A goldfish sits in a small bowl next to a window.
Design by Tamara Turner.

Buried in the notes app on my phone, between shopping lists and reminders I have since forgotten the meaning of, is a quote from the author Sarah Dessen: “(Home is) not a place but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks.” Growing up, many of my moments happened in a singular place: My childhood home, where I was born and raised for the better part of 18 years. For me, the idea of home was tied to that house. With so much of my life spent in the same place, I couldn’t comprehend it not being my home.

There were several times that my parents considered moving into town so that my sister and I would be closer to our friends and our various sports and extracurriculars. Each time the possibility of moving came up, I would put up a fight to stay where we were. Moving would mean saying goodbye to so many details of my childhood, and I wasn’t ready for that yet. I had become so entrenched in our house and our life there that it would have taken a seismic event to pull me out of my carefree, naive little bubble. 

Like many kids, I had a revolving door of pet goldfish. Even though my parents would warn me that the fish from the Walmart aquarium probably wouldn’t last long, I would still beg for one and then be devastated a month later when I awoke to find it belly up in its bowl. We would have a ceremonial flushing of the fish, and my parents would explain that life was a fragile thing, that my fish lived a (debatably) happy life and I should be glad for the time I got to spend with it. 

These little orange lessons in impermanence were a deviation from my otherwise stable childhood, something that I definitely took for granted at the time. The fishes’ lifespan were not helped by the fact that my family never had a big tank with a filtration system to house them, just a bowl that I would swap the water out of once a week. Looking back, the whole thing seems so morbid, but to my underdeveloped brain, it was just the way the world worked.

Then along came a goldfish that finally broke the pattern. Gilbert Dimagio II — named after the late Gilbert Dimagio, my pet fish before him — was won at a county fair in one of those impossible carnival games where you have to bounce a ping pong ball into a little bowl. I was nine at the time, and my parents were (understandably) not enthused when I came home with yet another fish. But unlike the others before him, Gilbert didn’t die. Instead, he would stay with me for the next nine years, watching me from his bowl on top of my dresser as I went through the motions of childhood, transitioning from kid to teenager and into the beginnings of adulthood. I was happy to swim circles in my own little fishbowl of life, just like Gilbert did in his.

The consistency that I (and Gilbert) had enjoyed for so long in life came to a startling close with my parent’s separation. It was around my 18th birthday when the wind started to blow in through the cracks of their marriage, revealing some crevasses that I don’t think anyone was aware of up until that point. Things got messy, then better, and then messy again. It was finally decided that my mother, my sister and I (and Gilbert, of course) would move out while my father kept the house.  

Home as I knew it was coming to an end, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. Gilbert watched with his complacent little goldfish stare as I moved through sadness and anger and relief and guilt, trying to navigate the ratty tangle of emotions that come with a situation like this. He watched as I began to realize that the childhood I knew was over, not only because I would soon be going off to college but also because the relationship between my parents, which was once such a strong constant in my life, had suddenly broken in two. 

I was suddenly aware that I had been lying to myself about things coming to an end; even though I was about to start college, I had been assuming that home would stay the same. Relationships would keep going, my friends would stay the same and I could dip my toes back into the childhood I experienced in that house whenever I wanted. But change slapped me in the face and showed me that endings were inevitable, whether I was ready for them or not. 

Then, in a twist of the universe that felt like it came straight out of a John Green novel, I woke up one morning shortly before moving out to find Gilbert floating on his side at the bottom of his bowl. His slow breaths told me the final goodbye I had been fearing for a while was near. I moved his bowl close to the window and prepared to say goodbye. Even though I had come to the realization that this time in my life, and many of the constants that came with it, were coming to an end, fate had decided I needed a cheesy metaphor to top the whole thing off.

It was two days before we were supposed to move out when Gilbert finally stopped breathing. His vacant stare that had graced me for so many years was now truly lifeless. The time for the flushing had come. It was a relatively short and unremarkable ceremony thanks to some quality plumbing, and after he had disappeared into the septic tank, I went back to packing my things.

Having to say goodbye to Gilbert made saying goodbye to what had been my home much easier. I don’t think I could have asked for a more poetic end to those 18 years. My home had been a place of comfort and consistency, something that I took for granted while I had it. As much as I miss that time, I’m grateful for all of the changes that have come in the two years since moving away from it. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate all of the things home gave me nearly as much as I do now. 

Gilbert, if your soul is up there swimming through the cosmos, I hope you know how much you meant to me.

Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at hdbishop@umich.edu.