it covered everything in record speed.
In retrospect, it seems obvious why this happened, but I didn’t figure it out right away.
So I cleaned the tank carefully and left it in the same spot.
The algae began again in only a few days.
I was frustrated and busy so I let it stay gross for about a week before tackling the cleaning again.
I didn’t notice Google was beginning to fall apart, literally.
Once I decided to try again to clean it, I looked at Google and was shocked at the condition of his fins. All the flowing iridescent waves of red and blue were missing – jagged fin bones actually poked out.
I gasped. “Oh no. What have I done?” I thought. I felt guilty for leaving the algae build up so long.
“What the HELL is going on with this tank? Why is this fish sick now? Why can’t this just be EASY?!” I whined at myself.
So I googled how to save Google.
I found things about why algae grows and realized the sunlight from the window was working against me.
I learned about something called “fin rot,” that can occur in dirty tanks.
And I gave my girls another speech.
“Listen,” I began. “Google is not doing very well. I know we love him, but he’s really super messed up and I honestly do not think he’s going to make it.”
Tears flowed from both of them as they nodded acceptance.
I’m not proud of this – but I didn’t take care of it right away. I gave up on Google.
I really did.
Here are some of the reasons I validated to myself for leaving him to die.
“He’s super messed up. There is likely NO WAY he’s going to come back from this.”
“He’s just a fish. Why am I spending so much time on this?”
“Nobody else would care this much about a stupid fish. Why should I?”
“This is getting expensive for a fish that cost a few bucks. This is ridiculous.”
I waited for him to die.
I dutifully fed him his pellets.
I tried hard to ignore my guilt.
“Is he suffering?” I wondered.
“Does it hurt?” I worried.
More days passed.
Google continued to hang in there.
“Is he fighting death?”
“Does he know what’s coming?” I wondered.
“Does he have a will to live?”
I didn’t really want to look at him. It made me feel awful.
I wanted to AVOID THE FISHTANK because of this moral quandary.
Finally, after more days and days of Google clinging to the brink of death, I was so moved by his tenacity that I finally felt obligated to partner with him in his quest to stay alive.
Yes. I needed to be moved by his own fight to stay breathing before I finally stepped in.
I went to Petsmart and got medicine, chemicals for the water, a scraper for the algae and a cling to cover the back of the tank to block the sunshine from coming in.
I groaned when the cashier rung it up. $32 worth of stuff for a stupid $5 fish.
I put the cling on the tank, scraped the algae and cleaned the water out. I waited.
The blooming algae stopped, and Google has gone from zombie fish to “improving” status.
He’s nowhere near what he used to look like.
But he’s as feisty and active as he was in his healthy days.
“Does he feel better?”
“Is he actually happier?”
“Does he know I saved him?”
“Does he know I could have let him die?”
And so you have the story of our ragged betta fish, Google.
Google is a messed up, mangled little fighting fish, whose life is literally meaningless to the entire world except our family.
If he were to die now, I definitely would cry.
The value of a life – whether it is a fish or a human – is often put on a sliding scale, isn’t it?
Who is worthy of saving and who is not?
Who is deserving of our time and efforts and who is not?
What happens when conditions in life out of our control make a mess of us? Will there be others to recognize it and step in?
What if fixing a problem is complicated and expensive?
What if we try our best to help and it still doesn’t work?
Does that mean we shouldn’t try?
Does a person (or fish) have to PROVE they are worthy of living before we help?
My mom is ragged, like Google.
She’s been shredded up, mentally and physically, by so many circumstances that are not in her control.
She won’t ever go back to “normal,” and neither will Google.
She began life privileged, with a beautiful home, a caring family and all the tools she needed to be successful.
Somewhere along the way, schizophrenia happened.
There have been times when I thought she was done with this hard life.
I lost a grip on hope and waited for the end.
My brother and I were all but certain she would probably die after a very dangerous and months-long recovery from colorectal surgery years ago.
But she soldiered on and surprised us. She came back with a permanent colostomy bag and a joke to tell.
We’ve seen the frustrated looks from social workers and doctors over the years and comments like “Well, we aren’t really sure…”
So many psychotic breaks.
So many involuntary trips to the psychiatric hospital.
But yet, she soldiers on.
She fights. She swims.
And we try our best to keep her afloat.
She’s worth it.