The Goldfish That Got Away

Dear Caroline,

You once owned a goldfish. Maybe you were seven years old. We all talked about what kind of pet to get you. It was decided a goldfish would be inexpensive and easy to keep.

You probably named him something, but I forget what. You drizzled food into the water and cleaned his bowl. Given the chance, I’m sure you would have walked him, too.

You really loved your little goldfish. You wished him good morning and good night and asked how he was doing. You also asked if he had enough light to see or wanted a different spot in your room. A more dedicated owner no pet goldfish ever had.

But then your goldfish died.

How and why we have no idea, but no foul play was ever suspected. Chances are, it came to us unwell already. Or maybe it was old. Or it committed a goldfish version of suicide (holding its breath?).

I remember Mom and I discovered your goldfish dead and had to tell you. That was hard for us to do, just as we knew it would be. You broke down in tears.

We had no success comforting you. We probably offered to get you another goldfish, but you declined.

Now came another tricky issue: what to do with the body. Clearly, a headstone or cremation were out of the question.

As it happened, your goldfish died during the summer, and at the time we belonged to the Silver Point Beach Club in Long Beach, Long Island. I think maybe it was your idea to bury your pet at sea.

So off we went to our club, your pet goldfish in a plastic bag filled with water. We went to our cabana and then on the hot sand toward the shoreline. You stood there with us at the edge of the surf holding the bag.

You told your goldfish you loved it and were sorry it died and would miss it.

Then you said goodbye and dropped it into the waves. The surf took your pet out into the Atlantic Ocean, quickly out of sight. You waved goodbye, pouting, then crying.

It just showed the kind of kid you were, and still are. Sweet at heart and sensitive to the suffering of others, particularly the helpless, such as children and small creatures.

That kind of empathy and compassion is organic and hard to teach, though it can be learned from experience.

It’s why you grew your hair for Locks of Love, to give the kids who go through chemotherapy and have no hair left.

It’s why you break into tears at the sight of a dog missing a leg.

It’s why you cry at certain movies.

You hate to see the vulnerable hurt. Maybe it’s because you know how it feels to be hurt. Maybe that special ability to identify with the victim comes from all of the kids who made fun of you in school (you never once told me about any of that; I had to find out from Mom).

Now, I’m no believer in martyrdom, but I’m sure suffering has a valuable lesson to teach. It has the potential to make each of us a better, more giving, more understanding person. I can already see that’s how it’s affected you.


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