When I was in my twenties and working and going to college, I had a fish tank that occasionally housed actual live fish. Periodically, and for no apparent reason, and oddly, often on my birthday….these fish would die on me. I was attempting to get my psyche in order at the time, so the fish would usually be single (like myself), and named after famous shrinks (because I was taking Psych. 101, but also because for several years prior I had tried on several therapists in an assortment of sizes and colors). So, I was confounded by my inability to maintain the simple bodily functions of a solitary goldfish. How hard could this be, really? The eat, they poop, and they swim around. I imagine they also slept, however this was something I never actually observed. But in any case, they seemed very basic in their needs and expectations. So it was very disappointing to come home from work or wake in the morning to find Sigmund (a.k.a. “Siggy”), or Skinner, or Carl floating belly-up in the water.
Eventually, I stopped buying fish. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I was incapable of keeping a fish alive. I mean really, the goldfish is little more than an aquatic Chia pet, yet I had managed to kill most of the major psychiatric pioneers of the 20th century. For several months I kept the fishless tank full of clean water and with the requisite plastic fern and bubbling pirate’s chest, but the actual living fish I left safe and sound at the pet store. Eventually, the tank was set out at a yard sale. I had finally decided that I simply wasn’t the nurturing, caring soul that could support a fish or a Chia pet, for that matter.
These are the thoughts that have been waltzing through my brain for the last week, as the boys have each battled different versions of this croupy, horrible virus. How can I possibly be entrusted to care for and heal three little human beings if I am the same person that couldn’t keep all those simple scaled critters alive in the 80’s?
A few nights ago, Sam came wobbling into our bedroom. I usually hear the door open even before he reaches the side of my bed, but this night I woke to find him right next to me. His face was pink and flushed, and his hair was curling away from his neck and forehead in sweaty little commas. I got out of bed and scooped him up. His temp was 103, which would have terrified me, but for the fact that Sam is the third pancake so I know to watch and wait, rather than flip that thing too soon.
For the next two hours he slept fitfully on my chest while I sat in the dimly lit living room. Even his tiny feet were hot to the touch like a handful of coals, and I watched his heartbeat pulsing in his neck. His heart was fluttering against my chest like a hummingbird caught in a net. The only sounds in the whole house were his erratic little wheezy breaths, and the two beeps every ten minutes as I ran the thermometer across his forehead. Finally, his fever broke around 2 a.m., and I let myself loosen the unconscious belt of fear that I had cinched down tight. I may think I have all this confidence in my abilities to watch over them, but deep down I still carry the fears of that twenty-something girl that couldn’t care for even the simplest charges.
They seem so bold and tough at times, the boys, I mean. Sam charges into the room, boasting, “Wook out, here comes Captain ‘Merica!”. The reality is that they are so very fragile, and require far more than the basic needs of a goldfish. I am not the same person I was in that one-room studio with the Murphy bed and the empty fish tank. Some people might have melancholic yearnings for those selves they use to be, but not me. I am immeasurably grateful that I have transformed into someone who, despite huge insecurities and voracious fears of the unknown, can hold these little sneezing, wheezing, raspy, hummingbird-hearted creatures safe in my arms and in my heart. I still can’t keep a Chia pet alive, but I think I can live with that.