There are some who say you should always tell kids the truth, no matter how brutal the facts are, no matter the trauma that may result. Children, they say, are more resilient than we think. They can handle the tough stuff. And it’s better for them to hear a hard truth than it is to learn that it’s okay to lie.
Well, I have a different policy.
Consider the story of the fish. Clara wanted a goldfish. The one she picked out was bright orange. A classic specimen. “What do you think we should call her?” I asked. “Melon,” she said. And Melon it was.
We chatted a bit about this new responsibility as we drove home from the pet store. About feeding Melon. About the need to protect her from little brothers and sisters by placing her bowl on a high shelf. Her mind was on other things.
“Daddy, do people eat fish?” I glanced in the rear-view mirror to see a pair of doe eyes blinking up at me. Clara is a fragile sort.
“Yes, sweetheart. But not goldfish.” By the time we pulled into the driveway, Melon had a middle name as well: Girl.
Melon Girl thrived for the first week; she ate well, she swam happily. Occasionally she would hang out near the bottom of the bowl a little longer than might have been expected. But, no biggie. That’s what goldfish do, right?
“She has some little black spots on her fins,” my wife said one night.
“I’m sure that’s normal,” I replied, with false confidence. Are there goldfish in de-Nile?
“She seems to be listing to one side,” said my wife the next day. She knows Clara’s fragile disposition better than anybody. “What are you going to do about it?”
I’m going to Google it, that’s what. In a goldfish, listing to one side is caused by a swim bladder infection. The cure for this, oddly enough, is to feed the fish a green pea, which we did.
“Why is Melon lying down, Daddy?”
The news from Google on this front was not good. “If a goldfish is literally lying on the bottom of the tank, this behavior is an indication of stress, which may be caused by fear, poor water quality or infection. Bottom sitting is not to be taken lightly.”
Believe me, I wasn’t taking any of it lightly. We changed the water. We treated it with a solution to nullify the chlorine. We turned down the lights and put on some mellow music. In a final desperate act, we added a pinch of salt to the water. Don’t ask me why.
I’ll cut to the chase: Melon didn’t make it. There were tears. There was sorrow. There was a flush in the night. When Clara woke the next morning to find an empty bowl, we told her that Melon’s soul was in heaven.
“Is she with Grandma and Pop-Pop?”
“Of course, sweetheart,” I said, exuding the false confidence that has lately become my trademark.
“But how will they know each other?” This was, it seemed to me, a fair question. I knew I had to choose my answer carefully.
“I’m sure that God will let Grandma and Pop-Pop know that Melon is part of our family,” I declared. As theological improvisations go, this was pretty benign. I mean, I hope that goldfish and humans go to the same heaven, but who knows for sure?
“Where’s her body?” Her lip was beginning to quiver. She had the doe eyes again. I drew a deep breath. This was the moment of truth.
“I took her to the cemetery and put her in the pond. Now we can go and visit her there whenever you want.” In the long and storied history of lying, this ranks among the whitest of whoppers. But to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a lie is a lie no matter how small. I felt suitably bad about it.
To make myself feel better, I took Clara to pick out another goldfish. The new fish was the spitting image of Melon; a little smaller but with the same bright orange color. Clara called her Pumpkin. At first splash, Pumpkin zoomed around her new home, exploring the tank, zipping out from behind the mussel shells that we had recently collected from the Long Island Sound.
“This will get everyone’s mind off Melon,” I thought. Then the spots appeared on Pumpkin’s tail, too. Except these spots were white.
White spots on a goldfish are evidence of a disease called Ich (pronounced, appropriately, “Ick”), the cure for which involves a powder that turns the tank into a five-gallon margarita. Despite this treatment, Pumpkin sat in the corner all day, like a big mope, only swimming about when the food was on offer, or when Clara tapped the side of the tank.
God has his ways, I suppose, and Pumpkin passed. There was another flush. There were more tears. “Pumpkin is happier now. She’s in a better place,” I said with my usual false cheer.
“Did you put her in the pond, too?”
I suppose if I was an honesty-is-the-only-policy type of parent, this would have been a good time to confess the lie I’d previously told about Melon. But I knew that coming clean would have required smashing Clara’s seven-year old heart into thousands of little pieces. I know that life will give her plenty of reasons to cry. It hardly seemed necessary to give her one now.
“Of course we did, honey. Let’s get our shoes on and go visit her.” Her doe eyes lit up. A smile exploded across her face. Sometimes a little lie goes a long way.
From the May 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.