When Erin was seven an astrologer friend told me that at least one of my children was extraordinarily gifted. I had no doubt that included Erin. I was in awe of her ease and delight at performing on stage. Beautiful, artistic, full of physical energy and grace, she was blessed with the gifts I had longed for, and I delighted in her presence and passion. Colored pens in hand, she would be absorbed for hours creating images that seemed to come from another realm. As she got older, her drawings became more and more detailed and symbolic. She tapped into a private world of snakes and stars and intricate designs, weaving representational forms with fantasy and archetype. Those images seemed to capture the paradox of her anorexia and bulimia—the powerful high and ultimate control as she transcended the needs of her physical body, and the dark helpless descent as her body inevitably rebelled and she crawled back, pulled down by her body’s rebellion and shame, to the altar of her addiction. There she made her ritual sacrifices, placating the demon-disorder and reinforcing her fate. The snakes in her drawings appear harmless, wound around trees or super-imposed on a serene female face, while the stars intermingle with tears. She could not imagine life without the disorder, but with it she would surely die.
Before anorexia she was all athletic muscle, challenging her physical limits so often that we were emergency room regulars. No one could have known the fragile hold she had on being earthbound. Years later, as the disease relentlessly destroyed her body, she looked like a distorted fleshless version of the child I had adored. I never got used to her emaciation, wanting to scream or cry rather than embrace her with the loving arms that so readily enfolded my other three daughters’ healthy bodies.
When she finally died, it was a relief to have our grief publicly acknowledged and supported. Until then we struggled quietly. Close friends knew our private pain, but the community at large saw our lives as unencumbered while she walked up Main Street, her birdlike little frame poorly disguised by baggy clothes, each step an effort for her muscle-starved legs. She was a common sight. Weighted down by her ever-present tote bag with its supply of generic Sweet ‘n Low and herbal tea, and perhaps a sketch pad and colored pencils, she would stop in at the espresso shop and ask for hot water for her tea, or perhaps meet a friend from AA at Mister Donut. She identified with those whose lives are on the periphery of the nine-to-five world. Though she had been in the gifted program as an elementary student, was showcased at the annual dance recital, and was an extremely precocious and imaginative artist, she now qualified for Social Security Disability. Instead of anticipating graduate school at twenty-three, she hoped for an apartment in the housing for the disabled and attended partial hospitalization three days a week.
How many children do you have? I have given up trying to understand what happened to her. I may never be able to figure out why. My soul work now is to forgive myself for all the times I recoiled instead of reaching out. I avoided spending time with her because my anger and sadness at seeing her ravaged body clouded my heart and cast a pall over an otherwise full and satisfying life. All I saw was my own child’s passive and unstoppable suicide. I wanted to hug her, but fear froze my arms at my sides. The sharpness of her protruding bones tore at my gut, and I felt my insides would rupture, leaving a barren wasteland where my heart used to be.
How many children do I have? As we drove home and contentedly reminisced about the past few hours, that unanswered question lingered in my mind. Pleasant conversation, seafood linguine, and a glass of chardonnay didn’t erase that ever-present awareness that I could not save my child. Though I don’t blame myself, I still seek atonement for failing to find a way. Regret for what I could not do or be may always haunt me, even though my life is full with the love of my husband, our thriving children, and wise, supportive friends. I help others make sense of their pain and find some meaning in the struggles they bring to therapy, all the while conscious of how losing my daughter has permanent residence in my heart and mind. Grieving has indelibly carved my internal landscape–reshaping, softening and tempering my relationship to life and loss, pain and survival—and the hole in my heart is healing into a wholeness I am learning to embrace. I am stronger than I ever wanted to be. Though I did not appear to be in mourning, I wore a psychic black armband for years, even questioning my own will to live. I marvel that I can experience joy and gratitude, drinking in the wild peach of a summer sunset and cherishing the sweet warm weight of a purring cat on my lap, while grief sits quietly in the center of my soul.
How many children do you have? On the day she died, Andrew and I walked up the hill next to our house. The late day sun sharpened the muted browns and golds of winter against the dry blue sky. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with icy air, the sparse cold jolting my warm healthy body as my daughter breathes no more. We spoke silently. Cars passed. Grief and gratitude mingled like snakes and stars.
How many children do you have?
You cannot know me
without knowing that
I have lost my daughter.