My nephew brought home a turtle earlier this week. This wasn’t a surprise. In fact, I (uncharacteristically) agreed to letting the reptile live with us several months ago…with the stipulation that we name it Crush. (If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, explaining it won’t help.)  It was a nice compromise, since I wouldn’t give in to getting a dog.
 Don’t get me wrong—I’m not an animal hater. In fact, it’s the opposite. I love animals. Maybe too much. I form quick, strong attachments to these living things that, let’s face it, don’t always last as long as we would like.  My dad worked for animal control when I was growing up. I was used to having animals around. I had many dogs and cats growing up. My dad would sometimes find a loveable animal during his rounds and, instead of taking it to the pound, would adopt it. Every single one of them, though, is now gone. Some lasted longer than others, but in the end, gone is gone. It’s rather traumatic for a tender-hearted person such as I am.
 One year the staff of our department at school decided to have a Secret Santa gift exchange. For this particular exchange, we were to get small items—hints, if you will—and leave them all week as a prelude to the “real” gift at the end of the week. All week long I received rolls of film (that’s the stuff we used to have to put in cameras to make pretty pictures) and bags of Gold Fish crackers. The film I understood and appreciated—I am a photographer. Film would come in handy. The Gold Fish, however, stumped me. Was my Secret Santa making a play-on-words with “say cheese”? Did he/she just want to give me some yummy little crackers? No…it was much more sinister than that. On the final day of the gift exchange, I walked in to the faculty lounge and there, under the table-top tree, was a fish tank with two (live) goldfish…and a tag…with my name. As an explanation, my now-not-so-Secret-Santa explained that she thought I needed company, since I lived all alone. (Side note: Never give a person a pet as a gift unless he or she specifically asks for it. Also, never assume that because someone lives alone he or she is lonely. Some people live alone because they like it that way.)
 I graciously thanked my Secret Santa, told her how cute I thought the idea was, laughed with everyone, and took the fish to my classroom. I taught Spanish at the time and our new class pets, Nacho and Queso, were a hit. The kids loved to feed them. I knew nothing about fish. I like to eat, so fish must like to eat. Let the teenagers feed the fish. What? There’s food floating all over in the tank because the kids like to feed the fish a lot? It’s all good…it’s leftovers. A midnight snack. I knew nothing about fish.
 I was living in the city at the time and my family lived an hour away. Christmas break came and I had planned on packing up and heading home to stay with the family for a couple of weeks. Now I had two living creatures to think about. I couldn’t just leave them at school for two weeks (even though the kids had dumped enough food in the bowl to last that long). I couldn’t transport them in the bowl…something had to be done.
       A more callous person would have simply set them free in the sewers…but, being the sap that I am, I had already formed an attachment to Nacho and Queso. Therefore, I went to Walmart, the store that can solve all of your worldly problems and spent an obscene amount of my paycheck on fish supplies—a fish transport/carrier, water priming solution chemical stuff, more food (because the kids had already used the first bottle), a scooping net, etc. I spent several hours after school on Friday trying to get the water chemically balanced for the fish, then getting the fish in their fancy carrier and loaded into the car. I set the carrier on the floor of the front passenger side (because, as cute and precious as fish are, fishy water splashing on car upholstery is never a good idea) and I set off for my parents’ house.
       As I headed down the freeway, I noticed that one of the fish…I honestly don’t know if it was Nacho or Queso, they looked so similar…started doing a little side-float and creeping up toward the top of the tank. I was driving down the freeway. I had nowhere to stop. My fish was dying. With one hand on the wheel and the cruise control set, I leaned over and shook the tank, trying to wake him up and get him swimming around again. It wasn’t working. I sped up. My fish was dying, and there was nothing I could do. I kept leaning over to shake the tank and get him down into the water. He kept bobbing around.
       I got to my parents’ house in record time. I grabbed the fish carrier and ran into the house, yelling for my dad to come help. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “Help him!” I screamed. My dad got one of my mom’s wooden spoons out and started pushing the fish around. The memories are a little hazy here, but I’m pretty sure that there was even a straw and some resuscitation involved (although fish don’t breathe air, so that might be my overactive imagination). My dad, bless his heart, worked with this little fish for hours and got him swimming around and looking perky again.
       The next morning my mom and I drove back into the city to do some Christmas shopping. When I got home there was only one fish in the tank. Nacho didn’t make it. My dad had buried him in the garden, using him as fertilizer. (That was a good thing. My dad new that I wouldn’t have coped well with a seeing my dead fish, and at least his untimely death was good for something.)
       I mourned for several days. I hadn’t wanted the stupid fish in the first place but, because it was a living creature and I was in charge of its well-being, I had grown attached to it. I was sad. I missed my Nacho. Poor Queso, swimming around all alone just looked pathetic. Something had to be done. I couldn’t face dealing with Queso on my own, and it was obvious that I was not suited to take care of fish at all.
