Susan Henderson ~ Fish with Bent Fins

I’ve been on the front porch look­ing for my son since the first dark clouds moved in. Mikey’s always been afraid of storms. And now here he comes, mak­ing the squeaky sound I know is fear, run­ning all the way with his hands cupped togeth­er. Not easy for a boy with clum­sy feet.

Friend. Save,” he tells me.

He opens his hands and there’s a lit­tle fish with bent fins.

I’m behind on the dishes—every bowl and Tupperware in the kitchen is sit­ting some­where on the counter or in the sink gunked with old food. I grab the dog dish, refill it with clean water.

Does he have a name?” I ask.

Mikey,” he says, drop­ping it into the bowl.

Mikey’s had tutors since he turned four. Tutors for speech, for large motor skills, and more recent­ly for help social­iz­ing. He sits at a lunch table at school with oth­er kids who are lost in the world of long hall­ways, play­grounds and rules. He used to stand near boys he want­ed to play with and shout, “Mikey!” I’d cry when I heard these sto­ries and hate the boys who made him feel so lonely.

Lately he’s sup­posed to prac­tice being in safe crowds but not inter­act­ing, just get­ting com­fort­able with the noise and the move­ment. He’s sup­posed to watch oth­er kids play but not stare. He’s still strug­gling with this, not star­ing, not being the kid oth­ers notice for the wrong reasons.

His tutor told him, “Just watch the fish in the pond and lis­ten to the nois­es of the play­ground. And if you can, don’t talk out loud to the fish, only in your head.”

I send him to the park if oth­er moth­ers are there to watch him. They promise to call me if I need to hus­tle up there. But we let him believe he goes to the park alone.

The play­ground and pond are vis­i­ble from our kitchen win­dow. It’s why we paid a for­tune for this house, think­ing this was the per­fect spot for rais­ing kids. After Mikey, after see­ing the heart­break of not fit­ting in, of not hav­ing feet that will skip or hands that will clap togeth­er, of not hav­ing a tongue or lips that can sound out words with­out lots of con­cen­tra­tion, we decid­ed not to have a sec­ond. Not now any­way. We want so bad­ly to make the world a wel­com­ing place for Mikey. We want so bad­ly to be the great, pro­tec­tive, nur­tur­ing par­ents we dreamed we’d be. Every day, I feel cru­el for ask­ing Mikey to go out there again where he hurts so badly.

Mikey the fish is slow­ly swim­ming and some­times rolling on his side in the dog dish.

I nev­er the thun­der scared save him,” he says.

You saved him from the thun­der?” I ask, because this is what the tutor tells us to do, to put his words in a sen­si­ble order, to add a few bet­ter words, because maybe he’ll learn that way. Although maybe he won’t.

He is nod­ding and cry­ing. He saved Mikey the fish. You can see it in his face and shoul­ders now. He saved Mikey the fish from the thun­der, god­damnit, even though he was scared enough to wet himself.

I want this fish to live more than I’ve want­ed any­thing since we first looked at Mikey through the NICU win­dow with his tubes and sticky squares and giant knit cap as big as his whole head.

Please, please live.

When you’re preg­nant, you think you want a per­fect, healthy child. But when he’s born all small and fun­ny with crossed eyes and veins show­ing through his tee­ny limbs, you want no one but that baby. You want to make every­thing and every­one in the world slow down and be ten­der to that one who you love more than you thought it was pos­si­ble to love. You want him to have a friend and to laugh with kids who aren’t laugh­ing at him. You want him to say some­thing and have some­one under­stand what he means. You want to see oth­er kids wait for him when he falls on his clum­sy feet and not have to pick him­self up alone while the oth­ers keep going.

Lightning zig zags across the sky and we count with dread for the thun­der that ter­ri­fies my child. It helps when he expects it. Helps a little.

I open my arms, think­ing he’ll want to be held through the noise that seems to thrash him from the inside, but he races to the dog dish and scoops out Mikey. Today he is the pro­tec­tor. Today he’s made and pos­si­bly killed his first friend.

We hold each oth­er, the three of us, through the rumbling.

I think Mikey the fish may need to sleep for a while,” I tell him. “Shall we all nap for now?”

And he wants this, let­ting the fish slip down his hands and thunk into the water.

There, sleepy lit­tle guy,” I say to the fish that makes my child so hap­py and full of empathy.

I take my boy into my arms and we curl up like we often do on the couch. He still fits there under my arm but not eas­i­ly. We’re not as com­fort­able as we were when he was small­er and didn’t feel he’d tum­ble off the couch.

He’s breath­ing calm­ly. Safe now. And maybe think­ing how brave he was, how he res­cued a friend. And I am think­ing, how can I save Mikey from one more stab to the heart?

I have much to do dur­ing Mikey’s nap, slip­ping out from behind him, find­ing the fish at the bot­tom of the bowl as I feared. I am cry­ing as I rush around in sock feet, try­ing to build the uni­verse as I want it to exist.

Mikey’s father comes through the door before our son wakes up. I used to call Mikey’s father Tim. I used to call him my hus­band. And then, because his role in our lives, the only one that real­ly mat­ters any­more, is about being Mikey’s God in a cru­el world that needs con­stant inter­ven­tion and res­cu­ing, this is the only name that feels right.

He lets the dog off the leash. He takes it to work these days because his boss has a soft spot for Mikey and knows he is still learn­ing how to pet gen­tly, and we can’t super­vise these two around the clock. The dog laps up water in the bowl that is free of the lit­tle friend of a fish. And Mikey’s father means to kiss my cheek, but I’m still bustling about the room, and the kiss only brush­es my shoulder.

Mikey bursts into the room, wak­ened by the jin­gle of dog tags. He grabs fist­fuls of fur and skin on the dog’s back, delight show­ing on his face. His father lifts him high in the air as Mikey spurts out words in his scram­bled order, telling him of his friend and the thun­der and the res­cue, and come look.

But there is only a note left by the fish. And a daf­fodil giv­en in thanks. Greatest friends ever. You saved my life. I picked you this flower. After I woke from my nap, I had to get home to the pond at the park for din­ner. We will play again. 

Mikey sulks because he can’t show his father his new friend. But the note, the note that says life is improv­ing, he’s hold­ing that tight.

I’m chew­ing my thumb­nail down to the nail bed. I’m look­ing at Mikey’s father and say­ing, Please don’t break this spell. Please don’t crush him.

We have argu­ments more and more at night. How my fear of Mikey get­ting hurt is going to cause big­ger prob­lems down the road. That the world I keep cre­at­ing for him, the world that always works in Mikey’s favor, that always makes him the hero, that takes away the con­stant loss and lone­li­ness is going to make him strange. It’s going to make him some­one with weird thoughts. We’ll fight again tonight, I’m sure of it. But for this moment, Mikey is a hero and Mikey has a friend, and I would rearrange the whole world to see this smile he’s show­ing us, this look on his face that he is loved and he belongs.


Susan Henderson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nom­i­nee and the recip­i­ent of an Academy of American Poets award. Her debut nov­el, Up from the Blue, was pub­lished by HarperCollins in 2010 and has been select­ed as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an out­stand­ing soft­cover release (by NPR), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness), a 2012 Book Club Choice (by the American Library Association), and a favorite reads fea­ture on the Rosie O’Donnell show. Susan blogs at and is fin­ish­ing her sec­ond novel.