Just suppose I was treating Gemma as my mother treated me. For example, Mother gave me something she didn’t value, the wooden bed tray, and then took it back to give Anne, who wasn’t feeling well. I gave Mother the maple leaf blanket as a gift. A matter of weeks and she asked me to put things out for pick-up by the Diabetes Society, the blanket was in with that, so I quietly took the blanket for the lake.
I met Sam, and it felt familiar. You are okay on my arm because it suits me. When we had tiny children, 2 and 4, it was November and I stayed at home and he went for a month, a 24 hour flight, to see his family. He called to say they’d just got back from dining at Miss Maude’s Swedish restaurant and I told him we ran out of money, completely. He explained that it would be okay, he’d be home soon. I said a credit card came in the mail, and I thought, “We can’t pay our bills as it is,” and so I cut it up. He sighed, that was the winter’s financial plan. No one told me.
The Christmas pantomime, Gem was 10, and she and I were in the panto. I was teaching every second day (half-time) in the city. Sam took Ian for a month to visit relatives. Gemma and I got up at 5:20, I dropped Gemma at Michelle’s and got the 6:20 ferry for work. I had Minichiello take my last period class so I could be on the 4:30 ferry, for 7 PM performances in Sechelt. We hardly had time to eat, forget sleep. I must have agreed, “Sure, you go to Australia.” I figure it was my version of passive aggressive, thinking he would understand how awkward or impossible it would be, and decide, no. Also, the panto was fun, I wanted to have fun, so it left us happy but tired and making-do for meals. I left her to sleep-in one morning at home, left a note and at the end of the day I arrived and neighbour-Julia was over, keeping Gemma company, bless them. Gem woke up alone, in fact my father phoned and it woke her. That was a crazy-making time. At least a couple of those evenings I picked up Rachel Hargreaves for performances, Rachel’s mum would make the girls some dinner, thank god for that make-do arrangement. I worried Heather might resent it but she seemed okay with it, kind.
Perhaps I treated Gemma like that–less than lovingly, carelessly. Years ago I went to a performance of Hair at Granville Island. The song, Easy to Be Hard, made me review my relationships (mother and spouse). “How can people be so heartless, how can people be so cruel? Easy to be hard, easy to be cold. How can people have no feelings? You know I’m hung up on you. Easy to be proud. Easy to say no. Especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice. Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? I need a friend, I need a friend.” I thought of my relationship with my mother and spouse and felt I resembled that song’s sentiment. Not many years later and Gemma must have felt exactly the same way. One time Gemma said, “When you talk about ‘my kids,’ and you are speaking about the students in your class,” it feels like we take a backseat.
My mother, my husband, I was often the same with Gemma. “I love you but wait while I attend to these other people.” When she was ill she was far frailer than I ever was. I spoke of regular things with her and I figure I let worries about her health slide because I thought she needed to be in charge. But she was anxious and I know now from her writing that any sense of rejection stung terribly.
I wanted to phone Gemma from downtown this summer, to share with her that I was hurt, mistreated at a temp job that lasted two of a three week contract. I left a half hour early on Friday and said, I won’t be back next week. I felt awful. I thought she was in St. Paul’s in the eating disorders unit. I wanted to call her and say, “I feel hurt,” but I didn’t want her to have more to bear than being in hospital, “no visitors” by request. She didn’t need more of a burden–but in truth she was home alone. If I had called her, if I had shared my vulnerable feelings with her, she might have told me the truth. I thought to myself, “Suck it up, be brave, she doesn’t need you and your stuff,” and I didn’t call. Woe is me! We could have had a heart-to-heart discussion, two prickly, wounded people could help each other. Eternity is a long regret.
Reframing “the narrative” is something I have learned about. It feels like making progress to talk or write about what happened to Gemma, to speculate about what was wrong with me, and to ruminate over the could-have, should-have, might-have beens. How could she keep such a secret? Why? Did the anorexia say, “If they are clever enough to ask, you can tell them.” We weren’t, she didn’t.
“The narrative.” Restricting is not a choice AND no one makes a decision to stop restricting behaviours, because judgement, the ability to “choose,” is not available when one is missing a third of one’s body and brain. Mourning her loss made it so food was not appetising. Ignoring hunger for a day or so due to other pain and food is not interesting. One bite or two felt like enough and then starting up again has to be deliberate. I get it now.
We say a movie today, Last Christmas, meant to lighten the mood. Brrr. The main character talks about bad lifestyle that may lead to her early death at 27, “How old are you?” “42. Well, 26.” Sam and I grabbed hands. 27, 27.
Anorexia is a disorder that requires meal planning, preparation, and support, for every meal and snack for a year at least. I could have done that for her. But she was working part-time, volunteering, and going to school. Both of us would have benefited from hearing, “Stop–stop everything you are doing.” She was prickly. I thought I was worse than no support. I thought it was my job to get a life, to earn money, to figure out something to do while she was busy recovering on her own terms with the therapist, the dietitian, her family doctor, and the outpatient and inpatient programs. When she “decided” to step away from those, they didn’t call looking for her.
I must have been crazy to treat her as if she could decide. Instead of loving her and acting on behalf of someone wounded, was I reacting? Treating her as I had been treated? My daydream was to live here in the condo with Gemma, cozy, reading, watching movies, not worrying about those guys returning from Gibsons on the weekends. I think in July Gemma said she would like to stay here. The condo was for sale, we were planning to move to a house in a smaller town, so I (current narrative, passive aggressive, blaming Sam) told Gemma, “You can’t stay (recuperate) here because the place is for sale”–the unspoken notion being she will (continue to) do outpatient programs until a bed is available on the eating disorders ward in hospital. I didn’t know she was averse to treatment–she admitted herself once before (and I didn’t know about the burnt pasta meal–where alternatives were to complete with a meal replacement drink, or discharge–which meant the admission lasted only 10 days, and made her allergic to St. Paul’s program from then on). Sam said, “She wouldn’t have lasted at home, she would have changed her mind and not ended up coming to stay.” Maybe.
Why do people patch things up that way? Isn’t that avoiding “validating one’s feelings”? In J.K. Rowling’s novel, A Casual Vacancy, someone does that–is it a man thing? “Ah, no. It wouldn’t have changed anything–tut tut, your worries are not valid.” It is supportive to be sure, but I think it misses the “validate my feelings” that Gemma was always talking about. I did not help her. I turned her away. I ignorantly contributed to her painful feelings about herself, shame and guilt, and to her situation. I did not help her. I could have but stupid, thoughtless, ignorant, knee-jerk response, or she would be here.
She kept her secret–we thought she was recovering in the hospital Eating Disorders unit but she was alone, busy doing her art, reading, listening to radio, perhaps sneaking out for groceries when neighbours were less likely to see her. She must have been miserable at least most of the time. She phoned us. I saw her name on the phone and answered “Hi Gem!” in a fake cheerful way that even I thought was awful. But I was worried about her because her news was one-dimensional about the hospital ward. I was trying to put on a brave face, bored with “news,” and keeping a lid on annoyance that I now know was from not knowing how things were with her because of the “no visitors”constraint. Which I should have ignored. God forgive me. How can people be so cruel?