By Anne Lonergan
The scene is too beautiful to be the setting in which our lives veer drastically off course. The doctor’s office is orderly but inviting, the walls are painted a warm shade of white, the lighting soft and pleasing. Behind the large white desk, a wall is lined with books and periodicals and treasures from the sea. Another wall showcases framed degrees and multiple awards. Large panels of glass replace the remaining two walls, granting access to a pink sun setting over the Long Island Sound. We are high above the water, the sun is low. Through the act of bearing witness, the three of us help the huge orb nestle itself beyond the horizon. The dock that protrudes from under the office windows ends abruptly in the darkening water, the boat having long been packed away for the winter.
This is our first appointment. My husband and I are concerned that Catherine, our 15-year-old daughter, is not eating well, not eating enough. She and Dr. Homm had been together for ninety minutes. I am the newcomer, invited in to hear the results of the testing. The waiting room resembled a cozy sitting room, stuffed white slipcovered couches, nautical nuances, a nubby sisal rug under foot. I spent the time reading pages from books titled A Parents Guide to Eating Disorders and Loving Someone Who is Starving Themselves, feeling grateful we are seeking help before it gets to that. I turn from the bucolic setting sun, about to mention the beautiful view, but the words catch in my throat. Catherine’s small frame is perched on the edge of the chair opposite the doctor, her eyes are wide and afraid, she looks ready to run. Her fear pulls me out of the pink light reflecting off the water, to the empty chair at her side, and I take her cold hand in both of mine.
“Go ahead Catherine,” prods the voice behind the desk.
“Mom, I am underfeeding myself,” her chin jutting out as it does when she is feeling defiant.
“Use the word,” the professional tone insists.
“I am anorexic.” Catherine’s chin trembles and a single tear pools at the corner of her mouth.
My thumb—that had been stroking the back of her hand—stalls in the hollow curve between her pointer and middle finger. My eyes mirror the fear in Catherine’s, and betray the sadness that wells in my throat. But I keep them focused on hers, willing them to also portray my resolve.
“Okay.” That’s it. That’s all I say to her. A cleared throat from the other side of the desk turns my head.
For the next thirty minutes, the doctor walks us through a plan for Catherine’s recovery, a regimen of caloric intake, portion monitoring, and weekly visits. And as I hold Catherine’s hand tightly, just now warming in mine, one word is bouncing noisily in my head, reverberating off of each side of my brain: how?
“This is your daughter’s effort. You can love and support her, but only she can heal herself,” Dr. Homm informs, pushing her chair back to stand.
The traffic on I-95 is stopped. Catherine sleeps in the passenger seat next to me, exhausted by the appointment, and hunger. I lean my head against the headrest, and turn to look at her. Her forehead rests against the window, the fur on the hood of her unzipped black parka sticks to the condensation; slightly protruding vertebrae are exposed at the base of her long slender neck. Dark circles loom under softly closed eyelids. Her hands are more delicate these days, but still hers, and familiar to me. The parka swallows her, as if we bought it two sizes too big. The energy in the car begins to swirl with the rapid beat of my heart, as I realize I haven’t truly looked, or listened. I see now, inside her resting form, a mind in frantic motion. I hear now, too late, her own voice whisper to her high achieving self, “it’s not enough, you can do better, work harder.” She has been at battle with herself for some time while her parents burst with pride at all of her accomplishments, buried deep in denial.
A horn honks behind me.
“Shit!” I cry, startled.
The smell of rosemary chicken curls around the banister, and wafts up the stairs, making its way to noses behind a shower curtain, past doors cracked open a bit, because it’s homework time, and that’s the rule. My thirteen-year-old son, Matt, lays scratchy linen placemats on the worn kitchen table. Silverware for five clanks together in his tight fist, it’s easier to make one trip. Metal against metal accompanies the sound of multiple conversations bouncing off of marble counter tops, presided over by lit candles on the kitchen island. Cabernet is splashed into two glasses lined up side by side, a set, ready for the nightly celebration that is the family dinner. Stragglers from upstairs grab plates to fill, and take to the table.
