eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

A fish called Madeline

I’ve never had much luck with pets.

When I was 3, our springer spaniel viciously attacked (only a slight exaggeration) my adorable little toddler self, leaving me with a lifelong fear of small dogs. At 9, my pocket-sized desert tortoise, Cleopatra, succumbed to the Arizona heat in my backyard. And when I was 23, my first betta fish, Fishbo, withered away only days after I inadvertently dropped her down the garbage disposal for a minute or two.

So I shocked even myself when I decided six months ago that it was time, yet again, for a pet. My husband’s immediate response was unenthusiastic, but I promised him that the kids (ages 2 and 4) and I would take wonderful care of it; my days of negligence were over.

For the first several months, I was right. Every day and night, some combination of my son, daughter and I fed our charming new fish friend, Madeline. We talked to her. We pet her scales through her translucent wall. We danced for her in our kitchen. And we made sure she was in good hands when we took vacations.

Until our most recent trip. For four days, we left Madeline with our neighbors (among our closest of friends), who had every intention of shielding Madeline from the elements and feeding her well. As we took our road trip, we imagined Madeline was happily swimming in her refreshing aquatic cube. But at about 6 p.m. on the final day of our trip, I got a text from my neighbor Betty*: Madeline had stopped eating her food.

I was worried, sure, but I knew Madeline was tough and could survive any challenge. When we pulled back into our driveway, I knocked on our neighbors’ door and was greeted by Betty’s husband, Frank, who promptly handed me Madeline’s little aquarium.

The stench was overwhelming. Though Madeline appeared to be alive, her environment was polluted with orange fish food and what seemed to be a dissolving Saltine cracker. I said a quick thank you and escorted her back home.

Once I’d put the kids to bed, I made haste to clean out Madeline’s tank. As I carefully strained and rinsed her decorative stones, a listless Madeline patiently waited in a small cup of water. After about 20 minutes, I returned her tank to its original, mostly sterile condition. I poured Madeline in and wished her good night.

In the morning, everything in our townhouse proceeded as normal: Everyone picked out their clothes, brushed their teeth and prepared for the day. As I readied my daughter for pigtails at the breakfast table, I looked lovingly at Madeline on a nearby shelf and congratulated myself on dutifully cleaning her tank the night prior.

But something wasn’t quite right. Her tank was now filled with tiny bubbles, similar to a glass of water that’s been left on a nightstand for hours.

I approached the tank. Madeline was at the bottom, seemingly snoozing. I gently tapped her tank with my index finger. No movement. I flicked it a bit harder. Still nothing. I summoned my husband.

After his own cursory examination, he gave me that look that every parent dreads—the one that says, “This fish is toast.” I nodded and we swiftly shuffled the children along to school.

At work, my attention was pulled in countless directions—research here, interviews there—but Madeline was still swimming around in my sea of thoughts. I had to develop a plan, and fast. As I saw it, my options were the following:

1. Tell my kids the fish died. Hold a religious burial ceremony on our back patio. Dress in mourning for the following month.

2. Tell my kids the fish died, but promptly bring them to the pet store and have them pick out a new one. Celebrate with a fish birthday party.

3. Tell my kids nothing and buy a new fish identical to our old one. With my husband as accomplice, switch the fish in the middle of the night. Pray the kids are oblivious.

I went with option three. The moment I wrapped up my day’s work, I sprinted off to the pet shop, poring over the aisles for any fish that remotely resembled Madeline.

Nothing was close. The best I could do was a fish about half Madeline’s size and five shades lighter. I called my husband.

“Guess we’ll just have to tell them,” he said. He was right. There was no way around it—our little ones would have to confront the hard reality of life and death at an early age. We agreed to transfer the fish at night and tell the kids in the morning.

That night, when the children were passed out cold, my husband and I executed the plan. He scooped out Madeline (who my daughter still had not noticed was in repose) and flushed her down the toilet after briefly toying with a burial plan. I took on the duty of cleaning out the tank, yet again.

In short order, the maneuver was complete. Madeline Two was scared but growing comfortable in her new environs, and my husband and I retired for the night. In the morning, we’d have an important talk with our children.

Yet the next morning, the kids said nothing. And that night, they said nothing. Evidently their road trip had wiped clean their awareness of the fish entirely, leaving me to be its caretaker. For the next few days, I tended to Madeline Two, feeding her just a few flakes of food and tossing her the occasional wink.

We’d made it; my husband and I had avoided one of the more difficult parenting conversations, or at least put it off a bit. Our 4-year-old likely has some abstract idea about life versus death but won’t yet need to grapple with real loss. And though some might say we have deceived her, a lie in the name of ensuring her blissful innocence a little while longer is perhaps one worth telling.  

The other day, my daughter stared into the tank much longer than usual and said, “Mom, why does Madeline look different?” I told her that in a different light, a fish can look very different. Perhaps when the clouds part, she’ll look more like her old self again. And maybe she will.

*Some names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.



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