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When Parenting Your Adult Child Is Like Parenting Yourself: A Story

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Nameless and Soulless in Paradise

When my daughter Charlotte went off to college, suddenly and abruptly petless, it did not take long before she determined the rule about pets in dorms: fish only. On impulse, and accompanied by a new friend who had a tank of goldfish in her room, Charlotte made her way to the nearest pet store and bought two Siamese fighting fish, also known as Bettas, and a small plastic divided tank to keep them from killing each other.

For a year, the fish went back and forth between school and home on every vacation, traveling in old wheat germ jars with holes poked in the lids, and I became accustomed to their transitory presence and the memories they raised of various "Rainbow Fish" from Charlotte's childhood.

When Charlotte first got the two fish and informed me of their new home in her dorm room, I asked her what she had named them, and she said she had not yet thought of names. She seemed unrushed. She would name them when it struck her fancy, or when her muse paid a visit, or maybe not name them at all.

"Oh no," I said, "They have to have names!" I was just being silly. We both enjoyed the banter.

"Why?" Charlotte asked, "What does it matter?"

I proceeded to completely confuse something I'd once learned in a college religion course. I said to Charlotte, "Because! Didn't you ever learn in Sunday School that if a baby dies before it has been given a name, it won't have a soul, and won't go to Heaven, but will be stuck in Limbo forever?"

"Umm, I sort of remember something about that..."

"Well," I continued the banter, "You must name your fish right away, otherwise if they die, they'll be nameless and soulless."

Charlotte is a very quick-witted girl: "THOSE ARE THE NAMES! 'NAMELESS' AND 'SOULLESS!' AWESOME MOM!"

When Charlotte came home for Thanksgiving this year, I noticed immediately that something was terribly wrong with Nameless. It is so hard to describe, not because I lack the words, but because I lack the kind of heart that would allow me to neutrally report his condition. But here you have it. He was simply a body. His tail and fins had fallen off, as had his gill covers, and he hovered at the bottom of his tank, alive but barely moving. Soulless looked fine at first, but upon closer inspection, was beginning to also look sick, and the internet said it was Fin Rot, caused by a bacterial infection due to, big surprise, an unclean tank.

Charlotte knew things were not right, but assumed that if the fish were still alive, they had somehow beaten whatever illness was consuming them. The opposite was of course true, and a necessary conversation ensued in which we discussed the humane treatment of animals and wondered about whether fish could feel pain and whether that even mattered in the decision we needed to make about euthanasia.

I have always associated that word -- euthanasia -- with humans and other mammals. If pets are to be euthanized, they are probably dogs or cats, or perhaps rabbits. So this was strange terrain, and I knew that my own horror at the state of the fish was overreactive, and that my emotional pain on their behalf might well be just plain ridiculous. And yet, I looked at Nameless and I cried.

Over the next 24 hours, I found myself obsessively concerned about his welfare and whether or not he was suffering. I knew that Soulless was about to succumb to the same disease. I eventually realized that perhaps the grief I had not been able to fully process over the loss of our two English bulldogs many years ago was being projected onto these two tiny-brained, possibly pain-free fish.

There are many ways one can euthanize aquarium fish. My husband thought we might perhaps put them in a Ziploc bag full of water and into the freezer, where they would slowly fall asleep, hibernating their way to a painless death, but Charlotte deemed that "creepy."

In the end, she chose to "release" them into the brook behind our house, where they might swim freely for a while, and, in our collective imagination, perhaps even make it to the Concord River. At sunset, my husband -- her stepfather -- accompanied her to the small bridge that traverses the brook. I could not go. I watched solemnly from the kitchen window.

When it was time, Charlotte kneeled down close to the water and gently poured the fish into the stream, squinting to see them after they had entered the water and to measure their progress as they journeyed to their fate. My husband later told me that her final words to Nameless and Soulless were, "You were good friends." Nice. Plain and simple and unadorned.

Pet loss is a funny thing. You can anthropomorphize anything if you make a decent effort at it. Those two fish with the peculiar names had found a way into our family mythology, representing all of the impulsivity and invincibility of the teenage years as well as the intense reflection and emotionality my own middle years. When it was time to do the humane thing and pardon them from a slow and ugly death, they had come to symbolize something universal about the passing on of life to whatever lies in the next realm. Nameless and Soulless were certainly not doomed to Limbo; they were and still are swimming in paradise.

As I headed to bed that night, I stopped by Charlotte's room to check in on her.

"Are you upset? About the fish?"

"No," she said. "I'm ok. I set them free."

That she did.

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