Eventually, though, the hum of activity in the kitchen becomes suffused with Catherine’s silence. Her struggle over what, and how little, to serve herself, while others grab hungrily for serving spoons piled high, overpowers the sounds of my family’s stampede. She is waging her battle silently, mixing into the group, while standing glaringly apart. Do our full plates disgust her, or tempt her, or make her feel ashamed and alone? Her long dark, thinning hair veils her face.
“Seriously?” Matt stares at the tiny portion on Catherine’s plate. “You’re so weird.” He tosses his hair off of his forehead revealing teenage acne.
“That’s enough, kiddo. How was practice?” my husband, Joe, asks him.
Catherine glowers at Matt while pushing food around her plate, spreading it out in order to create the illusion that more has been eaten. The dark cabernet slides past the lump in my throat.
“Dim the light a bit, please,” I say, looking towards the chandelier. My seventeen-year-old daughter Molly complies. She has quietly assumed an agreeability not often seen before, either to balance Catherine’s irritability, or to relish being the “good child” for a while, possibly a combination of the two.
“Thank you for dinner,” Catherine mumbles, excusing herself early from the table, plate in hand, headed for the disposal.
“She’s fine,” Joe insists, after the children excuse themselves, stories of the day exhausted. Catherine had not said much. Had we gotten too used to her being quiet, or too tired to fight it? Joe and I are face-to-face, two half finished glasses of wine on the table between us. I put my hand on top of his, holding his eyes with mine for a moment. Catherine looks so much like her dad. They have the same dark eyes and heavy eyebrows. Profoundly inquisitive, they both tend to be more serious than silly. His ability to close his eyes to personal struggle or sadness or despair is well honed from a childhood scarred by his parents’ divorce, and ensuing vicious custody battle. He is the kind of man who agreed to trade in a large, brand new house with intricate molding, for an old, broken, much smaller house, with a crooked chimney, for twice the money, so his children could see the waves from the front door. An accomplished athlete, he is also the ultimate optimist.
“No, she’s not, ” I said, squeezing his hand.
Over the last few months I have not seen much of Catherine’s face straight on. I see her face in profile, her softly rounded slightly upturned nose, and red, full lips that pucker when she is deep in thought. “Pouty lips” we’ve called them since she was a little girl. The nickname always made her eyes smile before she’d roll them in mock irritation. What was a soft jawline that ended at an ear lobe covered in tiny little blond hairs is sharper now, with shadows underneath. A brass cuff grips the cartilage on the top of her ear too tightly. I glimpse the back of her head, chestnut brown, wavy long hair falling to the middle of her back, often worn down now, no more jaunty ponytail swinging from high on the crown of her head. My sight lines of my little girl are different because she is often turning away, or fully turned and walking out of the room. We have times when words don’t work for us, so I search her eyes for hints to how she’s feeling inside, and she averts them, turning her head, before I can see. I try to pause when we pass on the staircase, just to keep her near me for a moment longer.
“Buddie escaped to the beach today. Mrs. Leahy brought her back again.” I say. Catherine loves that her dog has a bit of rebel in her, and often sneaks out of the yard. But my voice sounds too cheerful, a bit needy and desperate. Catherine wants to feel normal, to be treated like everyone else in the family, but I cannot find that normalcy, yet. My awkward words fall flat.
“She’d come back on her own, if people would just leave her alone,” she says, moving past me, towards the dog curled up at the bottom of the stair.
“I’ll pick you up after school for your doctor’s appointment.”
“Great,” she replies with stinging sarcasm.
My thoughts exactly, I think, as I continue to climb the stairs.
The rain is coming down in sheets, from dark low-hanging clouds, making my windshield wiper’s effort futile. The humidity in the car from our dampened clothes is at odds with the chill of a November day. Condensation fogs the windshield. Catherine’s appointment is at a satellite office in a different town. Her simmering silence makes the country music playing on the radio, that we used to sing to together, sound hollow, like some kind of tinny filler. Trying to find the house tucked in between so many others all in a row, narrow driveways running next to each other, in between torrents of rain drops, is adding to the tension in the car. At last I see the office, cross two lanes of traffic, horns honk, I park.
“We’re here,” I say, hearing the strange falsetto squeak out of my throat, as if singing the phrase would make Catherine amenable to being here.
