The Climbing Fish–On the Occasion that Your Family Periodically Falls Apart

Dear Lily June,

The call came in yesterday.

My cousin Whitley, who had been bankrolling my sister’s work-from-home job as a kind of half-secretary, half-P.A., lost his education contract and will no longer be employing her. Right before the holidays, too. That the call came in from my father, asking me if he should tell my sister (who has five children, one of whom–your cousin Sully–has cerebral palsy and thus has multiple and complicated needs) is typical.

In fact, that he was calling me at my place of employment during work hours (again, despite asking him several times to refrain from doing so)–so that I had to do the embarrassing act of (yet again) explaining that it was a family emergency and dismissing myself from the office to take the call–was very typical, as was his immediate reaction to my sister’s tragedy:

“I don’t have the money to indefinitely help her.” Says the man who retired in his late fifties to a palatial estate in Florida.

But now I just sound bitter.


My family’s traditional triangulation ensued, with my calling my mother to see if she had heard from my sister. “Why?” she asked cautiously. “What’s going on?”  When I explained that Loren was facing imminent unemployment, right before the holidays no less, my mother’s reaction followed its familiar, more clipped, pattern:

“We can’t help her.”

I wouldn’t have expected anything less, but that wasn’t why I was telling my mother. (It never is, but that’s always her reaction, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson sooner or later.)

Some childish part of me still waits for my family to rally around my sister in her times of need (which, admittedly, are a-plenty), offering her, if not financial aid, at least an ear to lend in sympathy. But for my family, the presumption is always that my sister is guilty until proven innocent, and her biggest crime is needing their hard-earned money.

I sighed, got off the phone with my mother, and called my sister, only to hear her ask me, meekly, if she could call me back later, knowing she wouldn’t, and hearing, for hours afterward, the echo in my ear of her hanging up the phone. She was clearly, as she did so, already in tears.


To my parents, there are absolutely no allowances for how my sister got herself into such dire poverty: a marriage rife with violence that lost her the custody of her two older children (born to other fathers), that forced her into isolation in a state where she knew nobody but her husband, and that held her hostage even after the divorce through the corruption of the court system if she wanted any interaction with her younger three, one of whom has, as an direct result of a car accident in large part the fault of the abusive husband, special needs.

My sister, for as long as I’ve known her, has lived at the corner of Rock and Hard Place, but that doesn’t make her situation–and that of her children–any more right or fair. She doesn’t have the money to cover childcare to work outside the home (and couldn’t anyway, because of Sully’s need for constant, medically-attentive supervision). She also doesn’t have the money to survive not working, and there is little to nothing around my sister by way of legitimate, work-from-home employment.

And because, every time her life hits the skids, my parents’ initial, knee-jerk reaction is to clutch closed their fists and turn their faces away, my sister believes she deserves how she lives: in a matchbox apartment with her three beautiful kids, no prospects of a future, no hope of changing her situation to be more financially secure or even physically and emotionally safer.

It’s no wonder she got into an abusive relationship in the first place, being so often discarded by my parents both literally and figuratively. And what kills me is that my mother, who suffered an abusive relationship for years at the hands of my father, can just stick to her standard, tough-love party lines of “You made your bed. Now lie in it,” and “You’ll do better if you pick yourself up by your bootstraps.” Nevermind that my mother herself only fled her 17-year marriage to an abusive alcoholic when another man stepped in, the man who would become my stepfather.

But now I just sound bitter.


Because her situation so often leaves her feeling deflated, my sister’s mental health suffers, which affects her ability to believe her life could be any different. When it comes to things like disability paperwork or housing applications, her tone with me is always defeatist. “Alyssa,” she says. “There’s a x-month long waiting list” or “Because of x in my custody arrangement, I’m not legally able to receive y.” Never having gone down the rabbit hole of custody law or financial assistance applications, I can’t argue with her.

