Requiem for a Fish

A farewell to a beloved but short-lived pet.

“How are we doing, Concert?” I asked the little orange fish in the bowl on our piano. He didn’t look like he was moving, but that wasn’t surprising — he’d been swimming very little over the past few days. At least he wasn’t floating upside down at the surface; he was right side up, near the multicolored rocks at the bottom of the fish bowl. A good sign, I hoped.

No such luck. I looked more closely and saw no fins moving. I reached in and touched the rock nearest him, and he began to drift toward the water’s surface. His eyes were milky and lifeless.

I sighed and went into the kitchen to get a plastic bag. I’d had a lot of time to think about what I’d do next. To flush his little body would leave his remains forever mingling amongst filth; an ignoble end for a fish who’d meant so much to our family. Burying him in the garden seemed more respectful, but it left the very real possibility of heartbreak if young hands happened upon his tiny skeleton while helping Mommy plant her pansies next year.

No, I had decided on what seemed like the most natural, organic end. He would be buried at sea — or, more precisely, in the waters of the Lehigh River.


Concert the Goldfish first entered our lives as the fulfillment of a promise my wife made — a reward for our oldest son, Tommy, when he finished potty training nearly a year ago. But almost immediately he was beloved just as much by our younger son, Seth. “Fish” was one of Seth’s first words. Whenever Seth walked by and spotted him, he’d announce “FISH!” and usually ask to be picked up for a closer look, so that he could show Mommy or Daddy that, hey, there’s a FISH here!

Tom was as conscientious a fish-owner as a 3-year-old could be. He often was the one to feed Concert (though Mommy handled most of Concert’s care for him, including regularly changing the water). From early on, Tom worried about Concert feeling lonely in his bowl all by himself, so he selected a series of pirate figures to hang out in the water with him and keep him company.

As for the name, that was all Tom’s idea. We still don’t know where it came from, but we agree it’s a brilliant name for a fish.

But even the most beloved goldfish can start to blend in with the furniture after several months. Seth began not to notice him every time he toddled by; Tom let him go weeks without a pirate companion.

Then Concert’s apparent demise refocused our attention. As I wrote a month and a half ago:

I had already been having a miserable day at work when [my wife] Stacey called to inform me that Tommy, our 3.5-year-old son, was inconsolable because Concert the Goldfish was floating upside down in his bowl. Trying to steel him for the fish’s likely demise, she had tried to reassure him that we could always get ourselves another Concert.

The poor little guy’s heart had nearly burst. “Nooo!” he had wailed. “There will never be another Concert!”

Miraculously, Concert recovered within three days and even seemed fairly happy — at least at first. But he was never quite the same. There were more spells when he’d float upside down for a few days, periodically fighting to right himself and swim around. More and more, he seemed listless, as though he had checked into the geriatric wing of his goldfish bowl.

Experts say that a properly cared-for goldfish can live for decades — but not if it’s stuck in a goldfish bowl for all that time. Being from Wal-Mart probably doesn’t help either. After nine months with our family, Concert was clearly near the end of his life.

But going through his near-death experience a few weeks earlier had helped all of us, I think. By this point, Stacey and I had already dealt with our potential guilt about our possible neglect contributing to his demise. More importantly, Stacey had taken on the unenviable task of trying to explain death to Tommy. (Seth, at nearly 2 years old, was still too young to understand.)

Tom seemed to take it well. Periodically, when he noticed us examining Concert during those periods when he looked more feeble than usual, Tom would ask: “Is Concert dead yet?”

Clearly, he had moved on.

Stacey and the boys happened to be out of town that weekend in May. I had watched Concert’s swimming grow weaker, his breathing slowing down, and in many ways had I hoped he’d choose that weekend to expire. The boys had said their real goodbyes a month ago; I wasn’t eager to risk dredging up that pain again.

It was a Saturday morning when I scooped Concert’s body out of the bowl and placed it in the plastic sandwich baggie I retrieved from the kitchen. I slipped it into a small cooler and drove down to a park here in Bethlehem on the banks of the Lehigh, not far from where the river passes the massive remains of Bethlehem Steel. A handful of bicyclists departed from the parking lot as I pulled up. A few ducks were hanging out in the water. The weather was cloudy but warm.

I scrambled down the riverbank and stepped onto a chunk of concrete that was mostly submerged in the water. I took the little fish out of his bag.

“Farewell, Concert,” I said. “Two little boys loved you very, very much.”

And with a tiny plunk, Concert’s body slipped below the rippling surface of the river.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck