A (not so) brief interruption for self-pity

One Eyed Jack (left), Bandit (centre), Tigger (right)

I did actually motivate myself to blockfuse and start cutting Osiris’s  frock coat over the weekend. It’s going well, except that the iron has left marks which are showing through the right side of the fabric, and if they don’t even out when I finish the fusing then I’m going to be in trouble.

And that’s all the sewing there is in this post, so feel free to move on. Because this is where I get pitiful. Or perhaps pathetic. About, of all things, my goldfish.

Five years ago, just before we left our hometown, my husband got our children a small (10 gallon) tank and ten goldfish. Yes, this is way too many for the tank. His boss was evicting the goldfish from the tanks at his work, in favour of other, cooler fish, and the goldfish were either going to be flushed down the toilet, eaten by cichlids, or come home with us.

So, when we moved, we had ten gold fish, about seven small, three somewhat more medium-sized. To my utter surprise, all of them survived the move (which involved an eight hour drive in an un-filtered, un-aerated 1-gallon jar).

I am not really a fish-person. I am a cat- and dog-person, a cuddly mammal person. They weren’t the best-kept fish ever. But we had to give up our cats when we moved, as the new landlords were not pet-friendly, and so—fish. But I wasn’t overly surprised when a few of them died over the course of the next few years. Three of the smaller ones just—died. No idea what went wrong. One of the larger ones, a pretty multi-coloured one, seemed to develop an intestinal blockage. His sides got rounder and rounder, until his scales were sticking out. He was still eating but not, as far as I could tell, pooping. And then, one day, he was dead. Sad, but (for once) probably not my fault. But after that things really stabilized.  Six fish was still a lot for the tank, especially as they were all getting bigger, but we seemed to have weeded out the weak.

Fast forward until Christmas two years ago. We went home for the weekend (four days, a period of time we have left the fish alone for any number of times), and returned to the Great Filter Malfunction. The sponges in the filter (which I had cleaned not long before, I’ll add) decided to float up, so the water wasn’t being filtered properly, plus my husband left the tank light on (which heats the water a lot) and the house thermostat up, so the water was overheated. When we got back, one fish (Hook) was floating dead, and the others were not in good shape.  Over the next few days, as we scrambled to change water, we lost two more, and I fully expected to lose Tigger, our second-biggest fish, who was just sitting on the bottom, refusing to move, until his long, beautiful, trailing fins actually became warped from the pressure.

But, stubbornly, he didn’t die, and we were left with Tigger, Bandit (the biggest fish by far, although since he has short, stubby wild-type fins Tigger would actually be longer), and One-Eyed Jack, a small fish who had .

A little over a year ago, a friend lent us a somewhat bigger (25 gallon) tank, which we eagerly moved our fish into. Unfortunately, it was an upright style of tank, octagonal and deep—very pretty, but not really any advantage when it comes to swimming room. Even more unfortunately, it has an open top, and sometime last winter One-Eyed Jack took an ill-advised, and unprecedented, nightime leap and ended up on the floor. I blogged about that here.

So we were down to two, large goldfish (I’ll point out that my highly-in depth internet goldfish research suggests that plain-type goldfish require at least a 20-gallon tank for one fish, and at least an additional 12 gallons per additional fish. When well-kept, they also live at least 20 years, reaching a length of 10 to 12″). A month or two back, we finally decided that they were really, really to big to still be in such a small tank. Until we could find/afford a bigger one, we set back up the smaller, 10 gallon, tanks, and separated the two. Tigger, of the long, beautiful tail, thrashed during the transfer and ripped his tail, and proceeded to sulk on the bottom of the tank for the next week, refusing to eat, while the bit of his tail behind the rip fell off. In true Tigger form, despite my anxiety, he did not die, and eventually started eating again, but he still spent most of his time sulking on the bottom of the tank. Which, frankly, was his standard behaviour since the Great Filter Malfunction. The only time he really would swim around was when Bandit would poke and prod him. Meanwhile, Bandit, alone in his slightly larger tank with no one to pick on, took to eating constantly (I swear out of boredom) and bumping his nose into the glass every time I walked by. A bigger tank seemed like a necessity.

