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Around the House: Sink or Swim

When the family pet's ready to teach a lesson, will you be ready?

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The very first step was to get the fish — including Polka-Dot and Golden, two pale-orange cloud fish less than an inch long — safely out of the tank. And that's when the operation went completely south.

I'd just gotten the fish into little bowls when Stacy walked in and immediately began screaming and pointing. "The … FISH!" she shrieked. "The FISH!" she repeated, and then finally, "On … on … ON the FLOOR!"

I looked, and sure enough, there was Polka-Dot (or Golden) lying on the floor, after apparently leaping for his freedom and falling short of our neighborhood lake by just 600 feet. Stacy picked the little orange fish off the linoleum and dropped him into the bowl, and we watched for hints of injury. The first came when the fish floated to the surface like a kid's helium balloon to the ceiling.

Just then Daniel's quivering voice reached up the stairs: "Are … my fish OK?"

My policy is to be truthful with my children whenever possible. "Well, actually…," I began.

Daniel's instant, sorrowful wail drowned out the rest of my words. I didn't need to hear, though, to understand Stacy's opinion of my answer.

Meanwhile, Polka-Dot (or Golden) was bobbing around his bowl with his tongue out and those little Xs over his eyes.

"Go get another fish!" Stacy commanded, in a whispered yell so sharp it nearly left a mark. I reluctantly agreed. But in the meantime, I told her, she would need to keep Golden (or Polka-Dot) moving forward so water would flow through his gills, getting oxygen to his brain (and she thinks watching fishing shows is a waste of time). I left her with the tiny fish between two fingers, pushing him around the bowl like a toy boat in the bathtub.

As I grabbed my keys and wallet, Daniel turned, teary-eyed, and asked where I was going. "To get more rocks for the aquarium," I fibbed.

Daniel's a smart kid. At that point, he could only have concluded that his dad is either a liar or an idiot with no ability to prioritize during crises.

When I got to the pet store I ran to the fish section and finally found an unkempt teenage employee. "I need an orange cloud fish!" I said breathlessly.

"An orange fish?" the kid repeated, slowly.

"An orange cloud fish!"

"We've got lots of cloud fish."

"Do you have orange cloud fish?"

"We've got orange goldfish."

"I need an orange cloud fish!"

"We've got lots of cloud fish."

"Are any of them orange?!"

"The goldfish are orange."

"TAKE ME TO THE CLOUD FISH!"

Unfortunately, he was right. They had orange fish and cloud fish, but no orange cloud fish. I grabbed a bagful of new aquarium rocks and headed home, defeated.

I found Stacy leaning over the bowl where I'd left her performing fish CPR 45 minutes earlier. There, in the bowl, was the tiny orange fish, swimming clumsily around. Every time he stopped swimming, he would roll over and float to the surface, and then his tail would kick in and he'd stumble around some more.

"I think he might make it," Stacy whispered.

By the next morning, Polka-Dot (or Golden) was back in his tank, swimming like a drunken sailor, banging into colorful boat wrecks but no longer floating heavenward. He'd made it, that little fish, albeit with some apparent brain damage (to the extent that a brain with only two seconds' worth of memory could be damaged).

Since then Daniel's fish tank has continued to provide circle-of-life lessons. And as painful as they are, I've come to understand their value. Still, I think if we ever decide to get another pet, I'll be leaning toward something a little more durable. Like a giant tortoise, maybe. Or a redwood tree.

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