“Did you see the scale in the bathroom? Have you weighed yourself yet? I’ve lost weight!” Blonde stood beaming in the archway between the hall and living room. She was wearing my new shorts, her own spinning in the dryer. They rode high on her legs, almost hot pants. They looked good, they looked better on her than they had on me in the changing room.
With the door locked I stared at the weighing scales, my mind raced over the pizzas, diners and barbecue of the last few weeks. Slowly I removed every item of clothes, I pulled the band out of my hair and let a deep breath out, convinced the oxygen in my lungs might tip the balance. The numbers flashed bright and bold, my heart sank. I hadn’t just gained weight, I was the heaviest I’d been in over a decade, not having seen those digits since I ate my feelings as a teenager.
The puppy fat melted away in my early twenties, leaving behind an average girl who could tell you exactly how many calories were in every item of the supermarket ‘110 in a banana, 250 in a dry bagel, you need to burn 3500 calories to lose 1lb…‘ I’d recite endlessly to anyone inclined to listen. I knew the weight and height of every celebrity, all of which I’d compare myself to… ‘if I lost three stone I’d be the same weight as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and then I’d be happy’. Really, I was just the same as every other girl out there, ignoring any attributes I held, to instead agonise over all the bits mainstream media told me weren’t the ideal; all the reasons I didn’t fit the mould and was therefore failing at life. I was normal.
As I stared at that those flashing red numbers I felt a long way from the girl who made green smoothies and chose clothes from the middle of the rack. I could no longer feel my hip bones and little black dresses didn’t slip on any more. I sucked the air back into my lungs and clung to the edge of the sink. I felt fat. I felt fat, ashamed and embarrassed.
A psychiatrist might have summed up that moment to say it wasn’t the physical weight I was carrying, but what that weight represented that was really upsetting me. The loss of control from the environment, the pressures of the road trip, the competitiveness from Blonde and of course the continued symptoms of grief. But I’m not a psychiatrist so in that moment, I blamed pizza and my own lack of will power.
I was trying so hard to keep everything afloat ‘don’t speak up, don’t press your point, stop getting frustrated, if you say what’s upsetting you, you’ll sound petty and like a loser and people won’t like you. No, best to keep your mouth shut, don’t say anything, swallow it down, that always works, try harder, be nicer, box it away!’. I’d been hoping the road trip would tie those last few strands of grief back together, ‘surely I should be all fixed and sparkly by now? Why wasn’t I sparkly?!’
I was suppose to be having the time of my life. I was suppose to be ‘wooing’ along to The Who with my head out the window and tongue flagging (I might be slightly confused with how a dog enjoys a road trip but you see where I’m going with this). Blonde and I were suppose to be braiding each others hair and doing cartwheels in bikini’s on the beach. Alaska and I were suppose to be snuggling under camp-fires and making promises we’d keep into our 90’s. The scales were suppose to be going down not weighing the gravity in my head. I was suppose to be… I was suppose to!
“I think I’ll go to the gym today” I announced having returned downstairs. Blonde, who had taken her dry laundry to our room but shown no interest in changing out of my clothes fired off a bunch of questions as to what she ought to do whilst I was at the gym.
Alaska watched me confused, following upstairs as I went to find my trainers. “What’s the matter?” he blasted as soon as we were alone. After a mild internal battle, I confessed “the scales were really high and I feel fat and Blonde is wearing my shorts and I feel really insecure and uncomfortable and sort of just want to cry” internally adding ‘and I really want to call my mum and talk about it because I’m scared I’m losing control and don’t want to fall back into the pit of depression and, and, this lack of control is making me irritable and frustrated and I’m worried you’re all going to realise I’m a horrible person and leave me. And I don’t want to be left again’. “Ok, well how about I come to the gym with you?” Alaska responded to only what he heard.
I didn’t feel any better for the workout, if anything my neon red face was only adding to the insecurities. Blonde knocked on the bathroom door “are you nearly ready?” we were due to spend the afternoon at an outdoor pool to cool off from the Mid-West suffocating summer heat.
My reflection stared back, the mirror’s eyes running up and down my body, catching on the swollen belly and places where the bikini cut into flesh at the hips. All I saw was a lump of lard with dental floss digging in, leaving folds of heavy skin. The reality was, it really wouldn’t have mattered what size I was, in that moment I could have looked like a Victoria Secret model for all it would have mattered; all the mirror was ever going to let me see was a lumpy, sad mess who couldn’t face being in public, so is the power of crippling insecurity.
“Actually, I’m pretty tired after the gym, think I’ll just have a shower and relax this afternoon, you guys go” I responded through the door in as cheerful a voice as I could muster.
Following much reassurance that yes, I was sure and no of course I didn’t mind and yeah, I’ll see you when you get back; the front door finally clicked shut and my eyes spilled over. I clasped my hand over my mouth to stifle the sob in case my pain echoed through the walls and called my friends back to try and God forbid, actually comfort me!
