Bringing It Back Up
At breakfast, in a bright, San Francisco diner, over scrambled eggs and golden hash browns, a friend tells me about her blind, anorexic co-worker. “It’s really not about what’s in the mirror, it’s about control,” she finishes. I nod. I get it.
Michael Guiney’s, North Earl Street, Dublin, Ireland. The only shop in the city with clothes big enough to fit my mother. Upstairs, second floor, left at the entrance, and left again into the far, dim, recessed corner. Then straight to the end of the four racks of “plus” polyester dresses, to find the few size 30s on offer, the largest available. This was the mid ’80s, when obese in Ireland was still a rarity.
On good days, those scarce dresses hung in bright colors and bore a pattern — floral or tiny polka dots. Otherwise, it was dark, mute solids. At home, I cut slits into the dresses’ side seams the length of my mother’s deep-set ribcage, for more give. My mother forever wore woolen cardigans, to hide those scissor-ed rips that made her dresses fit.
“Do I look nice?” she asked.
“You look lovely,” I told her.
“Tell me again?” she asked, and again I told my blind mother the color and pattern of the new outfit she was wearing. She listened, smiling, and moved her hands over the buttons of her cardigans and across the thighs of those stretchy dresses with their happy hues, whimsical patterns, and secret gaping sides.
Obese, blind and mentally ill, clothes were one of the few pleasures my mother enjoyed in life. That pleasure, though, was nothing next to how much delight food gave her. She loved to feast on savory in particular, mostly mounds of potatoes spiked with salt and dampened with golden, melting butter. She also favored grease-stained, brown paper bags pregnant with fast food — oily fish burgers or fat, greasy sausages with chunky, salted, vinegar-drenched chips. She enjoyed sweet, too, and in particular chocolate, butterscotch toffee, and any dessert with dollops of fresh cream. Food filled her with good feelings, for a while. She always ate too fast, and with eager, shaky hands, her cheeks bulging. She would eat and eat and still ask, with such hope, “Is there more?”
My mother was terrible at being blind and excellent at being crazy, and both rendered her helpless and dependent. My dad, siblings and I catered to her every need. I, in particular, took care of her grooming. Her hair, nails, make up, right down to tweezing her face and giving her a bath. For practical and safety reasons, my mother sat on a white, plastic orthopedic chair inside the bathtub while I washed her. I can still see her standing naked by the tub, waiting for me to help her step inside the gaping oval of enamel — crouched, her meaty shoulders pulled to her ears, her arms covering her long breasts with an X.
Even when she sat on her chair inside the tub, while I sponged and lathered her body to white, rose-scented foam, she huddled, her arms trying to hide herself. “Relax,” I coaxed. “Sit back.” I eased her shoulders to straight, and lowered her arms so her hands were resting on her lap. Her palms always faced upwards, as if asking for something.
I rinsed the slick soap residue from her pale, bumpy skin with a steady rain of warm water. Her eyes closed, she sighed with feeling.
“Is that nice?” I asked.
“So nice,” she said.
I loved that in those moments she had enough. Loved that I’d given her that much at least.
And I hated it all, too.
As a girl, I was mousey, freckled, and sickly thin. Snappable. People called me beanpole. I looked as if I ate nothing. Like my mother, though, I loved fast food — fat, too-hot French fries and thick, greasy burgers between two white, grilled buns. I also filled myself on cakes, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream, and canned fruit in thick, sugary syrup. I mostly binged in my bedroom, alone and in secret. While I ate — fast, trembling, barely breathing, barely tasting — I felt comforted, rewarded, sated. After, I’d feel swollen. Sickened. Sore. Disgusting. Sometimes I let the food, and all those feelings, stay. More times I put my fingers down my throat and wiggled till I brought myself back to empty. There wasn’t much in my childhood I could control. Not my mother’s illness. Not that a family friend repeatedly molested me. I could, though, control the contents of my stomach.
For over two decades, I struggled with on-again-off-again bouts of binging and purging. When I became pregnant with my first daughter, I made us both a promise. I would never again stuff and empty myself. My daughter deserved better. I was not yet in a place where I believed I deserved better, too. And I stayed true to that oath. Through years of counseling and talk therapy that often felt unbearable (the memories and secrets did not want to be voiced), I made peace with so much — including my mother, my abuser, my body, and food. I put myself back together.
I never could do the same for my mother. She remained dependent for the rest of her days and in the end she wasted away to skin and skeleton. Alzheimer’s gobbled everything.
After breakfast and the bright diner, after I hug my friend goodbye, I sit into my car parked on a sunny, tree-lined street. Just as I turn the key in the engine, I fall back against the driver’s seat. It hits me that it’s even bigger than control. That’s what I should have told my friend. It was about my playing God over one part of myself because I couldn’t bring order to my other, broken parts. Couldn’t rise out of the easier, familiar territory of harm and turn my thoughts and power around to helping and healing myself. I couldn’t until I could.
My mind pivots again and I’m back in my childhood home, inside our small, dim kitchen. My mother sits in her chair at the end of the yellowed, scratched Formica table, her hand blindly searching her empty dinner plate, its face shiny with traces of butter, studded with the last of the salt. “Is there more?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, speaking not of food but of her full and joyful days. “There’s lots more.”
Ethel Rohan’s debut novel is The Weight of Him (St. Martin’s Press, February, 2017). She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, OZY Magazine, BREVITY Magazine, and more. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in San Francisco where she is a member of the Writers’ Grotto.