We drove up the winding blacktop road, headed for a private supper club owned by old friends. A spring snow had blanketed the mountains and frosted the trees, and we looked forward to the dark and cozy warmth just ahead. Lida, the heart and muscle of the place, had invited us for a Sunday dinner with another couple she promised we would enjoy meeting. When Andrew and I arrived, she greeted us with a hug and we joined her husband John at the bar. We were nursing our first round of drinks when Abby and Jim arrived, an attractive couple in their late fifties. After introductions and a brief and humorous exchange about their black labrador’s latest mischief, Abby turned to me and asked, “How many children do you have?”
How many children do you have? I felt my stomach jump and my throat tighten. I held my breath as if I could suspend time with the air trapped in my chest.As I exhaled, I answered, “I had four daughters, and Andrew has a son.” I hoped the “had” wouldn’t be questioned. I could have said, “I have three daughters,” but that would seem disloyal to Erin Leah. She will always be my daughter, even though the last ten years of her life were far more pain than joy for us and for her. I could have said, “I have four daughters,” but that would imply four living daughters. Instead I skated around the crack in the ice by saying “had,” avoiding eye contact as I searched inside myself for direction.
I pushed Erin’s painful life and still recent death to the back of my conversational repertoire as I scrambled for another subject to discuss. I saw myself through their eyes as the mother of four healthy young adult daughters and a stepson. Did I want to bridge the gap by telling them the whole truth? I have faced this dilemma often in the recent years since it became obvious that Erin would never live a typically functional life. When she was still alive and a new acquaintance would ask about my children, I focused on my other daughters and stepson, and hoped they wouldn’t question the omission. Although I was acutely self-conscious about having a child who had no hope for normalcy, my fear of being seen as having failed her was only part of my holding back. There was no way to talk about her lightly, no way to sum up her life in typical Christmas letter style. They would discuss visiting colleges, and I would remember how we struggled to get her through high school. By then her mental illness and eating disorder were so severe that even the most basic attendance requirements were more than she could handle. I was not ready to talk about all of it, and a little would inevitably lead to a lot more. I decided not to drop a bomb into the unsuspecting laps of our new acquaintances.
How many children do you have? The truth is that losing Erin has been my most profound encounter with myself. Who would I be if I had not had to cope with the fear, anger, and despair over watching helplessly as she deteriorated over the course of ten years? Who would I be if I had not seen her body become a stunted skeletal caricature of the young woman she could have been?Who would I be if I had not ridden the roller coaster of hope that climbed as she entered each new treatment program, and then crashed in a slow motion nightmare as she relapsed every time? Would I have blithely passed through the years like a teflon mom in a 60’s situation comedy, invulnerable to existential loss or despair? Would I have believed, as my parents seemed to, that an unruffled life was a sign of living rightly? As a psychotherapist I guide others through doubt and despair on a daily basis. I wonder how I would have related to my clients’ heartbreaks without having held my own heart together, at times with paper clips and string. Erin’s struggle with anorexia and bulimia consumed her life and nearly devoured mine. I lived in parallel universes–the world in which I functioned with apparent ease and confidence, and the invisible ordeal of fading hope, helplessness, and even suicidal desperation. At times I felt that she and I were in mortal combat, and only one of us would win. She was killing me slowly with her self-destruction, and my failure to save her meant that I must be the one to die. I surprised myself with this demon-like craziness. It clawed at my heart and refused to relinquish its grip on my rational mind. I waged my war silently, in the quiet of my early morning journal, while I honed my skills, built my career, and Andrew and I dealt with the challenges of blending our family. I spent countless evenings in the gym at volleyball and basketball games and celebrated our other children’s rites of passage. I grieved through writing every morning and then got dressed and went to work. When I saw Erin’s classmates, I mourned the life she would never live. As the eating disorder took over her mind as well as her body, her world drifted apart from our day-to-day family life, like a lost shoe slowly carried out to sea. I stood on the shore watching her float away, wondering whether I could dive into the cold dark water and not drown myself. Years of family therapy and multiple hospitalizations had left me limp, as if I had washed up on the beach after alternately struggling to pull her in against her will and free myself from a stranglehold that threatened to pull me under along with her. We seemed to go on as if all was well, yet there was an empty place at the table that mirrored the space she no longer occupied in our daily routines. I ached for the child who taught her younger sisters and neighborhood playmates to dance and do cartwheels in the yard, and whose infectious giggle sparkled in the air when we watched the Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock. She had the broad shoulders and narrow hips of a competitive swimmer and the lithe muscled legs of a ballerina. In early photos from those happier times, large hazel eyes look wistfully from beneath thick, dark lashes, as if some part of her knew her loveliness would be short-lived. She had moved into a small apartment when it was intolerable for either her father or myself to have her living in our homes. The chronic stealing, bingeing, and purging that ruled her life made living with her a nightmare of missing money, discarded food containers, and clogged drains. Holiday celebrations and family birthday dinners were strained by our watching to see if she would load her plate with forbidden foods. Would the carefully prepared meal be flushed down the toilet once again, after she filled her shrunken stomach with turkey, mashed potatoes, and homemade rolls? Or would we feel equally frustrated and powerless as her hollowed cheeks and bony jaw chewed, trance-like, on unadorned salad and naked vegetables? She either gorged or fasted as we feasted, and we had long since learned that there was nothing we could do. Though my other girls’ love and normalcy redeemed my motherhood and blanketed my despair, I felt I had failed her.
How many children do you have? What if I had told the whole truth? “I had four daughters, but my oldest died last February from a ten-year battle with an eating disorder.” I imagined shocked silence and stunned faces as we detoured from pleasant banter to personal tragedy. I am sure they would have composed themselves quickly, responding with sympathetic horror. Was I protecting them, protecting myself, or simply being socially appropriate? I know that I do not want my identity to be defined by my daughter’s death—at best the brave, long-suffering bereaved mother; at worst, the parent who failed to do enough to save her child. I have learned how to live with it and survived the years of hope, giving up hope, suicide attempts, and seeing her actively succumb, day after day, to the physical and emotional ravages of her addiction. As I told the flood of friends who came to the house in the wake of her death, I had grieved for years.