The life and death of Chairman Mao


Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

Just before our friend’s baby reached her language explosion, a small blue and red betta fish entered their lives. As they are good, intrepid parents, they left the naming of the fish up to their child, who, not yet having a terribly large vocabulary, decreed the fish, “Mao.” It is doubtful she knew of the torrid and storied history of the Chinese leader, as she was only about 18 months old at the time. But so named he was. He greeted her every morning as she ate her breakfast, and waved his dorsal fin goodnight to her each evening as she finished supper. His place in the center of the kitchen table must have supplied him with a decent stream of activity, with which to amuse himself, but he didn’t have much in the way of rocks or greenery to play with. The parents had heard some horror stories about betta fish getting caught in the leaves and dying, and as already mentioned, they are conscientious people who work to minimize environmental risks to their loved ones.

Now then, at another, earlier, point in time, Susanne was a foster parent to another betta fish, Hank, who had been given to her upon a friend’s cross-country move from DC. Hank could have contested for the longest-lived betta fish ever, if only Willard Scott cared about other species. Susanne had Hank under her care for more than two years, and Hank had lived with his previous owner for at least a year before that. He must have been 125 years old in fish years. He had even survived some time outside of his tank. True, Hank was a gladiator among fish.

Mao did not fare as well. Nine months or so into his existence atop the kitchen table, he started showing signs of slowing down. He began to list to port. He, like Hank in his final days, started having trouble finding his food, such that his benefactors had to throw the pellets onto his face. I told the parents it was perhaps time to let Mao begin the next chapter in his life, making sure the little one was out of earshot. Oh, no, they said, he just leans a little, everything is fine. We just got him. They seemed to have a little trouble letting go. I refrained from talking about loss of fish bladder control as a sign of dying. We ate a lovely dinner out in the living room.

Coming back into the kitchen an hour later to clean up, Mao looked distressed.


Mao the fish

Mao the fish

This wasn’t a slight list. This was the Andrea Doria just before she slipped under the water after her collision with the Stockholm. This fish was saying goodnight moon for the last time.

We considered our options. I advocated for a burial at “sea.” The parents seemed resistant to doing this until Mao had taken his last breath, but I pointed out that his color was already fading. One parent took him into the bathroom, and from there, Mao presumably would make it out to the Potomac.

Now that we had taken action, we needed to consider the messaging. They couldn’t tell the child Mao had been sick — how to help her understand she wasn’t going to die the next time she caught a cough? They didn’t want to say he was old, for that seemed too vague, and they were still pissed that their $15 investment at PetSmart didn’t last very long at all. The idea that “it was just his time” was positively terrifying. At any moment any of us could just get flushed down a toilet? Not cool!

In fact, they also figured they shouldn’t say that’s how they disposed of Mao. She had just gotten the potty training act down. That her potty should double as a mortuary was probably too disturbing, and there is not a parent on the planet, I’m sure, who wants their kid to double back to diapers after switching to underwear. 

Also, given this particular child’s tendency toward the precocious, we were all a little nervous that she would declare that she was feeding her poopies to Mao, or that she would stick her head in there looking for him. Hey, this is a kid who ran around the back of a photo to see the other side of the people in the image — anything is possible. 

Two days later we were visiting them again, and lo and behold, there was a new fish in the bowl. The child misses the last one but is moving on. This one eats his food quickly and likes to dart around and play. I can’t recall his name though, because really, nothing is as memorable as Mao, right?

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3 Comments on “The life and death of Chairman Mao”

  1. Becky Betts
    January 8, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

    Thank you for the laugh. David Sedaris has nothing on you. You are good, really good.

  2. Terrell Bowman
    January 9, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    You made my afternoon. I love reading your stories. Anyway Esther and I are missing you here at SSA.

  3. evmaroon
    January 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    Thank you both! That’s very kind of you. And Terrell, I miss you and Esther, too! When are you coming out for a visit? Wouldn’t ou like to see another mountain lion?

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