Ten days ago, while hunting on kijiji, we found a good deal on a 46-gallon, bow-front aquarium, complete with stand and filter and all that good stuff. Even a heater, which we’d never had before.

So we picked it up, set it up, and had our fish in it that very afternoon.

And my god, you have never seen such happy goldfish. Even Tigger, the sulker, bounced back and forth cheerfully. They swam and swam and swam.

Now, those of you who know about new aquarium setups know what’s coming next. A nitrogen spike is typical of a new aquarium setup. Nitrogen goes into the fish-tank as food (all protein contains nitrogen) and comes out the fish as waste, and gets converted through a few different formats by bacteria, but until the bacteria are well-established in the filter and the gravel bed, the toxic stages of the nitrogen cycle will build up. And I knew that too, and I was monitoring the ammonia (but not the nitrate or nitrite), and yes, it was elevated, but not THAT high, and we were doing partial water-changes every few days, which I thought would be enough. I mean, these are the fish that survived everything I could throw at them, in their teeny, overcrowded tank, for FIVE YEARS. I was expecting them to maybe be unhappy for a few days, but they seemed fine.

Until yesterday morning, when I discovered Tigger tangled up with the heater and the air-tubes, floating listlessly. I got him out of there, and while he was clearly alive, he was doing a lot of drifting and not really swimming strongly. But I mean, this is Tigger, he always looks sick, so I wasn’t really alarmed by this reversion to type. We did another partial water-change, though, to be on the safe side.

A few hours later, he was noticeably worse—still breathing, but drifting on his side.

By afternoon, he was dead. I wrapped him in a plastic bag, stuck it inside a cereal box, and taped it up, and tucked it in the freezer.

Osiris and the kids took a sample of water to the pet-store. No ammonia problem, but nitrite and nitrate were still high. We changed out even more water.

And just before bedtime, we realized Bandit—huge, fat, invulnerable Bandit, who’d nosed the ailing Tigger around the tank protectively—was acting listless. We pulled him out and stuck him back in the 25-gallon, which is still functioning, having been moved to Tyo’s room and stocked with some cute little orandas. He seemed to be doing a little better there, and we went to bed.

And this morning, when I went to wake Tyo for school, he was dead.

And I’ve had cats and dogs die on me and it sucks and I cry—frankly, I love my mammals a lot more than I love my fish—but here’s the thing. None of my cats’ or dogs’ deaths were my fault. They weren’t because I got them poisoned food, or gave them a lead-contaminated bed. The closest is a bit of guilt that Thea (the tabby cat) was allowed outside to be killed by the neighbour’s dog.

I measured Bandit just before I packed him in the cereal box beside Tigger. Even with his stubby fins, he was a full 10″ long, and fat. Good eating on that fish. Tigger was a smidge longer, but about 4″ of that was his prodigious tail.

How the FUCK can I keep two fish alive for years, years, in a teensy, grubby tank whose water quality was, frequently, shit—and then kill them both in less than two weeks in the brand-new, big tank that was supposed to make their lives better? Should I comfort myself that they had a week of great, fishy happiness in the big tank before it killed them? That they went together, just as they lived together for so long?

Dammit, why the hell am I crying over my freakin’ goldfish?

Give me a cat any day.



Filed under Sewing

50 responses to “A (not so) brief interruption for self-pity

  1. Aww. I lost a whole tank of fish to ick (a fungus disease) when I brought a new bottom feeder home to help keep the tank cleaner and improve my fishes little lives. That was about 10 years ago and I’m still a bit scarred that I didn’t notice that the new fish was sick in time to save the others. 😦

    • Oh, that would be horrible! I’ve heard of ick, although I wouldn’t have the first clue what it looks like. Ironically, this new tank came with a bottle of medication for treating it…

  2. You’re upset because they were a part of your life and your family’s for so long – that in away you feel a little part of the family has gone forever, you’re missing the familiar and the comfort you had knowing they were always there, and that you felt they were tough little survivors. S’nothing wrong in that – I’d be more worried if you weren’t just a teensie bit upset hun.

  3. Oh! I’m crying, too, reading this! I’m a horrible emotional mess when it comes to any pets kicking the bucket. I’m so very sorry to hear about Tigger and Bandit!

