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Trigger warning: suicidal ideation, disordered eating.
My mother hasn’t eaten in 43 days. Her lips are peeling in chunks. She can’t form words; her tongue has the consistency of dried papier mâché. Her skin hangs loose like wet lasagna, slapping her sides as the hospice nurses turn her in soiled bedding.
She has decided to commit suicide by starvation.
There are easier ways to die: swallowing a bottle of pills, slicing her wrists etc. Starvation requires the willpower of Gandhi. I know this. I'd had plenty of practice as a teenager.
I remember crawling over to the sink, pulling up on the vanity and dampening a washcloth in the running tap water, which I'd left on to muffle the noise of my throwing up. I blotted my flushed and puffy face, streaked with mascara, and wiped bloody rivulets of mucus from my mouth. I need to trim my nails, I thought. Every time I would stick my fingers down my throat, they would scratch it, making it bleed.
I would stare at my 15-year-old reflection, overwhelmed with intense loathing. Why was it so hard to put a piece of food into my mouth without feeling the overwhelming panic and compulsion to throw it up?
My mother’s condition, near-syncope, escalated last summer. She kept losing consciousness — in the grocery store, in the shower, even in bed. Specialists were unable to find a cure for her perplexing ailment. Now, two months later, the satisfaction of having Mom safely tucked away in a room with a view for $8,200 a month becomes unraveled.
“I need your help,” she cries hopelessly into my the phone.
“Is something wrong?” I try to sound sympathetic. “Have you been out of your room today?”
“I can’t leave my room! How can I leave this bed?”
“The staff could roll you in your wheelchair. You could meet people, eat in the dining hall.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone. Everyone here is nuts. They’re all old!”
“I don’t know how I can help you.”
“I’m going to kill myself,” she says matter-of-factly.
Her melodrama rivals my teenage daughter’s.
“I’m going to starve myself.”
Really? Is she not aware of how difficult this will be? Going without food, for even a few days, is miserable.
No one knew my secret when I was a teenager. Even my best friend.
“Only an apple?” I recall Amy saying, admiring my lunch. “You have so much willpower. God, I need to lose a ton.”
That apple was all I'd eaten that week. I had the willpower of a highly paid fashion model. I would weigh myself in the morning, after I showered, on my lunch hour, after school, before bed. My head was full of a voice crying out, FOOD. I ignored, it and after a while, my body would forget. It forgot what brownies taste like. It forgot to remind me that I was hungry. My stomach shrunk to the size of a bird’s.
I would watch the sophomores in the cafeteria with fascination. How can they just stuff their faces? Emily, with a bread roll stomach, would gorge herself on cookies; nerdy Byron would wipe fried chicken grease off his double chin with a balled up napkin. I was amazed. I was envious. Oh, to be able to eat like that.
By Friday, alone at my home, I gave in. Just a little snack, then more, then everything I can find. There was no time to taste. All I could think was, What can I eat next?
Waves of hatred swept over me. I had succumbed to hunger. I am weak. Now I will be fat. But not if I hurry.
The ice cream came up, cold and smooth. I felt much better.
Mom’s hunger strike hits the two-week mark. It’s Thanksgiving, but how can I possibly celebrate? Mom is starving herself to death and I’m planning a feast.
In the assisted living hallway, I meet Jaci, a hospice nurse who has taken over Mom’s care. Hospice is willing to assist and support her decision to starve herself and offer medication to ease her suffering.
Mom has lost control of her life. Someone has to help her get out of bed, dress her, bring her meals, trim her toenails, hold her up in the shower, steady her on the commode so she doesn’t pass out while pooping. The only thing she can control is eating. By not eating, she can orchestrate her death.
I understand. As a teen, not eating was my only means of control. I could not change my towering height, my failing grades, my crippling shyness. Most of all, I couldn’t change my father.
I remember sitting at the dinner table with my high school friends, Amy and Blake, who had begged to spend the night at my house.
“This roast is delicious,” Blake complimened.
“At least someone around here eats,” my father said. His cold eyes glared directly at me.
I stabbed a green bean with my fork and placed it in my mouth, defiantly.
Later, Amy, Blake and I lay on the floor in my bedroom.
“Your father was feeling me up at dinner.” Amy said disgustedly. “He was moving his hand up and down my leg under the table.”
Oh god. I want to die.
“He kept staring at my tits,” Blake added.
What should I say? Should I apologize for him?
I walked over to lock my door.
“What did you do that for?” Blake asked.
A few hours later, we were all lying around in our sleeping bags, giggling at the quizzes in Seventeen magazine, when the doorknob rattled.
Blake grabbed my arm. “What was that?”
It rattled some more.
“Who the hell is that?” Amy looked at me for an explanation.
“Why is your father trying to get in here?”
A look passed between us, and suddenly she knew.
By the 39th day since she has eaten, I’m not sure if Mom even knows I’m here. I sit next to her for six hours; the only sound in the room is her breathing and my turning the pages in my book. She never moves from her fetal position.
“The drugs are helping,” Jaci says. “She feels no pain.”
“How much longer?” I ask.
“Maybe soon. She’s been so strong.”
Jaci holds my hand as I weep. Over the last month, I haven’t been able to stop the tears. I go to bed crying. I wake up to a damp pillow from crying in my sleep. My tears mix with water in the shower. At work, I place worries of mom in the rearview mirror, but she remains in my blind spot, constantly there, even though I can’t see her.
I went months without throwing up during my senior year of college. It was as if I'd had the flu for five years; I was finally keeping food down.
I also hadn't talked to Dad since Mom had left him four years earlier.
Every morning at 5 a.m., I would get up and run. If I overate, I would run harder and farther. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was no longer filled with disgust. My legs were lean and muscular. My jawline was more defined, not puffy. I no longer saw food as the enemy.
I had realized, most of all, I needed food to stay alive.
Day 44 – the end must be near. At work, I’m fighting the impulse to check my phone. I'm on edge, like the first time my son took the car out by himself. During lunch I finally check my cell phone.
This can’t be good. I listen to the first message.
“Rebecca? This is Jaci. I just wanted to share the good news. Your mom decided to eat last night. She had a turkey dinner. Then this morning she ate eggs, ham, toast, grapefruit, orange juice and tea…”
What the hell?
“… She told me that her life is worth living.”
Consumed with curiosity, I drive down to see Mom.
“What changed your mind?” I lean in and give her a long hug. I have trouble letting go.
She is sitting up, a tray on her lap, with tuna, crackers, and applesauce.
“Dying is too hard. I never expected it to be that difficult,” she says.
Several months have passed, and Mom and I are sitting on her assisted living area’s patio. A robin bobs past, worm in its beak.
“Hungry?” I ask Mom.
I roll her wheelchair past flowers.
“Shall we have lunch in the dining area?”
“I suppose. But don’t seat me next to any of those old people.”
Warm smells waft from the kitchen. I pick up the menu.
“Can I get you two lovely ladies something special?” a caretaker asks.
“Chicken, rice and beans,” Mom requests.
“Same for me, please,” I say.
“Anything for dessert?”
“Apple pie with ice cream.”
“Me too,” I laugh. “Make mine two scoops.”