The grass beside the rutted pavement is brown, speckled with patches where nothing grows. Bay windows that speak of a past charm look more like warts broken out all over the house. I offer something about the location being more convenient. The dreary clapboard house contains multiple offices where different health professionals rent space. The oversized sign on the front of the building explains: Life Care.
Here? The one word question is laced with judgment and disapproval of the tilting front porch and peeling white paint. And if I feel it, my daughter is surely three levels past disapproval, to contempt and disgust. The charming cottage where her first appointment had been, filled with white nubby furniture, on the water’s edge, had apparently given me the false impression that her healing process would be set against beauty and softness. The mud that splashes as we race in between raindrops, suits our matching foul moods. I press the latch and push on a heavy red door. It doesn’t budge. I use hands, one on the latch and one on the door and push again. Nothing. I rage at the absurdity that this door has become an obstacle, a barrier to get past, like a red stop sign on the path to recovery. With a third press, both hands on the worn brass latch, and a well timed bang from my right hip, the door relents, opening with a crash against the inside wall, sending a bowl of candy formerly perched on a spindly table, crashing to the floor. We watch rainbow colored balls roll all over the entranceway. I turn, place my hand on the small of Catherine’s back and gently encourage her over the threshold. Feet planted, hands dug deep into the pockets of her black parka, she looks at me wide-eyed. My mind races: Would she refuse to go in? The rain leaks through the porch roof sounding like the tick of a clock as it hits the warped floor. The corner of Catherine’s mouth turns up and then her eyes do the same. One hand tries to hold in the laughter that bubbles up and out of her, as her other hand grips my arm.
“Nice tackle, Mom!” she giggles.
Progress! Sitting next to Catherine in one of the two chairs on the other side of Dr. Homm’s desk, I will not contain the smile that threatens. I am the only one of the three of us smiling.
“Catherine has gained 6 pounds in 2 weeks,” Dr. Homm says, from the chair pushed back from her desk. Her lips are set in a straight line. My heart leaps. Catherine is staring at Dr. Homm, arms folded across her chest, hostile. The birthmark on her middle finger looks bigger than it used to. She has not taken off her black parka.
“It is unusual for a true anorexic to comply this quickly and willingly. I am wondering if this is what we call disordered eating, whether Catherine is shall we say ‘trying on a hat’, albeit a dangerous hat.”
I am confused by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice, but not surprised by the weight gain. There is a place directly under Catherine’s chin, at the top of her neck that was once taught and concave, which is now softer with a slight curve. It is not something anyone else would notice, except of course, me, and Catherine.
“I have doubts,” Dr. Homm continues. “Given the extent of the depletion sustained by her body, I am recommending she continue these sessions to monitor her weight and metabolic levels. We have a long way to go.”
Catherine turns toward the window, while I schedule the next appointment, silently telling me I’ve betrayed her. She has done what we asked, and now, feels we’ve moved the finish line. I will spend another car ride home explaining the situation to deaf ears.
“Why are you so angry, love, she said you’re doing great,” I said pulling the car down the narrow driveway.
“I hate the way she talks down to me, like I have no idea about anything”
“Her tone is a little stiff, but she’s a doctor not a friend.” I attempt.
“I don’t want to go back.”
“No, really Mom, I screwed up, I get it, it was stupid, but I’m putting weight on, like you all want, I know what to do, I really don’t like her, I can do it myself.”
Maybe it’s fatigue from the battle, or wanting to disrupt Catherine’s anger with my own, that makes me detour from our regular route home, and pull into a health food store.
“You still have to go. But if you think you have this all figured out, show me what you like to eat, what you’ll eat enough of!” I shout at her profile.
“You’re going to make me keep seeing her?”
“Show me you really get it, Catherine, how serious you are about getting better, and then we’ll talk about it.” I said, a bit softer, finding that familiar perch between anger, disappointment, and my desperate love for her.
She pulls her fists out of her pockets, pushes the cart over the slush, through the automatic doors. I release my grip on the idea that Catherine will join the rest of her family in eating meat and potatoes, but joining her family, and eating, are all I care about now, and I am proud of her and feel hopeful.
