Adventures in fish-sitting, lessons in truth-telling

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I live next door to an elderly woman named Jim-Claire who was born in Mississippi, has cottony white, apple-doll hair, and is so short her legs dangle when she sits. I love Jim-Claire like a mother, which is to say that sometimes I want nothing more than to sit cross-legged at her feet and listen to iced-tea-on-the-veranda stories about her Southern childhood.

Other times, I'd just as soon stab a fork into my neck.

See, Jim-Claire has this subtle way of making me feel like a disabled child born to an Olympic medalist. Thanks to her, I'm now well aware that I don't brush my cat often enough, that I should return calls more promptly, and that it is really much nicer to eat dinner from a plate that's been gently warmed in the oven - a fact she shared one Thanksgiving after I'd handed her a plate straight from the cupboard. I don't think Jim-Claire is mean-spirited; I think she believes I show potential for improvement.

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Regardless of her intentions, I've come to be a bit anxious around Jim-Claire. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to watch her pet fish while she and her husband were away for two weeks.

On the morning she left, I picked up the fish, a brilliant blue beta named Azure, along with a handwritten note that explained how her "poor spoiled baby" needed to be hand-fed a couple of flakes of food several times a day.

Things between Azure and me got off to a good start. He'd wriggle to the surface, eat the flakes I fed him, and then contentedly drift to the bottom of his bowl where he sat until the next mealtime.

But after a week I noticed the Siamese fighting fish had stopped eating. Bits of uneaten food swelled and bobbed on the water's surface. Azure wasn't rising to greet me. And I began to feel the merest hint of alarm.

I began tapping on the glass to startle him. I cleaned his tank. I fed him more frequently. Then I tried starving him for a couple of days. Still, Azure remained on the bottom of the tank; the slow, tender flap of his gills the only indication he was still alive.

Jim-Claire returned home, and I called to schedule a time to return her baby.

The phone was busy.

I walked with the bowl next door. Nobody answered.

I brought the bowl back home and, because I had plans that evening, set Azure on the counter and begged him to hang on for another day.

The next morning, Azure continued to hug the bottom of the tank and I decided if I was going to return a half-dead fish, at least the bowl should be clean. I removed Azure, emptied the water, scrubbed the bowl, refilled it with tap water, squeezed in a few drops of purifier, slid Azure back in, and called Jim-Claire again.

Still no answer.

Two hours later, I noticed Azure listing to the left. I called Jim-Claire again. Still no answer.

Three hours later, Azure was gone.

Panic set in, and I did what I thought any good friend who had done all she could to save a family pet would do: I drove to the pet store to try to trick her with a replacement.

This particular chain pet store normally has a shelf stacked with dozens of betas in small plastic cups. But on the night of my emergency, there were just three left. Only one was blue, and it had a red stripe on its tail.

I bought it.

When Jim-Claire saw the fish that night, her only comment was: "Azure, you're all red. What's she been feeding you?"

Although I should have been relieved to have gotten away with the switch, I obsessed about it. I avoided Jim-Claire during my neighborhood walks. I didn't answer the phone if I thought it might be her. In hindsight, telling her the truth would have been less stressful. But at the time, I was certain she'd turn the event into another opportunity to remind me how much I have yet to learn.

Jim-Claire and I talked by phone a week later, and in the middle of our conversation, she said: "Shari, that's not Azure, is it?"

Stunned, all I could manage was: "Uh. No. Uh. It isn't."

"Honey," she said, "I'm too old and have grieved over too many things in life to worry about losing a silly old fish. I'm just sorry you felt you had to replace him. Now, when are we going to get you over here for dinner?"

And that was that. No lecture. No criticism. No well-meaning advice about the proper way to care for a fish. I think she must have sensed I was already so twisted with guilt and embarrassment that she didn't want to add to it. She let me off the hook with grace, respect, and her trademark Southern charm.

Despite my resistance to the lessons Jim-Claire has been trying to teach me, she found a way to tutor me in the art of understanding and forgiveness, which are far more important than a warm dinner plate and much more difficult to achieve. Maybe I can learn a few things from her, after all. Like not being so defiant when someone offers advice, or protecting my ego when something goes wrong.

Next time, I'll tell Jim-Claire right off that her fish died while on my watch and accept whatever comments I deserve.

Not that there will be a next time, but you know what I mean.

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