I live next door to an 83-year-old woman named Jim-Claire who was born inMississippi, has cottony white apple-doll hair, and is so short that her legsdangle when she sits on the couch. I love Jim-Claire like a mother, which is tosay that sometimes I want nothing more than to sit cross-legged at her feet andlisten to iced-tea-on-the-veranda stories about her southern childhood, whereasat others, I’d just as soon stab a fork into my neck.
You see, Jim-Claire has this subtle way of making me feel guilty andimperfect, like a crippled child born to an Olympic medalist. Thanks to herobservations, I’m now well aware that I don’t brush my cat enough, that Ishould return calls more promptly, and that it is really much nicer to eatdinner from a plate that has been gently warmed in the oven, a fact she sharedwith me one Thanksgiving after I’d callously handed her a plate straight fromthe cupboard. I don’t think Jim-Claire is mean-spirited; I think she believesI show potential for improvement.
Regardless of her intentions, I’ve come to be a bit anxious aroundJim-Claire. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to watch her petfish while she and her husband were in Arizona for two weeks. On the morning sheleft, I picked up the fish, a brilliant blue betta named Azure, along with anote that explained how her "poor spoiled baby" needed to be hand-fed a fewflakes of food several times a day.
Azure and I got off to a good start. He’d wriggle to the surface, eat theflakes I fed him, and then contentedly drift to the bottom of his bowl, where hesat until the next mealtime. But about a week into our time together, I noticedthat Azure was not eating as he had been. Flakes of fish food swelled and bobbedon the water’s surface. He stopped rising to greet me. And I began to feel themerest hint of alarm.
Looking to prevent Azure from catching a water taxi to the great beyond, Itook to tapping on the glass to startle him. I cleaned his bowl. I fed him morefrequently, then starved him for a couple of days. Still, Azure remained on thebottom, the slow, tender flap of his gills the only indication he was stillalive.
Jim-Claire returned home and I called to schedule a time to return her baby,who by then seemed a qualified candidate for home hospice. The phone was busy. Iwalked next door with the bowl. Nobody answered. I brought the bowl back homeand, because I had plans that evening, set Azure on the counter and begged himto hang on for another day.
"Azure, you’re all red. What’s she been feeding you?"
The next morning, Azure continued to hug the bottom of the bowl, and Idecided that if I was going to return a half-dead fish, at least the bowl shouldbe clean.
I removed Azure, emptied the water, scrubbed the bowl, refilled it with tapwater, squeezed in a few drops of purifier, slid Azure back in, and calledJim-Claire again. Still no answer.
Two hours later, I noticed that Azure was listing to the left. I shook thebowl and he darted, gasping and desperate, to the top, where he released a hugebubble, and then floated back to the bottom. Thinking the tap water must havebeen bad, I retrieved some bottled water from the garage, heated it to roomtemperature in the microwave, removed Azure, replaced the water, replaced Azure,and then watched as he floated in a slow zigzag back to the bottom. I calledJim-Claire again. Still no answer.
Three hours later, Azure was dead.
Panic set in, and I did what any good friend who had done all she could tosave a family pet would do: I drove to the pet store for a replacement.
Now, PetSmart normally has a shelf stacked with dozens of bettas in smallplastic cups. But on the night of my emergency, there were just three left. Onlyone 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’reall red. What’s she been feeding you?"
Although I should have been relieved to get away with the switch, I obsessedabout it. I avoided Jim-Claire during my walks around the neighborhood. I didn’tanswer the phone if I thought it might be her. In hindsight, telling her thetruth would have been less stressful. But at the time, I was certain she’dturn the event into another opportunity to remind me how much I’ve yet tolearn. Somehow, death and deception seemed like a lot more fun.
Jim-Claire and I finally talked by phone a week later, and in the middle of alovely conversation about the best treatments for constipation, she said to me:"Shari, that’s not Azure, is it?"
Stunned, I could only stammer: "Uh, no, uh, it isn’t."
"Honey," she said, "I’m far too old and have grieved over too manythings in life to worry about losing a silly old fish. I’m just sorry you feltyou 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 theproper way to care for a fish. I think Jim-Claire must have sensed that I wastwisted with guilt and embarrassment, and she didn’t want to add to it. Shelet 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, whichare far more important than a warm dinner plate and much more difficult toachieve. Maybe I can learn a few things from her, after all. Like not being sodefiant when someone offers advice, or protecting my ego when something goeswrong.
Next time, I’ll tell Jim-Claire right off that her fish died while on mywatch, and accept whatever comments I deserve. Not that there will be a nexttime, but, you know what I mean.
Workforce, April 2002, pp. 20-22 -- Subscribe Now!
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