A carnival came to town when my older son was three. The highlight of this event, you might surmise, was our elephant ride. If you ever plan to ride a real, albeit relatively small elephant, here are some tips: Be prepared to rock precariously from side to side. Hold on with your knees. Wear jeans, because elephants have unexpected long black hairs that stick straight up to pierce your legs. I felt quite exotic, but, alas, it was not the pachyderm that made the boy’s day. He was completely captivated by the silver goldfish he won all by himself, playing ring toss.
On the way home, envisioning an inadvertent water bomb disaster involving the plastic baggie and the sidewalk, my husband said, “Son, let me carry the fish for you.”
Our boy, who was walking an inch or so taller, puffed his little chest out. “I won’t drop it!”
“So, what are you going to name your fish?” I asked, trying not to hover.
“Flipper!” Oh, the power of television syndication. The boy held the bag up to his face, beaming. “Hey, Flipper!”
Transferring Flipper from the bag to a large jar was tantamount to a birth: “Be careful! Don’t let him fall!” Our boy watched with big eyes, nearly holding his breath, as I poured his prized possession into a new living space.
We placed the jar on the living room mantel. I explained: “Fish are not supposed to be carried around. They need a safe place. Flipper will be fine here and you can look at him all you want to.”
The boy seemed content with this arrangement. “All right.”
For the next day or two, he could be found in the living room at random moments, staring up at his fish. I listened from the hallway: “Hey, Flipper! Are you hungry? Do you like swimming in your jar? This is your new home!”
Then: “I love you, Flipper.”
Flipper was the first thing he looked for in the mornings and after his naps. He was taking a long nap later in the week when his dad and I had to leave for a dinner meeting. I prepped the babysitter: “He will want to check on Flipper when he wakes up. The boy loves that fish.”
The babysitter chuckled. “That’s so cute!”
The dinner meeting ran longer than expected. Knowing our son would be in bed for the night, my husband and I entered the house quietly. The babysitter met us at the door, wringing her hands:
“Let me just tell you that as soon as you left, I went to see that fish. He didn’t look so great. I tapped on the jar to see if he would move, but no. A floater. Totally dead. I thought ‘What am I going to do? I gotta get him out of here before the boy notices!’ So I flushed him. I figured I’d think of something to say later. Then your son woke up. He said he needed to use the bathroom so I took him. Just as he was finishing the last few drops, he points at the toilet and goes: ‘Is that Flipper in there?’ Heaven help me! I didn’t know the fish hadn’t gone down! I had to think fast. I said, ‘Wow, look at that! You just peed a fish!'”
Exactly what we told the boy about the absence of Flipper and his jar on the mantel is lost in time; all we remember now is the ingenious save – of the moment, if not of the poor fish.
Reflect: When has thinking fast served you well? When have you switched gears in the middle of something to rescue the moment?