THE BLOG
09/29/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, New Fish

Cort Ruddy

"Dad? My one fish looks different."

"How so?"

"Well, he looks kind of bigger..."

"So he's growing."

"And, he used to have a black tail. Now he has an orange tail."

"Oh. That."

Among other things, this simple exchange extinguished any delusions I had that I could get away with an actual crime, like an Oceans Eleven-style casino heist. Not to say I'd try, but I've occasionally wondered if I could.

Clearly, I can't even pull off a common fish switcheroo.

Every parent with fish-owning children knows the drill, often involving a late-night run to the 24-hour Fish Emporium looking for just the right shade of pink Beta, or goldfish, or some other tropical variety. We've all done it.

Earlier in the day, I stood in front of the wall of fish at Pet Smart staring at three tanks filled with Sunburst Platies -- in various hues of yellow, orange and red, some with black tipped fins, others with just dark orange fins -- trying to recall the exact color of my daughter's recently-departed Sunburst Platy, who went by the name of Sunny.

I'd found Sunny this morning lying on the bottom of the tank motionless, with the other fish swimming around acting like nothing was wrong. I figured dead fish float, right? So I got the net and tried to see if I could get him to move. Nothing. And this is why my wife objected to the idea of getting the kids fish from the start, because of the certain eventuality of dead fish. It skeeves her out.

This isn't our first attempt at fish owning.

A few years ago, we had the misfortune of winning a few goldfish at the state fair. We didn't actually win, it was just one of the last nights of the fair's annual run and the carney working the fish booth decided my kids deserved a few, even though said kids couldn't get a ping pong ball to land in an empty fishbowl to save their lives. We left that god-forsaken booth with three fish -- one for each of the girls. It was a long ride home.

The next day I read about goldfish and somehow wound up at the pet store buying sixty dollars' worth of aquarium and aquarium accoutrements to keep the free fish alive. It didn't work.

Over the next three months, I went to Pet Smart as often as Norm went to Cheers. The staff would greet me with, "Want the usual?" I became a master of the goldfish switcheroo.

Then one day, I decided to give up my hobby of replacing dead goldfish with live ones and to use the whole goldfish experience to teach my kids a bit about life -- and death. The next time a goldfish died, I sat the kids down one at a time and told them that it died. I expected waterworks; And at least one of the kids did cry. But I remember my then 5-year-old's daughter's reaction most of all. I told her the fish died; she looked at me and said, "Can we get a kitten?"

Within another two months, all the replacement goldfish were dead and the empty aquarium and accoutrements were stowed on a shelf in the basement.

There the tank sat for two years, until this summer, when our 10-year-old declared she wanted to get the old aquarium going again and set it up in her room, I anxiously agreed, with one condition: no goldfish. We read up on tropical fish and decided on Platies and a few other heartier varieties.

It's been a few months, and everything has gone swimmingly. That is, until Sunny stopped swimming.

Then, I did again what parents do. I'm not sure why we work so hard to shield our kids from the death of a fish. As deaths go, it's an easy one to take. Maybe we just don't want them to be hurt at all by any loss? Maybe we just want to protect them from all the harsh realities of the world? Or maybe we're afraid they will get too used to those realities at too young an age? What happens when the cat dies, will they want a pony?

In reality, most kids take the death of a fish better than parents do, even if they're not quite sure why it happened. It's sad, but they move on. I've seen it. So, I've decided today's failed switcheroo was my last.

Before she went to bed tonight, my eldest daughter and I discussed what happened, and she pointed out to me the differences between Sunny and Sunny II. And, it's true, Sunny II is a bit bigger. He doesn't have the same gradient of yellow to orange as Sunny, nor the black tips on his tail and fins.

She ended our little talk with a piece of advice:

"Dad," she said, as I began to close the door. "Next time, just tell me."


Read more from Cort Ruddy at RuddyBits.com