       My brother and his family had a couple goldfish that the kids had gotten at a carnival years and year earlier. Most goldfish don’t last that long—especially carnival goldfish. But these things were bizarre. The family kept them in a big pickle jar on the kitchen table. They had been in the family longer than the youngest child, who was three or four at the time. I took Queso to them. If anyone knew how to properly look after goldfish, it was my brother and his family. Their goldfish were happy and healthy and well loved. Queso would have a family and friends. Queso would be happy.
       Within two weeks Queso was dead. So were the other two goldfish.
       I am a fish killer.
       I have not had a pet since Nacho and Queso. I rarely participate in Secret Santa exchanges anymore, either. While on some deeply hidden logical level I realize that the fish probably had some kind of disease to begin with and there was nothing I could do, that’s the problem. I formed an attachment to something—I grew to love something—and was completely helpless when it was in need.
       I’m the youngest in an “old” family. It didn’t seem abnormal to me—it was my family. The fact that my parents were almost as old as some of my friends’ grandparents never really dawned on me until later in life. I thought it was normal to go to as many funerals as you did birthday parties—I figured it was nature’s form of population control. I suppose you could say that I grew up with death. I knew that most of the animals that my dad took to the pound would, if someone didn’t come and adopt them, be “put down.” I didn’t like it, but I understood that that’s the way the world worked.
       My paternal grandmother died when I was very young—only four or five. She lived in a single-wide trailer on the same property as my parents’ house. I would go over to her home every morning and eat grapefruit with her, squish in next to her in her old yellow rocking chair, and watch Days of Our Lives. One morning, as I was getting up and ready to go, my parents told me I couldn’t. My dad had gone to take her some blueberry muffins earlier that morning, and had found her. I was too young to fully understand what was going on, but I knew that someone that I loved wouldn’t be around anymore. That day is my first vivid memory of loss and pain.
       Over the next several years I attended many more family funerals. Another grandmother, several aunts and uncles, community members… in my first ten years of teaching I went to four different funerals for students…each one presented another case of an attachment being broken, of the loss of someone I cared for.  Each was tragic, but it was normal to me. Death and funerals were a part of life.
       People leave in other ways, too. Being the youngest in my family, my older brothers started leaving when I was very young. They left on missions for our church; they got married and moved away. We would go visit, but we always had to say goodbye. I had friends that moved away. My friends all went to a different college than I did. I formed close ties to my new roommates and friends but, after a year, had to say goodbye again as life’s currents carried us all in different directions—on to make more attachments only to say goodbye again. My best friends started getting married which—when you’re in that age bracket—often means that they are gone for good. I “settled” in southern California after college. I was far away from family, in a completely unfamiliar environment. I formed close attachments with a few friends from church only to say goodbye as picked up and moved a year later. There are no constants in relationships.
       I have been doing some introspection lately. I have several close childhood friends with whom I keep in touch and visit regularly. I have several others with whom I keep Facebook tabs and stay in touch that way. I have only a few close (non-blood-related) friends with whom I regularly and comfortably associate. We had a nice pattern/rhythm going to our lives—we meshed and everything was sailing smoothly.  It has become more and more difficult over the past year to keep the smooth sailing. Our weekly game nights became more and more sporadic and then all but disappeared. We are lucky if we get together once a month anymore. One of them found himself a girlfriend and has all but disappeared from our lives. The other is just insanely busy, as I am. We all work at the same school and still rarely see each other anymore. While this separation is not the same as death, it does have the same psychologically traumatic pangs—the experience of loss.
       After a few months of deep introspection, I have come to realize that, over the years, through the course of my life, I have become more hesitant to form close bonds/relationships with people. People leave. The only truly lasting relationships you can count on are family—and even they move away and eventually die. How horridly depressing is that? But it’s not all bad. It’s a part of life.
       I have come to realize that it’s not necessarily the attachment that is important, but the memories created through the attachments. It’s the growth that we experience through our interactions with our friends and family—no matter how fleeting our time together may be. I may not physically be able to go and visit my grandmother and eat grapefruit with her every morning, but I have those memories. Those won’t leave me. I may not be in touch with my friends from college, but I have those memories, too…and each of those people helped create the person that I am today. Every attachment we make changes us and is, in the long run, worthwhile. We may not think it at the time. We may not even realize or appreciate the impact until much later, but attachments—even broken ones with the pain of loss—are good four our souls. That’s what makes us human.
       It’s not earth-shattering insight. It’s not life-altering information. Losing someone we care for—whether they die or simply move away—still hurts, and I’m still not going to be getting a pet any time soon. But I will be more mindful of the relationships that I do have and will work harder to be appreciative of the things I can learn from each and every person. I will also sit back and watch Crush swim around in his tank. He needs a friend, after all. He is having trouble finding a connection and is still scared of us. And he’s probably safe. Turtles, unlike goldfish, are supposed to live for a really long time.