Nor, to repeat the fateful refrain of my parents (whose financial positions are much more secure), can I help her. Lily June, since our bed’s boxspring broke and we’re already in holiday debt, we’ve taken to, as a whole family, sleeping on one mattress on the floor. And we live in a one-bedroom palace in another state. I’ve offered our couch to Aunt Loren many times, but it means leaving her children–the loves of her life–behind her. And now having you, I know I could no more abandon you than abandon the air in my lungs or the blood in my veins. It’s called being a mother.

I’ve wanted to tell my sister over and over that I think of her every time I read Einstein’s words that

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

My sister–your Aunt Loren, Lily June–is like that fish. And she truly believes there is nothing better out there for her. She believes her inability to scale trees makes her unworthy of happiness. And I don’t have a glass bowl to offer her, while she flops about in a tragic panic. I don’t even know how to get her back into the water. And every time this happens, I’m scared again that I’m going to lose her.


Of course, I have to admit to myself that I’ve seen this story play out before. I saw it when the one condition my mother put on my sister living with her was my sister revoking all contact with her previous, abusive partner. I saw it when my sister slipped, claiming to keep him in the loop was to keep him from filing the paperwork to take their children from her. I saw it when my mother kicked my sister and her three children out the night before Thanksgiving.

I saw it when my father took her in and she did, finally, resume radio silence with her ex, only to have that ex retaliate to her lack of acquiescence by filing an emergency custody order claiming my father, who is a lot of things but isn’t this, was a molester. I saw it when, weeks to Christmas, the police showed up at your Grandpa Edward’s house and took her children away from my sister, driving them across state lines to place them back with the father who’d driven her away in the first place by hitting her. And he dumped those kids on his mother because it wasn’t about them; gaining custody was just another tactic to manipulate and humiliate my sister.

My sister’s is the story of domestic violence in America, Lily June, and all of the ways it echoes and ripples, even out to the survivors’ futures. There should be better programs in place to save her, to help her back onto her feet when her own family openly rejects her at worst, or, at best, just can’t afford to help her.

But at every turn, the system, the courts, the guardian ad litems, the arresting officers, the women’s shelters have failed her. And though I can call and call her to tell her I’m there for her, I, too, can’t help her and thus feel like a failure. And now, before the holidays when I think hardest of a families coming together, I ache for her more than ever.


The one candle I can hold to the darkness isn’t even for her, LJ. It’s for you, my darling daughter.

The patterns of abuse are as typical as the dysfunctional family patterns that tend to drive women (and men) to them in the first place. The behaviors are all about systematically dismantling the self-esteem of the survivors, forcing them into isolation, keeping them dependent on their abusers. The best defense against the acceptance of such behaviors is a good offense, and I intend to teach you every day, and in every way at my disposal as your mother, that you never have to tolerate this.

You, my dear, are no tree-climbing fish. You are, no matter what, a genius, whether it’s at swimming or climbing or reading or living or loving. You should know you are enough, in the here and now, as you are, for anyone, including yourself. You don’t need a “better” half. But should you chose to want one, and against all odds, should you chose one who ends up hurting you, you have to know  you can always come back.

If we don’t have more than one bedroom, your father and I would take the couch, the floor, the yard to ensure you have a safe bed to sleep in (or at least mattress to sleep on). If I didn’t have the money to fetch you from another state, I would take a second job to rescue you. If your children were at stake, I would work around the clock, until I dropped from exhaustion, to ensure they had a place to stay where they didn’t grow up watching anyone harm a hair on the head of their mother. And if anyone came at you, Lily June, knowing you were with me, I would sacrifice my very life to save you. I don’t know if that choice is right or correct. I only know I don’t have it in me to make any other.