She wanders in and out of aisles, we read labels, she teaches me things. I joke about rabbit pellets and birdseed and she laughs a little, she tells me about quinoa and bulgar and I listen. When we get home, we clear off two shelves in the pantry for her. Catherine methodically organizes her food into groups, wheat flour, coconut shreds, chia and flax and pumpkin seeds next. As I watch her put brown rice besides bags of farrow, delicate hands busily organizing, I am reminded that I have not won the war, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve even won today’s battle. My daughter arranges everything in a perfect straight line, and then does the same to the other shelves in my pantry.
My husband Joe is almost asleep when I put my book down and turn off the light. Down the hall, Matt is brushing his teeth, undoubtedly spraying toothpaste and spit all over the bathroom mirror. I enjoy listening to the sounds of my family settling in for the night. I close my eyes and wait for the girls to come in, grateful Molly is picking up Catherine at her friend’s house. The back door opens underneath me, earlier than expected. Molly walks across the kitchen floor, I can tell its Molly because her strides are longer. I look at the ceiling, waiting to hear Catherine’s lighter tread. There is rustling in the kitchen, and then footsteps leave the house. Muffled noise comes back in the house a second time. A feeling of dread drags me from under my warm comforter. Molly meets me at the top of the stairs.
“You need to come look at Catherine,” she says with sad eyes, and a towel in her hand.
Catherine is lying on the bathroom floor, in jeans that she should have outgrown by now, and her black parka. Her knees are pulled up against the side of the toilet, her head protected from the tile by her hood, pieces of the fur lining clumped by dried spittle, stick to the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are closed and she is still. I lower myself to the floor, and stroke her hair, while Molly tells me what she knows. Vodka shots, she had already thrown up at least twice, she was talking in the car. The anger that I had imagined I might feel at a time like this never comes. Instead, intense sadness and cold fear consume me.
“Go get your father.”
I swallow hard and pull Catherine to a seated position; she opens her eyes but cannot focus, “I’m sorry,” she groans, and lurches toward the open toilet. She wretches, and wretches again, but there is nothing left in her stomach.
Joe settles Catherine’s wisp of a body into white eyelet sheets on her left side, pushing her hair gently off of her forehead, and puts the white wicker waste basket near her, on the floor. I lay in the other bed, on my right side facing our daughter. I cannot distinguish his anger from his sadness, and right now, I cannot help him to either. The lamp on the night table between the twin beds is on. It’s white with painted grey shells. No matter how many different ways the girls have decorated their room over the years, this lamp has been their reading light. It casts a bright white over Catherine’s limp body, creating shadows under her bottom lip and behind her on the backside of the bed. Joe kisses Catherine on the forehead, and then comes to me. I look at him expectantly, his big calloused hand pushes the hair back from my temple the way he does when I’m upset. He kisses me lightly on the lips.
“I’ll go check on Molly,” he says and leaves the room.
I have never felt lonelier. I have pulled the putrid smelling vomit stained shirt over Catherine’s head, rinsed the bile out of the tendrils that escaped her pony tail, faced the shock of her body lying limp on the bathroom floor. I have been driving a sad, angry and hungry girl to appointments alone. No one to show me the expression my face should be making when she says “I’m fine now,” no one to help me untangle her confusion, no one to tell me what would be the most supportive words to use on the car rides home when she’s filled with silent rage, and no one to tell me how this happened on my watch or how to fix it! Why does her father just get the kiss on the forehead? Why does he get the synopsis of each appointment, that I am too exhausted to go into with any detail, and why does he think that his cliche’s of ‘hang in there’ and ‘you’re doing a great job’ even scratch the surface of what is required here? I hear him on the other side of the door.
“Good night, kiddo,” he says to Matt.
I swipe big tears off of my cheeks, and squeeze Molly’s comforter to my chin. I implore Catherine, for the hundredth time, to let me help her. With the lamp on, listening to the sound of the heat click on and off, the periodic creaking of an old house, my breathing slows. I stay on my right side all night, and watch Catherine’s blanket rise rhythmically up and down until her eyes open in the morning.