The shower rained down, becoming confused with my tears as I heaved all the emotion out. A lump sealed off my throat and for the first time since stepping foot on American soil, I let it out. My nose and eyes caught, my legs lost all their strength until I found myself on hands and knees in the bathtub, water beating my back. I coughed and spluttered as the tears ran, retching and spitting with every wave of despair that washed over me. I wiped slimy snot away with the back of my hand until I no longer understood what I was crying for, only that I really needed to cry. Eventually I reached a slippery hand behind me and turned off the taps; curling into a ball, unable to do anything but.
I laid there until my skin grew cold, silent wells forming on the bridge of my nose causing tiny waterfalls to be blinked away. All I could think about was how much I wanted to hear my mothers voice. And then it came to me, the letters.
I unstuck myself and flopped out the bath, wrapping a towel around as I raced to the bedroom.
I opened the last two of her letters. It was the closest I’d get to her voice.
Not long after the doctor said those fatal cancer words with promises of “we caught it in time” and “you’re still young, fit and healthy”. Followed by the overly friendly nurse with her one woman prep rally “are you ready to kick cancer’s butt?!” it was announced the best way to beat cancer was by hacking parts of my mothers body apart and taking the sucker out.
So a Christmas date was set where her stomach and parts of both the gullet and oesophagus would be removed then sewed back together “basically we’re taking out your middle” the doctor had smiled, his hands gesturing on his own stomach where they’d remove the broken puzzle piece, he removed the slot and discarded it into an invisible bin. I sat with my mum, watching the show, seeing her body as a giant game of tetris, a hole appearing that would cause the bricks to stack up on themselves until ‘game over’.
She’d been scared, who wouldn’t be with the prospect of having half your organs removed. She wrote herself letters, she thought she’d need her own strength to pull her through on what she imagined to be a very long, tough slog uphill to recovery.
The day she died I discovered these letter in a box next to her bed. They were numbered one to six and all sealed. She hadn’t needed the strength, the recovery from such an intense operation was remarkably quick; home within a week, walking the dog and swimming within two. She was a trooper!
I found the letters and squirrelled them away. My brother hadn’t wanted her diaries or various books she’d started to write and given up on, he hadn’t wanted anything; so I never told him about the letters. Over the year and a half since her death, when things felt desperately low or I was at a loss in the world, my fingers would reach for them.
Selfishly, when we found out she was terminal, after the cancer who’d felt the surgeons knife and sneaked into her liver, lying dormant whilst we all moved on with our lives, choosing that moment to rear it’s ugly head as we all stopped to let out our breath; I’d begged her for letters. I wanted a letter for my 30th, for my wedding day, for the birth of my first child, for Christmas, for Tuesday, for every single moment she wouldn’t be there.
What did I expect her to write? ‘Sorry I’m not there, have a great wedding, try not to get too drunk, you look beautiful, great choice on the dress! I hope you didn’t choose open shoes which reveal your weird monkey toes – you didn’t get them from me!‘ to which I would naturally cry and ruin all the expensive wedding make-up, then stare at my feet and declare that we had the exact same weird toes and I’d definitely got them from her!
No it was selfish of me to ask her to give me something of her for the moments she’d never live to see. In the end she wrote a short note for my birthday, shared her favourite poem and provided some plumbing advice; I’m sure she meant to put more down in the little notebook she left me but cancer waits for no pen.
But the letters, the letters I stole. She wrote them to herself and never needed the strength within, but I did!
The early ones were an explanation of why she was writing them in the first place, to remember what it felt like to be physically strong, to keep positive, mind over matter and all that. The later ones however, well, she was smashed! I mean full on drunk as a skunk!
They were written at 3am after a bottle or two of red wine, she’d inevitably called her best friend first to drunkenly sob. Not me, she didn’t call me, I’d have called her but she was protecting me, shielding me from the fear. I’m thankful for this because I wouldn’t have been capable of giving a speck of the strength she so easily gave others.
I sat on that bed, in a stranger house, my hair dripping down my back and read the last of her words. She was crying in both of them, scared and alone in the dark. She wrote how she longed for her father, how she ached for a hug from him, for his strength.
She discussed how she recalls pulling away from her own mother, thinking there would always be more time for that relationship later and there never was. She said she felt my brother and I pull away from physical contact over the years. I read on ‘it’s Becky I really worry for, I can feel her pull away from me emotionally too, she’s closing herself off, I’m scared she’ll never be able to open up to people’ I put the page down, she always had a way to get right to the point with me, even from beyond the grave apparently!
I’d been pulling away then, I’d resented her being ill, burdening my life with her doctor appointments, selfishly getting cancer and then having the audacity to actually die from it! How dare she! Leaving me all alone in the big scary world that hadn’t felt quite so big when she’d been in it.
And here I was again, pulling away, hiding in a bathroom, not sharing what I was feeling. I was convinced neither Alaska nor Blonde would have been able to comprehend how I was feeling had I been able to articulate it, but I denied them the chance to try.
“How was the pool?” I asked once they returned, now dressed, my face composed to hide any of the mess I’d crumbled into in the bathroom, feeling all the more alone for it. “Not great, it was closed so we just sat in the sun for a while. You ready for Shakespeare in the park with the host tonight?” Alaska enquired. “Oooh Shakespeare with an American accent, what’s not to like about that! I smiled, pretending all was right with the world.