in hot water

It was a stand-off of epic proportions, the air as fraught and full of tension as that between Kellyanne Conway and any sane member of the mainstream media.  My two-year-old son and I stared at each other over the rim of the fish tank lid, his bright blue eyes looking defiantly into my green ones.

“Do NOT touch that plug again, Evan,” I said with my momma-means-business voice. “NO-NO!”

Without even a blink, his gaze never leaving mine, his tiny hand once again pulled the plug from the wall. The light from the tank went dim, and sudden silence reigned as the pump gurgled to a stop. Inside, Froggy watched the battle over his territory as it played out: light on—light off—light on—light off . . .

***

Before I had my first-born, my maternal instincts were already searching for a warm or—as it turned out—cold-blooded critter to pour my love into. Since we lived in a small apartment, my (now-ex) husband and I bought one of those 1-gallon, octagon-shaped fish tanks and dutifully filled it with garish purple, pink, and blue neon gravel, cheap plastic greenery, and an adorable little African Dwarf frog.  Our little family was now complete!

I enjoyed relaxing in our darkened living room at night, the bulb in the lid of the tank creating a small cocoon of light, as I watched the little guy kick energetically, diving from top to bottom then back again, the air tube burbling happily and spitting out bubbles for him to swim through. Every so often he’d stop, floating spread-eagle at the top, all gangly-limbs and little webbed feet, eyes studiously looking at me looking at him. We were both endlessly entertained.

***

Three years later, the apartment still held three people and the frog, but now I was a single parent to a toddler and newborn sons. Froggy was the only companion that had remained constant and faithful over the few years of my marriage, and his continued presence was a comfort – a touchstone to a simpler life and a relaxing way for me to wind down at the end of hard days as I watched him do his nightly laps. The pressures in life were heating up, and I felt like such a failure: as a wife, a mom, a daughter, as a woman in general.

Some time in the first few months after Braden was born, those endless days where I was sleep-deprived and exhausted, I noticed that the thermometer on Froggy’s tank showed that the water was pretty cold, so I turned up the heat. A few hours later, I checked again, but the temperature was still cold. I turned it up a little more.  Busy with the boys, I kept checking the tank and adjusting the heater, to no avail. Finally, I noticed that Evan must have once again been playing with the plugs when I wasn’t looking, but this time he’d unplugged the heater.

Thankful to have figured out the mystery, I plugged it back in, got the boys into their beds and collapsed into my own.  The next morning I went out to feed Froggy, but found him floating lifelessly, the tank’s temperature gauge over the top. I’d been so thankful to have found the problem, but in my sleeplessness I didn’t realize that all those times I’d tried to turn up the heat had added up once plugged back in.

Sitting on the floor, I broke, my body convulsing in gut-wrenching, shaking sobs, mourning my frog, my marriage, the fact that my boys would be raised without a dad, everything…  If I couldn’t keep a simple frog alive, how on earth was I going to raise my two boys on my own?!  My life was a mess, and Froggy’s sad demise seemed like the perfect metaphor for the turbulent waters I found myself in.

Finally having cried myself out, I sat on the floor, head on my knees.  I heard the door to Evan’s bedroom click open, and little feet shuffled sleepily toward me.

“Mommy? It’s going to be okay…” he said as he leaned in to hug me and kissed the top of my head like I always did for him when he’d get hurt.

The sweetness and pure love of the moment took my breath away . . . Though times were rough, I knew my little family and I were strong enough to swim through anything, so long as we were together.

African Dwarf Frog . Photo by Emily Wilson
Photo Credit: Emily Wilson, Flickr Creative Commons

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25 thoughts on “in hot water

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  1. My heart cried with yours as I read your post, as I read about your dear Froggy’s demise and about how life can get so tough at times. Like it’s going on for me, right now. I know, things will turn out fine eventually. It’s just that we dream a lot and when those dreams don’t turn out the way we want them to, our world collapses and we lose all hope.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind comments. I’m sorry to hear that your life is so hard right now, but don’t give up hope. It’s been over 20 years ago now, and looking back, that period of my life absolutely made me the woman that I am today. While I wouldn’t want to go through it again, I also wouldn’t trade the lesson I learned about discovering my own strength! Hugs to you… ❤

  2. Your feelings in this essay were completely relatable to this non-parent, non-amphibious-keeping reader. My only concrit would be for the second segment to be told as one specific instance. So instead of describing how you generally enjoyed watching the frog and what he meant to you, describe a specific night. That might make that segment more narrative and fit in better with the rest of the essay. Otherwise, nice work!

  3. Aww..I felt sad to learn about Froggy. Parenting is tough enough and when you’re a single parent, the struggles seem to multiply. I loved how the narrative was anchored around Froggy, yet making one root for the single mom. Beautifully written!

  4. I enjoyed this little story – it’s so easy to identify with. So often when times are hard, it’s easy for one failure make us feel that we ourselves are failures. You captured this quite well.

    From a structural standpoint, I wonder if it you really need the opening sequence. It might be stronger starting out with the story about getting Froggy & what he meant to you. You can sneak in that E liked to unplug things in the next section.

    I loved the feeling of hope that you left us with at the end!

  5. Overall, this is a sweet story, even if Froggy gets cooked in the end. I don’t think your last part needed breaking out with “***” since it was in the same time as the section before. Also, your title is perfect.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Looking at it now, I completely agree that I should have left out the last section breaks. I guess in my mind, it seemed like there should be a break between pre- and post-hug, but for reading, it doesn’t make sense.

  6. How sad that you lost Froggy! Thank you for making me understand how important he was to you. I thought the piece flowed well and stopped short of hitting us over the head. There were one or two places that might benefit from another look. One that comes to mine is “toddler and newborn sons”. It made me think that you had two newborns.

  7. Oh, this tugged at my heartstrings big time. I especially love your title and the way you describe the initial scene between you and your son. The only two bits of concrit I can offer are that I had trouble envisioning silence cutting the air. I can see a loud sound cutting or piercing the silence but the other way round is hard for me. And, in a piece where you are working with metaphor as the sort of set up, I don’t think it’s necessary to use the word metaphor. For me, it’s a little like telling a joke and then saying get it, get it? I hope this wasn’t too harsh. I’m still finding my sealegs when it comes to concrit. You write in such a way that is so relatable. I can’t wait to read more! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I think your critiques are great and not to harsh at all. It’s been a while since I’ve really taken the time to write just for pleasure, so I’m definitely feeling more than a little rusty!

  8. This piece made me cry a little. I never thought I’d feel that way about a frog, but a pet is a pet and it’s a member of the family. I liked how you structured the piece, but agree with Stacie about the stars at the final section. It pulled me out and made me think time had changed, but it hadn’t. Otherwise, great piece! 😀

    1. Thanks so much! And I completely agree with you and Stacie about the final section break. It’s funny how something makes sense in your head until you look back at it. That’s what I love about con-crit…

    1. Thank you, both for the compliment, and the sympathy. It’s been over 20 years now, and in retrospect what seemed like the worst thing was actually a good thing, but I sure wouldn’t want to go through it again. It’s amazing how writing about it brought back the flood of emotions as if it were yesterday.

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