To me, tough love has its purpose. It’s been known to nudge addicts from their drugs of choice, force moochers onto their own two feet and into their own places. But in this situation, part fate, part my sister’s own making (through a series of bad choices and just plain mistakes), I don’t know, truly, what might save her. My sister is almost forty, and at some point, she will be forced to live independently. My parents, my cousins, no one who occasionally aids her will live forever. I know I can’t, and I feel largely hopeless, turning desperately to prayer, especially at this time of year, when I hope God’s ear is just a little closer.

I pray to God for a Christmas miracle, a future financial windfall that might change my sister’s future. I pray to God her car, which so often isn’t working anyway, takes some fluke turn, breaks down for the umpteenth time at a gas station near her. I pray she walks up to the counter there and, in an optimism completely uncharacteristic for her, she buys a frivolous little lottery ticket. Somebody has to be a winner, right?

I pray she’s able to trudge home through the snow, three kids in tow, safely if someone doesn’t see her shuffling though the cold and offer to help her. I pray her cable isn’t shut off long enough for her to see she’s got the winning numbers. I pray, in that moment, my sister believes she’s worthy of the absolute reversal of fortune she’s been granted, that she clutches her babies to her side and whispers to them in the cold of her own tiny apartment, “This year, kids, things are finally going to get better.”


Picture Credits:

6 thoughts on “The Climbing Fish–On the Occasion that Your Family Periodically Falls Apart

  1. joyroses13 says:

    OH my heart breaks for your sister and for you!!Hugs and prayers and warm thoughts coming your way for a Christmas miracle for her! For the sun to shine down on her in some way! She is fortunate to have such a caring sister in you. So hard when we care but we can’t fix things, but still so important for them to know that you care, even if you can’t fix it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Shameful Narcissist says:

    The utter destructive force of victim blaming is so detrimental to not only individual mental health and well being, but to society as a whole. Reading this reminds me of an argument I had with my own father who cannot understand the realities of meritocracy/token society. I asked him how he expected children who are raised in an environment that for whatever reasons is steeped in criminal activity, lacking education or guidance, could be expected to know how to function “properly.” His answer “They should know.” Whey I insisted how, he stuck with that. It was infuriating. Knowledge doesn’t just descend from on high as if from some benevolent deity. Yes, there are some who grow up in such an environment who luck out with finding some rock to cling to. These are the token examples. How can you blame an individual for a situation they neither choose nor wanted to end up in? I could say a great deal about the bootstrap myth, but I feel we are of one mind with it already. Your sister sounds like she was failed on so many levels, and it’s a heartbreaking situation with no solution I can divine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jesska says:

    I meant to write sooner, but I am incapable of remembering things while doing other things…
    Anyway. What I wanted to write was this: The Bloggess is organising a present-giving Thing. People who can’t afford presents for their kids can add links to amazon-wishlists and people who can afford them can pay for the things on the lists to be sent to the people who can’t. (hope that makes sense).
    Maybe you could make a list for your sister(‘s kids). I don’t know if there’s enough time fo things to arrivce before Christmas, but you could try anyway…
    Here’s the link:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patricia says:

    Suggest to your sister that she check out the website “Indeed” for work from home jobs. Rev Transcriptions might work though she might need to get the equipment. I saw actual assistant jobs. Worth a shot. Your sweet sister is a product of your parent’s dysfunction. They didn’t want responsibility for her from the time she was born. They didn’t mind using her to be a surrogate mother to you so they are still avoiding their obligation. I went through watching my sister struggle financially and I had the money to help. I only contributed by doing things to make her life a little brighter in giving her gifts that she couldn’t afford to buy for herself. She and her husband worked it out with her cleaning houses and finding her niche in retail merchandising or whatever it’s called. She maintain’s their displays etc in stores. It has built her confidence. Family did help them financially. It’s an even longer story and one I have already shared with you most likely. It’s hard not to feel guilt but that shows how compassionate you are. You are doing your best to keep your head above water. 211 is a good resource for your sister. She just dials 211 and they will give her info on local resources. I’m still praying for Loren.😍

    Liked by 1 person

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