A Fish Can Walk

by “Mud Skipper”

What do you mean, Grandma and Grandpa are still married? I thought Grandpa was married to that lady he lives with,” my daughter said innocently. I had no answer. Like a pin puncturing a balloon, these questions popped the bubble of silence I had inhabited my whole life. Sitting at the ordinary formica table on the ordinary straight-backed chair, I suddenly saw how extraordinary my family situation was. We had never talked about it. None of us had ever said out loud, “Dad is an alcoholic and a liar.” My siblings and I were fish in a pond, unable to see the water.

Being more like her father, my blue-eyed daughter demanded the truth. His family members were fish that not only saw the water, they gulped, gargled, and spit it out with gusto. I knew I couldn’t be silent anymore; I was tired of pretending.

I revealed that her Grandfather not only had a problem with alcohol, he created his own truth. He decided what was real, and everyone else had to pretend they believed him. I explained that on the few occasions I had said, “that’s not true,” I was shunned not only by him but by the rest of the family. The penalty for breaking the code of silence was getting the silent treatment.

I explained that her Grandpa had left her Grandma and moved in with that lady, Geraldine. Some were led to believe he had divorced my mother and married Geraldine. Geraldine believed he was divorced, but unable to marry her for financial reasons. My siblings and I were supposed to believe that my mother wouldn’t let him have a divorce. None of these explanations were true, but years of conditioning had taught us to stay silent. I told my daughter it wasn’t that I had failed to tell her, I had never thought to tell her.

This conversation made me see the water for the first time. I began jumping out of the pond and looking back on my childhood from a different angle. I wondered if my father’s dishonesty was connected to his alcoholism. Robert Ackerman states: “Justification is something alcoholics and drug addicts are masters at . . . the science of arranging to do what we want to do, then making it appear reasonable.” Learning about codependency helped me realize I didn’t have to continue swimming in the pond: “The only person you can change is you “ (Wholey 4).

Dr. Timmen Cermak discusses sixteen characteristics adult children of alcoholics frequently display, including fear of losing control, harsh self-criticism, and the tendency to react rather than act (Asper). It was a relief to know I was not a freak. These traits were having a negative impact on my life; with understanding came the ability to change. Not only did I need to jump out of the water, I had to walk away from the pond.

But how would I breathe? Fear of the ripple effect this might cause threatened to keep me immobile. If I grew a pair of lungs and walked away, would anyone in the family speak to me again?

Then the call came from a sister, telling me my father had lung cancer. The prognosis was bad; years spent in smoke filled bars had taken their toll. The worm of indecision dangled on the hook. A memory bubble floated to the surface. Years ago I had asked him who the grieving widow should be when he died, my mother or his girlfriend? “I don’t care, you guys figure it out. I’ll be dead,” was his response. Should I keep my mouth shut or bring the truth to light before he died?

I called and told him I was sorry he was sick, and offered help if he needed any. I told him I would not lie anymore, and asked that he tell the truth before it was too late. Soon after my brother called and said, “Dad says don’t call him anymore or visit him in the hospital. He told the rest of us we can’t talk to you. Why did you have to say anything?”

But I knew it needed to be said, so my lungs could start growing. I wanted it out in the open so he could apologize, but he never did. The funeral was awkward; blame fell on dead ears. Silent accusations bounced off the bubbles my siblings occupied. Oblivious, they mourned the loss of their illusion of him.

My lungs continue to develop. Occasionally, I go back to swim on the surface of the water. Sometimes the other fish jump up and flap a fin in greeting. But most of the time this fish walks alone, thankful to be out of the pond.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Robert. “Personality Traits of an Alcoholic or Drug Addict.” Renascent. Renascent Canada, 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

Asper, Kathy. “Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Eye on Prevention. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 17 Oct. 2006. Web. 17 Feb., 2010.

Wholey, Dennis. “The Rules of Change.” National Adult Children of Alcoholics Network. National Adult Children of Alcoholics, Jan. – Feb. 2005. Web. 26 Feb. 2010.

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2 Responses to “A Fish Can Walk”

  1. Thesaurus Says:

    Amazing. I love the analogy to the fish in the pond. Extremely well written and very touching.

  2. pattricejones Says:

    I agree. I like the way that the fish/pond metaphor is sustained throughout the piece.

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