[Note from Kate: I can't believe I think there might be a need to say this, but there might be... This is a personal essay that Thorn is sharing with us because I asked her to. It's intimate stuff about her mother's recent death. It is not a freakin' polemic. So if anybody comes in here and starts arguing about where the blame for her mother's death really lies, or trying to tell her she's wrong about things she's said in this personal essay, the comment will be deleted, and the author will be banned. I will be compulsively checking e-mail while I'm away, even if I'm not posting. Don't try it.]
Guest post by Thorn
My mother died on May 1st of this year. A little more than two months ago.
It’s very difficult for me, on a lot of levels. She and I had a very difficult relationship, for a long time, and so while we weren’t fighting when she died, it’s mostly because we weren’t exactly on speaking terms, either.
That’s difficult for me to cope with.
But people understand that. People get that. And so a lot of people have been very kind and reassuring, reminding me that even if we never could seem to just talk to each other, she knew I loved her just as I knew she loved me.
What’s more difficult for me to cope with is the anger.
It’s hard to even know where to begin, to express this white-hot rage I carry.
And what’s extra-hard about it is that I can’t really talk to many people about it. I’ve tried, but most of the responses I’ve gotten only serve to piss me off more.
See, this is what I’m pissed off about: my mom is dead not because she was fat, but because of how she was treated for being fat.
She died at home, alone, from a blood clot that had formed in one of her legs and traveled to her lungs, killing her.
The coroner’s report says that she had deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and probably had been dealing with it for some time. In fact, the coroner said that the past year or so, when she kept having “asthma attacks” that weren’t helped by her inhaler? It was actually very small blood clots blocking parts of her lungs. But nobody knew that.
My mom was fat. And not just ‘a little overweight’. She was fat. She was 5’1″ and her weight generally hovered somewhere around 280 pounds. She wore between a 26 and a 30, depending on the usual vagaries of style, cut, maker, etc.
She’d been fat for most of my life, I never really knew her as being any different. It was hard for her — her brothers and sisters all take after a different part of the family, so they’re all slim and have little trouble staying that way. My mom, on the other hand, took after the other side of her family. Where my aunts and uncles are slender-to-trim, my mom was built like an Italian matriarch. She took after their grandmother, who really was an Italian matriarch, and well… there you go.
Mom became “chubby” in high school, and only got heavier after each of her two pregnancies (myself and then my younger sister), and even heavier as she got older and her metabolism slid firmly into Neutral. I think she looked at her siblings and felt… unfit. Not as in, “out of shape” but as in “defective, inadequate, unsatisfactory.”
My mom was the kind of person who really, truly believed that if she only followed the rules, she would be rewarded. She would get what she wanted and needed. She just had to follow the rules.
Except, like most people, she had a hard time following the rules. So, while she couldn’t follow the rule that said she had to be thin, she did the next best thing, and was deeply ashamed of herself and her body. She carried that shame with her everywhere. She tried to not let it slow her down, but there were times when it did. There were times when I think she’d managed to somehow forget she was fat, and try to just live her life, only to get smacked down by some random occurrence that served to put her back in her “place.”
Still though, she believed that if she followed the rules, she’d be okay. So she tried to follow them. She avoided having her picture taken. She struggled to remember to wear dark solid-colored clothing, even though she really loved fashion and bright colors and oh-my-god, the zig-zagged sequin-top dress she loved so much. Even when we were hip-deep in the ’80s and that kind of thing was okay, I thought it was hideous. She loved it. She made a show of not caring how I wrinkled my nose at her when she put it on, and wore it anyway. I think though, looking back, that it probably did hurt her feelings a little bit.
Mom was a person whose feelings were always right on the surface. All that shame she carried around about being fat, about having gotten pregnant before she’d gotten married, about every single rule she’d ever broken, every little thing she’d ever thought she’d done “wrong” — it all meant that you didn’t have to try hard to hurt her feelings. They were right there, exposed, and all it took was a word or a sigh or a good eye-roll (and I was a World Champion Eye-roller by age 10, I tell you whut), and she’d be hurt.
And with all that shame, and with so little support from her family or her husband, once Mom got hurt, she had a hard time healing from it.