A few days later, Matt, Catherine and I return home from running tedious errands. The prescription at the drug store wasn’t ready yet, the vet bill was too high, and the grocery store filled with food had not inspired ideas for dinner tonight. Mail and purse in one hand, I bend to pick up a UPS box left at the front door as the kids shuffle past me. Matt kicks his shoes off, leaving a scuff on the wall, bounds up the steps two at a time, hands shaking the dark mahogany banister as he goes. Catherine moves slowly in his wake, lining up her boots exactly next to each other, tips of the shoes an inch away from the moulding that meets the floor. She said little while we were out, and seemed to lack the energy to do more than pull the fur trimmed hood of her parka over her head. Her father had taken her to her appointment, but I hadn’t gotten the update yet. She looks too thin today. Trudging up the staircase, her small hand dwarfed by the banister, she eventually drops it limply by her side. I walk into the kitchen towards the island to put down the things that burden my arms, and stare blankly out the window where icy water moves rhythmically towards the shore. Cold rage washes over me. I am angry that images of a bubbly baby girl, a toddler with birthday cake smeared on her lips are being replaced by darker images of dull eyes and thinning hair. I wander through ugly fantasies of my hands grasping Catherine’s shoulders sharply, shaking her. I even see fear in her eyes at my anger, and I relish that fear because it is a reaction, it is alive, it is SOMETHING! What is wrong?! Why are you doing this to yourself?! Your Doctor asks if I understand what she’s said, and in my fantasy, I shriek frantic, out of control. No! I don’t! Not at all, I understand none of it! Blood pulses behind my eyes. The marble countertop is warming under my perspiring hands. I brush the tears away at the sound of Matt coming down the stairs.
“Ready to go, Mom?”
Three months later, I’m lying in bed, waiting for Catherine to come home. My book rests against my knees; my fingers play with the edges of pages not read yet. I washed all of our winter coats earlier in the day and packed them away in bins. Folding Catherine’s black armor with the fur trimmed hood, that had hidden her body and her face for so many months, I hoped desperately that next winter it would just be a black parka again, protecting her only from the cold winter winds, and nothing else. My thoughts drift to a setting sun, and the white office, on the water’s edge. That moment could not be counted as the beginning of her challenges. Before the first appointment there was weight loss, unrecognizable at first. And before the weight loss, her mental struggle which she endured quietly and alone. I push my glasses to the top of my head and rub the bridge of my nose with my finger. Pages flutter slightly under the blades of a slow moving ceiling fan. Joe breaths a little deeper next to me, sleep has quieted his thoughts. So, what was her trigger: the soccer tryout, the break up with what’s-his-name, a big chaotic family, a controlling mother? Or was the beginning way back at her very own beginning? Born with the predisposition to be a high achiever, rarely at rest, searching for control, she has insecurities and anxieties that take time and maturity to handle. “How she’s wired,” described one expert. There is a stack of books on the subject of eating disorders, written by doctors, and survivors, tucked in the bottom drawer of the chest next to my bed, each with a different theory on why and how. The only thing they all agree on is that there isn’t a finish line. Setbacks will have to be regarded as a normal part of moving forward. I close my eyes, and push my head back further into the pillow.
The mudroom door opens, answered by the dog’s tail thumping against the floor. Catherine peeks her head through the bedroom door.
“I’m home,” she whispers.
Before I can respond, she strides into the room, curls her leg under her and sits on the edge of my bed. I shift my book and sit up a little bit straighter. A child sitting on my bed in the middle of the night has come to represent a myriad of things over the years: bad dreams, a funny story, a revelation, a break up, a sadness. I kept a quiet expression, put a hand on her leg and listened.
“I’m so glad you’re awake! You are going to think this is so funny,” she says, trying to cover a giggle with her hand, glancing guiltily at her sleeping father.
“Tell me!” I say to her twinkling eyes, waving a dismissive hand towards her father who I am sure is wide awake and listening, under closed eyelids.
“James was walking and texting, so he wasn’t paying attention….”
Through bursts of laughter she tells me about her night. Her hands mesmerize me while she talks. She wears silver rings on multiple fingers on both hands; some are stacked together, some alone. The ring that holds her birthstone is perched above her thumb knuckle. All of them are sparkly and bright. Her hands are fuller, knuckles less pronounced, each finger a softer version of what had been. She waves her hands expressively during the story, dancing through the air in illustration, tossing her hair back as the story picks up speed.
“Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard? Can you believe he even did that?” Catherine wipes at glistening eyes, the amethyst on her thumb flashes in the light.
Anne Lonergan lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children. She is a member of the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction will be published in two upcoming anthologies by Kind of a Hurricane Press.
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