  4. Mercy

    I’m crying too. Really not your fault, you were trying to make them happy and healthy.

  5. I was riveted to your story! I actually thought about not finishing your post because I was afraid of the ending!
    You poor thing. You did what you thought was best and put in more effort than I would have, frankly. These things happen. Hold a fisheral (fish funeral) and when you feel ready try again.
    RIP Bandit and Tigger

  6. There were waaaaay too many allergies in our family for furry pets growing up, we had a lot of fish. Mostly goldfish, occasionally moors, or the crazy guppy years (one Scouting ecosystem project gone a little too far). None of our fish lived quite that long but I do remember it being sad when they passed away. I was 5 when our first fish (Hansel and Gretel) jumped out of their bowl and died. It is a very clear memory for me. I am sorry for the loss of your pets.

  7. Oh! That’s so sad, I’m sorry hun! You might have been more attached to the fish than you thought. Even though you can’t snuggle them or pet them, the responsibility of a fish makes you feel something for them. And, they are very pretty and interesting to watch. Do you plan to try again (eventually) now that you have a nice big aquarium?

    • Well, we aren’t exactly fish-free at the moment. The kids each have one of the littler tanks set up in their rooms; Syo’s has a betta and five tetras in it, and Tyo’s, as I mentioned, has three oranda gold fish (the round ones with the two tails… at least they don’t have bulgy eyes, though). They all seem fine. The big tank still has a four-inch minnow from the creek that we failed to return before freeze-up, a bunch of teeny feeder fish bought to feed him (he’s doing them in at the rate of about one a day) and a single smaller goldfish left from the five feeder goldfish we bought the day we got the new tank. Who seems to be doing fine, but then so did Tigger and Bandit until hours before their deaths. But we won’t be putting anything else into it until the water is testing better—estimates from the pet store range from two to six weeks.

  8. I agree, if you were not upset then I would find that odd. You had them a long time and it sounds like you had gone through a lot with them.

  9. I’m so sorry, but I have to agree that it wasn’t your fault in that you just wanted to improve their lives.

  10. Amy

    Oh dear, I’m so sorry. That must feel so unfair. Although we are a packed mammalian house here, I’d still grieve a fish if it was part of my life. I’m also an emotional mess when it comes to any kind of pet.

  11. I’m normally scornful of any non-feline pets, but goodness, I riveted by your account and mentally rooting for Tigger and Bandit. I’m so sorry for your family, and hope that you can remember their happy days playing in a giant tank.

    • You know, I was not a fan of fish (or any non-cuddly pet). But they’re surprisingly fun to watch, and not entirely without personality or interaction. Bandit would go crazy bumping the glass whenever he saw me, as I’m the one who usually fed them.

      • So I thought about it more, and I realized that I’m a pet sizist. I tend to dismiss goldfish as pets since they’re so tiny, but now that I think about a 10 inch fish, that sounds quite endearing. Also, now that I think about it, my students get attached to their AP Bio experimental goldfish every year, and we only work with them for a couple class periods.

  12. Shams

    Wow, I had no idea so much was involved in keeping fish or that goldfish could grow so large. I’m sorry that you lost your pet fishies. I hope the kids aren’t too devastated.

    • It was a pretty glum morning. We all gathered in a big hug for a while, and we let the kids get up slowly and miss the bus—we drove them, they were only a few minutes late, but I didn’t want to add rushing and stress and the usual morning fights.

  13. It’s toitally right to be upset- you take your stewardship duties seriously and it’s hard when you can’t save or fix something. When Mrs Parker (my orange angry cat) died the husband had to keep reminding me that she had 14 great angry cat years- not being able to prolong an already long lifespan is nothing to be ashamed of. Bandit and Tigger had all the fishy happiness they could ask for.

