It’s not a big secret that I’m not a huge animal lover. I like animals well enough. I understand the need to protect all of God’s creation and I see the joy that pets give to people. I don’t ever swerve to kill squirrels running stupidly across the street, though that could be more my extreme dislike of dead things than zeal for the sanctity of that squirrel’s life. I find I like the idea of animals much more than the actual animal itself. I can’t stand birds in real life, but I find myself fascinated by pictures of birds, graphics of birds, birds on t-shirts and pillows. I even have a flock of plastic birds on my living room wall. Same for pigs – I adore photos of pigs, stuffed animals of pigs, calendars and figurines of pigs. They’re clearly adorable, in real life as well, but in real life, they are frightfully loud. So, it’s a no go on the live piglets.
As with all idiosyncrasies, I blame my parents. We had few pets growing up, mainly because my folks aren’t much for pets either. We had the obligatory fish, first goldfish, then beta. Hermit crabs for a while – not a very exciting pet. Our family has owned two dogs, both of which were free from parishioners and as such, my parents felt obligated to take them. Both dogs – St. Bernard Mollie and Boxer Gracie – our family has loved fiercely, but they were never at human status. My parents made it very clear they were animals, and deserved to be loved but not doted upon. Regardless, every animal that has been mine in some way I have been absolutely in love with.
That includes my beta fish, Wilson. My roommate Jessie and I got him just before Christmas at the small town pet shop, Critter Cabana. It was a spontaneous decision by Jessie – not uncommon – and I went along for the ride. Wilson was swimming in his little plastic tub, surrounded by two dozen of his fishy friends. Beautiful purple and blue fins, he matched the rocks we got for free from a friend. It was meant to be. We named him after a dear doctor that we spent many hours with – Dr. Wilson from television’s House.
When Jessie left me to go get married, we decided that I would have custody of our child. It would be less traumatic for Wilson to move, and Stephen could never love him like Wilson was his own fish. Custody battle complete, I was forced to take over the job that I never did before. Jessie was the fishbowl cleaner. Now, a single pet owner, I had to do the duty.
It’s not the cleaning out the bowl itself. I don’t mind that at all. It’s the catching of Wilson and putting him in another bowl. This task is quite difficult. Wilson’s fishbowl is shaped like a football, and he’s a smart little guy (takes after his owner). He likes to hide in the corners where I can’t get him with a cup. That’s what I’d prefer, of course – to be able to scoop him up in a plastic cup and carry on my way. He’s just too clever for that. So I bought a net. It’s actually a mini strainer from the dollar store, metal and just the right size to sneak under him and pull him up out of the water. It’s effective, except for the part where poor Wilson can’t breathe in this strange air filled with oxygen and carbon dioxide and no H2O. He flails his shimmering body around in panic, hitting the edge of the strainer so hard I’m afraid he’s either going to cut himself or throw himself on the ground, where it would be nearly impossible for me to save him, given the fact I would be hysterically crying by that point.
Every time I pull him out of the water, my heart wrenches. It’s about three seconds before I plop him in a nice warm bowl of water, a holding place while I scrub out his bowl. But during that three seconds, Wilson feels like he’s dying. He cannot breathe. Fish don’t have a very large brain – it seems to mostly know swim and eat – but he knows he’s dying. And he knows that the big blurry object that crouches by his tank twice a day and food suddenly appears, he knows that object that normally gives him life is killing him.
I hate that. I really hate it. Besides the fact that I’m terrified he’s going to die on me (see above: abhorrence of dead things), I feel guilty. But I know I’m doing the right thing. I need to clean his tank. I need to change out the water so he can breath better. I need to filter the rocks, get any debris out. I need to scrape scum from the sides so that bacteria or whatnot isn’t clouding the water. I know this is what he needs. I know he doesn’t have a clue of what he needs, and all he feels is the momentary panic of “I cannot breathe.”
This moment is repeated daily in different walks of life, and parents can definitely relate. I’ve seen that look in the eyes of moms in the grocery store who have a screaming child because they will not buy cookies for their child. The child wants a cookie now, and even though the mother knows best – it will ruin your dinner, you just had one, you should eat carrots instead – the child is convinced that the mother is simply doing this because she hates her daughter. Fast forward 10 years, and the story is the same, except put a boyfriend in place of the cookie. Or a party. Or the car.
If God had eyes that we could see, that painful look would be in them constantly. If he had a heart that could be felt, it would be wrenched every moment. Because sometimes, we can’t breathe. We’re in a panic because life is rotten and we are dying. But because we’re such fish with such small bodies and memories, we cannot see past those three seconds of gasping for air and realize that we are being moved to safety so that God can clean our tank. So that God can give us something better, something cleaner, healthier, more beautiful. It never feels good to not be able to breathe. But it will not last forever. So hold your breathe and count. Wait and hope. Like Wilson cannot do.