Our goldfish, Sparky, has died. Our daughter, Katelyn, got him at a fun fair several years ago. She didn't even win him; another kid gave him to her as we were leaving, presumably because his parents -- who are obviously stronger and smarter than we are -- said he couldn't keep it. Had we known Sparky would live for six years, we would have said no, too.
The amazing thing about Sparky (besides the length of his life) was that he survived tremendous neglect. We went on vacation for a week and he was fine, so we got used to regularly going that long without feeding him. My husband changed his water only a few times a year (which incidentally may be what kept him alive all those years. He lived off the grub in his water).
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But then, on one of those arctic cold days when school was canceled (again) and we had been cooped up in the house for too long, Bernie decided to change Sparky's murky water. I warned him not to mess with the fish. I told him that the entire ecosystem in which Sparky had learned to survive would be thrown off balance with devastating repercussions. Ok, I didn't say that, but I told him not to change the water.
Within a week Sparky was dead.
The truth is, no one really cared. Bernie tried to do a Bill Cosby style funeral for Sparky (remember when Rudy's goldfish died, and they all dressed up and gathered around the toilet to say goodbye to the fish?), but no one came. In fact, while reading this article to our family to get feedback, my eight-year-old daughter yelled, "Sparky's dead?!" and ran to see for herself. No one was attached to Sparky.
That's why it surprised me that I felt a tinge of sadness when Bernie announced Sparky had died. I was secretly hoping one of the girls would make it onto the David Letterman show. I once saw a college-aged kid on the show with his 20-year-old goldfish. I really thought we had a shot. And, I felt sad because Sparky had become one of our stories. Every family has stories, and he had become a pretty good one -- our amazing, invincible fish.
When I was growing up, we had a mother cat that was perpetually pregnant, and we always had a "free kittens" sign in our front yard. One time the mama cat got sick and was unable to feed her kittens, so we had to feed them at regular intervals with droppers. We also have camping stories -- like the year we all got the stomach flu. My four siblings and I slept on bunk cots and you can imagine how my sister reacted when my brother, who was sleeping on the top, rolled over and got sick on her.
When Bernie was little, his mom was invited to appear on a morning television show in Mexico City and do a baking segment with Bernie and his sisters. She didn't have time to actually make her special Alsatian cake, so she bought one from a bakery and passed it off as her own. The pictures are hilarious, all the kids dressed up in Alsatian outfits looking sideways at one another, their lips sealed.
Around that same time, his parents packed his suitcase and told him he was going on a trip. He took a trip all right -- to the hospital to get his tonsils taken out. But no worries: when he came out of surgery, there was lots of ice cream and a new train set waiting for him in his hospital room. Sometimes stories, like this one, can explain a lot.
These are the stories that bond us together as husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews. When our family gets together, we start telling stories, and inevitably some of the details get a little bit inflated, making the stories increasingly funnier and more unbelievable. For example, at family dinners, when a turkey or roast is being carved, someone always tells the story about how one time Aunt Carol cut off her hand with an electric knife. (She actually sliced her finger while washing the knives, but we like to juice it up a bit.) It makes everyone laugh, and stories like this do a great job of connecting us and bringing us together when life and experiences have pulled us in different directions.
Stories that were painful at the time can become some of the best to tell and retell. Like how two years in a row the same pipe in our house froze and broke on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Really bad to see water pouring through the ceiling like a waterfall, but fun to tell how we got two new bathrooms and new furniture as a result. And everyone loves a good personal injury story. Our middle daughter once fainted in a public restroom, and our youngest tripped on the stairs in a Pier One store when she was two years old, completely knocking one of her front baby teeth up into her gums. It resurfaced a few months later, giving her a preschool smile that totally fit her personality. And when our oldest daughter fell while scootering in fifth grade, breaking her wrist, she insisted on eating a Little Debbie snack cake before driving to the hospital.
Decades from now, I don't know if our amazing goldfish will have made it onto our favorite family stories list. (Did I mention he lived to be over 10 years old?) There are still a lot of stories yet to be written. The important thing is that we are writing them together.
• Becky Baudouin lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and their three daughters. She blogs regularly at beckyspen.blogspot.com.