  14. Oh my god, what a tale of woe. I was riveted, & then shocked even though I should have guessed the outcome – you kind of set it up. So sorry you have lost your last survivors. I’ve had fish in the past, not knowing what I was doing & found they either lived & lived or they died quickly. I dont think I ever became an expert to know why. you look like you learnt heaps & it’s sad, but you did your best to give them a happy life.
    Can I be indelicate & ask about the freezer? I’ve never heard of that one before (only the great flush in the sky)

    • Well, we want to bury them, but it’s not really practical at this time of year. Or perhaps give them a viking send off in the creek. Either way, it won’t be possible until the weather warms up, so into the freezer they go…

      Yes, I suppose it’s a bit macabre. After my pet turtle died my father put it in the freezer until he got around to taking it in to the Archaeology department to be skeletonized for the collections… it was in there for quite some time.

      • Totally makes sense & far more dignified a send off.
        Impressed that you were able to preserve your pet turtle’s remains for the greater good, learning and science. Have you ever revisited him/her?
        (Oh, I am so sorry to be asking this at such a time. Feel free to pass on that one..)

        • LOL. I haven’t, actually, although I did spent some time in that collection when I eventually got to Uni. I don’t know if I would be able to do it for a cat or dog, but for the turtle… well, it wasn’t as close a connection.

  15. Thank you, everyone, for your comments and your sympathy—they actually help a lot. I keep feeling ridiculous for being so upset, but frankly, we’d had them a long time and I was proud of them—how big they were, how well they were doing despite our piddly little tanks. Fish are so dependent on you when you have them as a pet—a cat or dog could, at least potentially, run away, but a fish has no such option. And, frankly, I wasn’t mentally prepared for losing them. Not after so long.

  16. No, it makes sense to be upset. I had fish as a child. Losing fish is awful!!

  17. Bri

    I hope that all evens out on your frock coat, and I’m with you on not understanding fish, I’ll take a cuddly cat or dog any day!

  18. I agree with Scruffybadger, you had me riveted the whole way along, and I was surprised by the outcome. You’re a good storyteller, I’m just sorry that this story ended so sadly. 😦 They seemed like stubborn, determined fish.

    I worked at a lab once where we had a pet minnow. I don’t know what kind it was, but it was the only survivor from a toxilogical test. My Boss, feeling sorry for the little bugger, got a tank for him and kept him in the front office for years and years. The poor thing’s body was slightly bent, had a torn front fin, and I suspect was half blind, but he seemed happy enough. The summer I worked there, he finally started to show his age and toxic history and eventually died. It was sad, but he had a happier life than was expected (after that inital trama).

    Oh fish. How can such uncuddly and gross creatures capture our hearts?

    • Aww! This reminds me of Thumb, a tadpole who lived in one of the labs here for several years. They had been raising frogs (Xenopus) for research, but Thumb never metamorphosed, so they just kept him as a pet. When I met him, he was a peculiar-looking, overgrown tadpole with a big, round head. So odd.

  19. I’m so sorry. This makes me glad my son was still very young when we got him fish. They died off one by one and he had great fun counting down the fish (we had five fish! then four fish! then three fish! now we have two fish, then we will have one fish, and then we will have NONE FISH!!!!!), but after having one lone fish survive in a fishbowl for 4 years with minimal care taken, 5 dying in a couple months (despite being in a huge, filtered, cleaned and water changed tank) was just too much for me. I never thought I’d get so attached to slimy little shiny things. 😦

  20. Ohhhh! Pets are so wonderful and so dependent and so innocent… it is hard or impossible to be responsible but then not Feel responsible, y’know? You have written a fine tribute to their fortitude. Sending my condolences-

  21. This is an incredibly compelling piece of writing- you had me leaning forward and mouth-breathing. No kidding. Well done.

    I wouldn’t call it self-pity… Perhaps “introspection.”

    It’s so hard to know that others depend on you for everything in their lives… Even little fish. You were making their fish-lives better, but sometimes transitions are destructive… *hug*

    I wonder if anyone has ever eaten a pet goldfish that grew to good eating size?

  22. LinB

    Oh, my dear, I am so sorry for your loss.