So when I was about 11 years old, and Mom went to see her doctor because of some problem she was having, and he scathingly told her that her problem was she was fat, and not to come back to him until she’d lost 50 pounds? Yeah. It hurt her. It hurt her bad. But she believed in the rules. And so she tried to ignore how hurt she was and focused on trying extra-hard to get back to following those rules.
So she went on Weight Watchers. This was back before the allegedly more convenient “Points” system. This was back when you had to buy a little food scale and weigh out your half-cups of cottage cheese and three ounces of a boneless, skinless boiled chicken breast or whatever atrocities they made people perpetrate on themselves back then. She tried. She really did try. But she had an eye-rolling 11-year-old and a whiny 7-year-old and a husband who didn’t care what she did, but by god her diet wasn’t going to mean he had to eat “that shit” too. He wanted his meat-and-potatoes meals just like always, and if she wanted to cook a separate meal for herself that was fine, but it better not cost much more money than they were already spending on that damn Weight Watchers crap as it was.
After a few months with very limited success, of course she quit.
But I tell ya, that goddamn Weight Watchers food scale sat on our kitchen counter for years afterward, almost like some kind of holy relic. Or perhaps it was supposed to be proof to anyone who came over that she really had tried. She really had made the attempt. It was almost like some kind of exhibit, a way to show she was properly ashamed of her fat.
So, having been unable to meet her doctor’s demand that she lose 50 pounds, she followed the only part of his stated rule that she could: she didn’t go back.
From that point on, whenever she got sick or injured and someone suggested she go see a doctor, she brushed them off. “Oh, they’re just going to tell me I’m too fat. Don’t worry, it’s just a cold/a sprain/a whatever. I’ll be fine.”
To be fair, that’s not to say she never went back again. She did. But only when she had to. And by “had to”, I mean she only went when enough people had gotten on her case about whatever it was that she could no longer fend them off with excuses, and wound up going just to get them off her back. And once my sister and I grew up and left home and my parents divorced, most of us didn’t see her frequently enough to strong-arm her into going to the doctor anymore.
But it still happened once in a while. Which is how she wound up with that asthma inhaler that hardly ever worked. She’d wound up short of breath and wheezing one too many times with my sister around, and finally my sister ordered Mom to see her doctor.
So Mom made the appointment and went, but she took all her fat-shame with her, and did her best to at least mitigate the awfulness of her sin — that she hadn’t lost 50 pounds, and in fact had gained some more besides — and she was going back to the doctor anyway. So she tried not to take too much of their time. Went in with a probable diagnosis at the ready, even, thanks to her daughters’ histories of asthma. She didn’t want to bother them too much, you see, even though by then it had been two decades since her last physical. She thanked the doctor when she got the prescription for the inhaler, and never called back when it sometimes didn’t work, because she didn’t want to take up their valuable time on a rule-breaker like her.
Meanwhile, since the inhaler wasn’t working so well, she started to curtail her activities. The adult singles group she was a part of held dances on a regular basis that she’d always been very fond of. She didn’t stop going, but she spent most of them sitting on the sidelines, or taking pictures. She started to beg off from doing things with my sister and her kids (I having long since moved out-of-state), or if she did go along with them to the zoo, she often had to stop earlier or take more frequent breaks.
During her last year of life, my mom had given up most of the healthy physical activities she had enjoyed, because her “asthma” was so bad. I’m sure some of those attacks were indeed asthma, but other times she’d wind up out-of-breath from doing hardly anything at all, and I know it mystified all of us.
A few days before she died, she fell down in a parking lot. Tripped, I guess. The coroner said that may have been what dislodged the blood clot which eventually killed her. Of course, if she’d been getting decent medical care, she might have gotten proper treatment for all this long before, and maybe she’d still be alive today.
But, you know, that doctor had told her not to come back until she’d lost 50 pounds, and she trusted him. She took him to heart. He was a doctor, after all.
I hope he’s proud of himself. His words, over 20 years ago, helped kill my mother.
She spent her last two days in pain, having difficulty breathing, and not once did she call a doctor or try to get some help.
You see, she still hadn’t lost that 50 pounds.