take your hat off boy when you’re talking to me


Yes, I get it – the blog I’m about to write is a tremendous cliché, worn thin by years of parents going through the same motions, but it doesn’t make it any less of a bummer that our sweet, long-lived goldfish Hank has died.

In 2007, I wanted to teach Lucy about “taking care of other beings”, hopefully leading to “empathy”, since she was 2 years old, and therefore completely insane. On a blazing hot day when she was quite sick, we shook things up a bit by going to an aquarium.

On my shoulders, she was psyched but delirious (and probably febrile) as we roamed the selection of fish. Without hesitation, she pointed to a gold fantail and a telescope-eyed black moor and announced their names were Hank & Ankle.

the fish in October 2007

I like to do the research when it comes to these things, so I took very good care of them, and Lucy followed my example. Ankle was a little too delicate for Hank’s rough-and-tumble ways, and so was Ankle II – so by 2009, Hank was a solo goldfish.

For five years, he relaxed my thoughts late at night, and during the day, he was a source of constant fascination for all of Lucy’s playdates. Bringing a crying 18-month-old to the tank usually resulted in a kid with wide-eyed wonder.

He’d had a rougher time of it since this winter, often retreating to the bottom of the aquarium, listing to one side, and getting some of the old ick, but he still recognized me when I came into the room, bolting skyward for food.

A few weeks ago, when Tessa had just returned from caretaking over a good friend’s death, dealing with the news that one of Lucy’s closest friends had a possible tumor, with me away and Lucy herself running a fever of 101, our helper Laura came into the room and said, “Señora, yo estaba pensando que Hank esta muerto” (“Ma’am, I’m thinking Hank has died”.)

At the end of her tether, Tessa looked up from Lucy’s thermometer and half-barked “Tell Hank he is NOT ALLOWED to die today!” Apparently the three of them went to his aquarium, where he was lying crooked face-down in the gravel. They spoke to him, starting to say goodbye, when suddenly, he twitched, righted himself, and swam over to see what was wrong. For this alone, I know Tessa will always be thankful.

Hank was suffering from something, but showed more will to keep going than most creatures I’ve seen from the animal kingdom. While it’s true goldfish can live for 20 years, 90% of them don’t make it to a year in people’s homes. Hank may now join our family’s Cadre of Ridiculously-Long-Lived Pets, from the sedentary puffball doorstop Zooey to the sexually-ambiguous Chopin.

When Lucy got home from school today, she found out what I’d known for hours: good ol’ Hank had swum off his mortal coil for good. Dolefully, but with the intensity that comes from any of her art projects, she made a coffin out of a printer ink box, and acted as sole pallbearer outside.



I dug a spot next to our peach tree, currently being guarded from lascivious squirrels, and we said a few choice words, then sprinkled dirt on top, and closed the grass over him. We chose that spot because now Hank will feed the tree, and we can always think of him when we pick the fruit for years.


By the time we got in, Tessa had come home, and Lucy handed each of us a piece of paper. “All three of us have to write a poem about him,” she said, “because I’m writing his biography.” And all three of us did. It was her first animal; she’d known him from age 2 to 7, what else could we do? As I thought of rhymes, I also realized Hank, as a goldfish – that most quotidian and simple of pets – had done what I asked him. He taught empathy, whose natural offspring is poetry.


Lucy, Tessa and I write a one-minute poem – click for bigger if you dare

0 thoughts on “take your hat off boy when you’re talking to me

  1. Anne

    Lucy’s poem/elegy is amazing.
    When Kevin’s first goldfish, Oliver, died at the ripe age of nearly 3 (not bad for a 25-cent fish), he was devastated. So, yes, there was a garden burial in our back yard. Then Kevin said a funeral mass (he was 6 at the time) over Oliver’s grave. At one point, my husband, who was doing yard cleanup, strayed close to where Kevin was standing and Kevin turned and requested mournfully, “I need to be alone with Oliver.”
    Children’s hearts are so pure; they put us jaded adults to shame.
    Thanks for sharing this sweet family moment.

  2. karin

    …And be there when I feed the tree.
    We got a goldfish one anniversary (our tenth) and X lived a pretty glorious 2+ years from his anointed spot on my desk in the home office). I stared at him countless times a day, and in the mornings we would find tufts of black kitty fur in front of the tank. Our Lucy (cat) would sneak up at night and sleep on the desk right in front of him.


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