This morning my family bade a fond farewell to our much-loved beta fish, Francisco.
It was a Saturday in October of 2012 when we first welcomed Francisco into our home. I remember I’d just trudged through my first PSAT, and the sky was filling up with heavy gray storm clouds, and my mom and little brother and I drove to the pet store with the cheerful ambition to buy a beta fish to add some zest to the second-hand fishbowl we’d just received from my grandmother. Most of the fish at the store were dead or close to it, floating lifelessly in those cruel little plastic containers. Out of the two or three that were still kicking, my brother was drawn to the double tail male with a pinkish body and vibrant, flowing blue and red fins.
We bought the fish and some supplies, and all the way home I held the little guy in my hands in his container, holding my breath and praying the car wouldn’t make any sudden movements, that I could keep the fish safe, that he’d make it home unscathed, poor delicate creature. I thought it must be a miracle when we arrived home and got him upstairs and into his prepared fishbowl in one piece.
As our first fish, Francisco quickly found a place in all of our hearts, especially the cat, Artemis. We all enjoyed watching him dart erratically around the bowl, and carefully asses whether he could fit through the door to his fish castle before slowly, gingerly inserting himself inside to claim his fortress. It was fun to feed him his pellets and even more so the dried bloodworms which were his special treat (I didn’t like to touch the nasty things but was content to watch my mom or brother drop one onto the surface of the water. In an instant, Francisco would dart forward and slurp the delicacy into his gullet in one gulp!)
As time passed and the novelty of the “new animal” wore off, it was replaced by a deeper, truer love that comes from someone being a vital member of the family. Although he was a fish and we couldn’t touch him or relate to many of his emotions, I think we all became quite attached to Francisco. Artemis watched him for hours on end to ensure he was getting along all right. And for a while, he was.
But a couple months ago, something changed. Francisco no longer built the bubble nests at the water’s surface that were supposedly a sign of his happiness. He didn’t seem to want to swim around as much as he used to, and instead settled down at the bottom of his environment, rarely moving at all. When he did swim to the top to get air, it was with pained-looking movements, and he’d fall back to the bottom and be still as soon as possible. He got so boring to watch that Artemis wondered what we’d done with her playmate who used to be so active.
Concerned about Francisco’s health, the family searched all over the web for possible diagnoses and treatments of fish diseases. A number of common ailments came up, and we deliberated intensely over what course of treatment would be the best to follow. We spent a pretty penny on medication from an aquarium store that was supposed to help cure a number of beta diseases, put Francisco in a freshly-cleaned environment, and painstakingly administered the medication as directed. (My mom had to divide a tiny packet of powder into tenths…ouch!) After a week or two of this, no change occurred in Francisco’s well-being, and we decided to just go back to caring for the fish as we had before. At least he was eating.
For the time being.
As the days and weeks dragged on, Francisco became more and more sedentary at the bottom of the tank. His fins drooped. His colors were less vibrant. He eventually began perching on top of his castle so it would be less effort for him to reach the surface when he needed to. Even centimeters from the surface, it seemed to be a great undertaking for him to grab hold of his food. In a burst of precious energy he’d launch his feeble body at the pellet of food…and miss. And try again. And miss. It was quite disheartening to watch. Eventually he’d simply give up and stare longingly at the pellet, unable or unwilling to go for it. After a week or so of this, when we dropped a pellet in for him he’d just stare blankly at it and not even attempt to eat it. It could bump right against his face and he’d just lie there on top of his castle, what had been his home and was now his prison…his deathbed?
We didn’t want to say it, but in the last few days we all knew our poor long-suffering little guy was not long for this world. He seemed to realize it too, in the way that a beta fish can be aware of these things. He didn’t even look at the food we put in the tank. It really frustrated me to see this, to try to feed the animal and not get any response, to be unable to have an inkling of what was wrong with him, but also to see plainly that something was horribly wrong, the nature of the disease was obscured as in a cloud of octopus ink but the symptoms were obvious as the glaring light of an anglerfish in the abyss. I wished he were human so we could take him to a hospital, get him examined, have needles running into his veins and filling his emaciated frame with the nutrients it needed to get back to health. I wished I could force the food pellets into his mouth and MAKE him eat so I could MAKE him better. Now maybe I’ve gotten a tiny taste of what it’s like to be the parent of a child who refuses to eat, who’d rather starve than risk gaining weight.
Regarding the animal world, we often presume things to be simple and primitive: animals are driven to survive and reproduce, therefore they pursue food, shelter and mates until the moment of their demise, not thinking of what comes afterward or what is the meaning or purpose of what they do, or whether they as individuals are happy doing it. Not much has been found yet that can be proven about the psychology of various members of the animal kingdom – we don’t know all there is to know about the workings of the human phsyche, for that matter. But the latter has been researched in far greater depth, and we have found ways to treat a myriad of human psychological disorders such as depression, obsession, and you guessed it, eating disorders. Even a generation or two ago the acceptance and available care for diseases such as these was far less expansive than it is today. And we still have a long way to go before we find a total “cure” for all eating disorders, if such a thing is possible (current findings point to no on that one.)
And certainly if one is not a human but a fish, say, available psychological counseling is pretty much zero. Who knows what goes through the minds of our household animal companions as they go through their lives and reach their ends? We can’t expect them to be brutes with no feelings, nor can we at this point understand what they may be going through during what they perceive as tough times. I have learned the hard way that it’s impossible to force an animal (or a person) to do what they’re “supposed to do.” I only wish they’d come up with some way for me to communicate with my fish so he could have let me know what was paining him so, what was eating away at him inside and out, why he wasn’t swimming around or building bubble nests or eating with gusto.
But we can be thankful that at least, while this technology has not yet been developed with with respect to inter-species communication, it is quite possible to communicate with other human beings whom we love who may be going through something we don’t understand. Who understands why I stopped eating? I’ll never completely decipher the meaning or origin of my muddy thoughts at that time period myself. All I can say is, I’m glad I had a supportive family who cared enough to work with me and listen to a language they didn’t understand. I’m glad I didn’t have to be force-fed through a hospital tube, and I hope I am never in a position of forcing someone else – human or otherwise – to be “cured” without really listening.
Francisco, I know you’re reading this post up in fishy-heaven. This post, and the cake recipe I’d been planning to share before this fateful morning, are both dedicated to you.
If you know someone with an eating disorder, don’t try to feed them this cake because trust me, they won’t eat it. But if you know someone who’s been feeling down lately, or is missing a loved one perhaps, go ahead and bake this cake for them. It’s a healthier form of comfort food that will warm the heart while also nourishing the body. The cake base is made with whole wheat pastry flour and steel-cut oats (you can’t taste the oats) and infused with the flavor of sweet maple to caress the tastebuds and the heart. The cake is frosted with a quick and easy cinnamon cream cheese icing that looks repulsive but tastes great, and sprinkled with pistachios and chocolate-covered raisins for extra flair. At the bottom, I baked a layer of bananas that I hoped would get caramelized in the oven, but it didn’t seem to happen, so instead of caramelized bananas we have sweetened bananas. Oh, well. It still tastes great.
I highly recommend this cake, whether or not you or a loved one has something to be depressed about. If you do make this cake for a hurting loved one, please bring it to them in person with a gift basket, a warm blanket, and an open ear ready to listen to whatever they have to pour out.
Click here for the full recipe: Banana Maple Cream Cheese Comfort Cake