To watch my son feed Henry is to behold an act that approaches the hallowed. The way he will stand in front of the bowl and fold his arms atop the dresser. The way he grasps the small bottle of food and shake out four pinhead-sized pellets into his hand. How he holds them to the lamplight so Henry can see and then slowly turns his hand over so the pellets can drop to the water. Each done with a slow purpose that defines a Serious Moment. It seemed odd at first, almost comical. All this care to feed a simple betta fish.
My son named it Henry on the way home from the pet store. He wanted a dog. His mother and I said no. Dogs are a big deal, I told him, so let’s start smaller. You buy the fish, the bowl, the gravel, and the food. You feed him twice a day and change his water every other week. Then we’ll talk dog.
Now a month later, my son is content and Henry is flourishing. His bowl rests in a prime location atop the dresser, situated with a clear view of both the bedroom and the woods outside. The lamp is near and is kept on at night (I’ve been told Henry’s afraid of the dark), and a small ceramic bridge has been placed in the gravel, courtesy of a good report card.
We will often watch Henry at night before I tuck my son into bed. Truthfully, betta fish are as entertaining as a rock. It takes effort to keep boredom at bay. I will comment on how purple Henry is and how his tail and lower fins fan out as he glides. He’s getting bigger, I’ll say. My son will nod like a proud parent and then sigh as Henry bumps against the glass edges of his world. He doesn’t think Henry is all that bright but loves him nonetheless.
It is an unpretentious pet for an unpretentious boy, nothing more. Until it’s time to eat.
I wondered why for a long while but didn’t ask for fear that I’d spoil whatever meaning my son assigned to the act. Besides, I figured he would eventually explain without the prodding. He did last night.
He was looking at the bowl when he said, “Henry’s mine.”
I nodded. “Nobody else’s.”
He looked from Henry to me and said, “If I don’t feed him, he’ll turn into a skeleton. This is serious, Daddy. A skeleton is the opposite of a fish.”
I waited for more. That statement alone couldn’t possibly be enough to warrant the solemnity my son found dropping four tiny fish pellets into a bowl of water. A seven-year-old child knows that rule number one is that if you want to stay living, you have to eat.
No further explanation came. In fact, I got the sense that my son felt anything more would be superfluous.
Then I thought maybe he was right. He’d said all that was needed. The idea of having to feed something to keep it alive was simple to me. It had always been simple to him, too. But now things were different. It was no longer simply an idea, it was a reality. Henry depended on him. That fact alone made feeding Henry more than a responsibility, it made it a privilege.
That my son has learned this by way of a three-dollar fish that possesses questionable intelligence and little entertainment value is not lost on me. But I think the big things in life often come in small packages, and I have no doubt Henry has given him a very big thing.
One day my son will have to feed more than a fish. He’ll have to feed things like dreams and love and hope, possessions which require much more nourishment than four tiny pellets twice a day could ever offer. He’ll have to be as serious about it then as he is now. Just as not feeding Henry will result in the opposite of Henry, not feeding his aspirations will result in a rudderless life. Starving his love will result in apathy. And if my son deprives himself of hope, how will he not look upon the world with anything other than hopelessness?
My son’s right—this is serious. It’s a good thing Henry has him.
It’s a good thing he has Henry, too.
In other Coffeyland news, I’m readying a trip to the great city of Nashville, Tennessee. The good news is that I’ll be meeting with my publisher. The bad news is that I’m going to have to fly. Luckily, Katdish helped me out with a very informative post here: The Hillbilly Guide to Air Travel. Go enjoy.