“I want a dog,” Caroline begged. “Please.” Our daughter was seven years old and had made up her mind.
“Someone will have to take care of the dog,” we told her. “It’s a lot of responsibility.” I had a full-time job and we had two children. We already had enough responsibility.
“Then let me get some kind of pet,” Caroline pleaded. “Any kind of pet.”
So we all talked about what kind of pet Caroline might get. It would have to be easy to care for and inexpensive. A cat? Too stinky. A bird? Probably too noisy. We decided on a goldfish. You never had to walk a goldfish. They never barked or whined in the middle of the night. They could swim around without a collar or a license.
Caroline really loved her little goldfish. She named him Rainbow. She sprinkled food into his fishbowl once a day and cleaned it once a week. She wished Rainbow good-morning and good-night and asked him how he was doing. She even asked him if he had enough light to see where he was going and if he preferred a different location in her bedroom. A more dedicated owner no pet goldfish ever had. Given the chance, I’m sure Caroline would have taken Rainbow out for a walk too.
But then, just a few weeks later, Rainbow died. My wife and I discovered him dead, floating without a flutter on the surface of the water in his bowl, and had to tell Caroline. That was hard for us to do, just as we knew it would be. She broke down in tears, and we had no success comforting her. We offered to get her another goldfish, but she said no thank you.
How and why Rainbow died we have no idea. But no foul play was ever suspected. Maybe he was old or sick. Maybe he missed his pet-store friends.
Now came another tricky issue: what to do with the body. As it happened, it was summer, and we belonged to a beach club on the Atlantic Ocean. Caroline came up with the idea: we would bury Rainbow at sea.
So off we went to our cabana, Rainbow adrift in a plastic bag filled with water. We shuffled in our sandals on the hot sand toward the shoreline. Caroline stood there with us holding the bag.
She told Rainbow she loved him and was sorry he had died and would miss him. Then she said good-bye and dropped Rainbow into the surf. The waves quickly wafted her pet goldfish out into the ocean and out of sight. Caroline slowly waved good-bye, crying.
Losing Rainbow was how Caroline first learned that nothing is guaranteed to last forever. It also showed us just the kind of daughter my wife and I were lucky enough to have. Sensitive to the suffering of others, particularly the helpless, such as babies and other small creatures. She hated to see the vulnerable hurt.
Empathy and compassion are hard to teach, if they can even be taught at all, but maybe they can be learned from experience. Caroline knew how it felt to be hurt. Sometimes kids in school made fun of her because she was small, just like Rainbow. She never told me about any of that; I had to find out from Mom. Now maybe her sympathetic nature came naturally. But more likely, it was early on that she came to understand and identify with anything small.
That’s also why Caroline grew her hair and gave it to Locks of Love for children who go through chemotherapy. It’s why she breaks into tears at scenes in certain movies about a hardship—Dumbo separated from his mother, for example—and at the sight of a dog limping along missing a leg.
Caroline is still like that today. Just ask Coco and Edgar, her two rescue dogs.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.