  23. Aww, I’m sorry to hear about your fishies 😦 I’ve always been a cat-dog girl too since childhood, growing up with a dog, then a cat along with various budgies and canaries, but my hubby grew up with fish, so they are his “thing” (we don’t have the tank set up right now, waiting for our next house move…then I also get my kitty and maybe a dag! Yay!) I do like the fish, there is something relaxing about them floating about and doing gold fish things in their tank. But I agree it’s so hard to know when anything is wrong with them! When we were dating one of his fish up and died for no reason but then another turned all red like it was bleeding inside but then after the tank was flushed with special fishy antiseptic liquid (that turned EVERYTHING yellow!) he came right! My aunty keeps goldfish too, 3 huge ones in a teeny tiny tank, does everything wrong when it comes to water changes, feeding, cleaning etc and hers never die! Sigh… Some advice my hubby has told me: He thinks it’s always good to have a blackmoore in the tank, they are the first to show signs of anything wrong so you can act fast.

  24. oops, I mean’t a dog, not a /dag, hehe

  25. I am so sorry. Don’t feel ridiculous,for mourning their loss. Of course you feel grief at losing 2 beings that shared your world. Be kind to yourself. Hugs.

  26. Sue

    You are crying because you are a person who cares. I was crying and I am not a fish person. I am sorry! I wish I could give you a few more goldfish to love and protect for several more years. But, all I can send you is my sympathies.

  27. So sorry to hear about your fish. I’m more of a dog person myself, but have done fish as pets and they do become part of the family. One of my goldfish met his end jumping off a balcony… Very sad. O.k. With hindsight I should have taken the fish out of the bowl before emptying for cleaning, but many years later I still feel bad! I can’t remember how the others died.

  28. Oh, I feel for you T. So sorry to hear about this. No doubt, you are a wonderful and nurturing pet owner. Pets have their time. You cared for them. Pls don’t blame yourself.

  29. I had a hamster in college (yes, college) who died after I fed him a few goldfish crackers one night. I still feel horribly guilty about it. Not sure if it was the crackers or if it was just his time to go. I woke up the next day and he was dead. I’m so sorry about your goldfish!

  30. Sewin' in the Rain

    I’m sorry to hear about this. It’s definitely understandable to be sad, they were part of your family! My mom blames herself for the loss of our beloved cockatiel when he died of zinc poisoning (we’re guessing from the food bowls). I think caring for pets is really tough and the idea of loss is a reason I hesitate to get one. I’m sure you did all you could, I’m convinced you must be Wonder Woman to juggle all that sewing output, family, work, etc. 🙂 And just think, the 10 fishies are all together again in that big ol’ aquarium in the sky!

  31. I got talked into having a fish tank (long story) & ended up enjoying those fishies for years! When I lived with a toddler, she sat on my lap for ages while we ‘chatted’ & watched the fish – I don’t think we had a tv in the house; if we did, the fish tank was more entertaining!

    When my favorite fellow – a beautiful clown loach – died, I froze him in a giant ice cube & kept him in the freezer for years. Yes, years.

    I finally gave up the tank when life’s busy-ness got in the way…I tell ya, a fish tank involves more upkeep than 3 cats do! And even if you do everything right, they still die. Not your fault, I say….

  32. Awww, sorry to hear that! I had a fish that died because the water in its bowl had the wrong ph (I had just changed the water and somehow calculated the ph wrong). I also had a fighting fish that killed all the other fish in the tank because the pet shop worker told me — incorrectly as it turned out — that fighting fish only fight other males of the same species. Fish are just…challenging, even though they’re beautiful and have personalities and can totally become part of the family.

    My defense now: have multiple pets of multiple varieties, so they’re unlikely to die all at once. Also, I made a rule of no more fish and no more birds because I’ve had my heart broken by them too often.

  33. OH NOES! I’m so sorry. I totally understand, too. I had one of those tall octagonal tanks for my fresh water angel fish. They like the height more. The day that Manga suffered the coyote attack I finally got home, went to clean the filter and feed them and found them dead. The heater had cracked and malfunctioned. I just cried and cried.

  34. You mourn because you care. You’re allowed to care about fish, and sod anyone who says otherwise.

  35. fishies. they get to you too. after our third beta fish jumped to his death we said no more. maybe you should draw a little homage to them? i really think that would be cool.

  36. Oh no. Fish are cute though and pets do get to us so I understand your sadness very well.

    I know personally never to keep fish since, when at school I stroked our only batch of goldfish every day until they were belly up. I was 10! The cat like to ‘stroke’ them too … We cried.

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