Sledgehammer. I have one.   A sledgehammer, that is. I came across it in the chaotic jumble that is my garage.

So let me back up a bit…Steve’s hobby (when he wasn’t cycling, building or hiking) was designing and meticulously maintaining fish tanks. He started small, with a single fresh water tank. But as he learned and honed his craft over time, more and more fish survived, and the tanks gradually morphed into ever larger and more complex ones. The latest tally was 4 tanks in the garage (a breeding tank and several isolation/recovery hospital tanks).

But the crown jewel is the 90 gallon (yes, you read that right!) salt water tank that reigns over our not so very large living room.   It’s so huge that Steve had to knock out part of the wall and create a strong platform of sorts in the area above and behind our mantel to support all of that fishy glory. It’s beautiful, but–like so many beautiful things–oh so “high maintenance!!”.

I complained about the noise of the massive filters in the living room (concealed behind a cupboard door, but irritating nonetheless!) So he installed an outdoor filtration and supply shed with pipes that pass through the wall, connecting the tank with the outside equipment. When the guys from the fish store came to teach us how to manage the system, they used language like “over the top” and “professional level” to describe his ingenuity and handiwork.

So I need to be honest here: every time I looked at the tank during the first few weeks after Steve died, all I could feel was overwhelm, and all I could see was the fantasy that kept playing in a loop in my mind: smashing the tank wide open with that handy sledgehammer and reveling in the glorious cascade of water, fish & glass. Then, quiet, peace, no more responsibility for all of that equipment, all of those fishy lives. Ahhhh!

Now, I did have the self-control to avoid sharing my proposed use for the sledgehammer with Ellie. But one evening, fresh from one of our first searches and absolutely depleted like never before, I did find myself saying “Elle, maybe we should just give the tank away. I think it’s going to be just too much for us.” She’s been so busy with school and sports, I actually though she might just go for it. Boy, did I get it wrong!

Not my most shining parental moment. She immediately, passionately protested–an articulate, quicksilver advocate for those fish. (She should consider a career in law.) She passionately reminded me that “It’s Dad’s thing! He would want us to keep it going!” Of course.

So we made a deal. I was happy to support, but this would have to be her project. If she was willing to learn what needed to be learned and did the work required to keep the tank clean and the fish happy (or at least alive), we could give it a try.   The fish would have a reprieve (& my sledgehammer would stay out of service in the garage).

So we started watching the videos my sister and nephew took documenting the fish employees tutorial on how everything works together and teaching us just what needs to be done if you want a healthy tank.

Well, life got busier, and we reached a point after about four weeks of minimal time spent on the tank, where we had our first big test. The tank had become taken over by “hairy algae”: long, slimy green trails of gook. It was so bad that the fish would occasionally get hung up in it as they tried to maneuver around the tank. So we knew we could delay no more and would actually have to dive in to cleaning the tank for the first time on our own.

Fortunately for our entire fish population, Ellie is not a quitter. (It also helps that she’s a science whiz who dreams of becoming a marine biologist!)

So we started in the dreaded outdoor filtration shed–where we cleaned and replaced the filthy “sock” filter, did battle with the gunky-green, fish poop-filled “protein skimmer”, and learned how to wield the fancy spigot Steve created to pump water out of the “reverse osmosis” water tank. (I’m not making this stuff up!!)

Because we are such “newbies”, this part of the process stretched over a couple of days. On the third day we (well, Ellie…) vacuumed the algae and fish poop from the tank itself. Then it took quite a few tries (6?) to get the salt levels right so we could refill the tank and be done with it!

It looked stunning: clean glass, happy fish, healthy corals and anemones. But by far the most beautiful thing I noticed was the transformation I saw in my daughter: from anxious, reticent, 16-year-old slowly tiptoeing around the scary tank to accomplished, confident, persevering young woman. I hope she feels proud of herself for taking on such a daunting task and seeing it through. I know her Dad would be!

Carrie Morris (a.k.a. One Grateful Mom)