I sit on a Sunday afternoon massaging the rough skin of my mother’s feet. She is terminally ill, with maybe just a few months left to live.
She is exhausted but sparks up when she sees me. She has also summoned up the energy to discuss, as she does on each visit, the new achievements of all her grandchildren.
I am exhausted by this battle, which has lasted nearly 50 years, on and off, and is starting to overwhelm me.Credit:Stocksy
I, on the other hand, sit uncomfortably in my chair. I would prefer to share a companionable silence, listening to music playing softly in the background, as I rub some warmth into the cold legs and feet of a woman who has always held people, including her own children, at a distance.
So I sit there listening patiently, feeling uncomfortable with how these last moments are playing out. That even in the final days of her life the talk is still of competition and wins.
Growing up, I was surrounded by language of achievement, of constant striving, of sibling rivalry, of each man for himself, of the importance of making something of yourself. Even when success came, it only signalled that it was time to move on to the next step up on the ladder.
My family couched love in terms of success. And for a long time I didn’t understand it. Because I spoke a foreign language – one of sensitivity, of needing an emotional connection, of wanting my despair to be understood, of co-operation, of wanting protection from a competitive environment.
I thought I had come to terms with the past. But during these recent months as I have sat with my mother, trying to bring some comfort to her, I have found myself regressing.
I date my habit of eating in secret to when I was about eight. I would take 20 cents from the change jar in the kitchen and wander up the road to the milk bar to buy a bag of mixed lollies. I’d volunteer to get a loaf of bread or bottle of milk when we had run out. I’d take my time walking home, though, because I had to finish the bag and get rid of any telltale signs.
I have realised that I always turn to food when I need comfort. I eat when I am lonely, I eat when I am sad, I eat when I am anxious and I eat when I am stressed. The only time I don’t turn to food is when I’m on holiday.
But recently, my secret eating has escalated into more of a gorging. And each day I wake up thinking
I have to get back control in my life. I tell myself that today is going to be different. Today I am going to be good. Today I am not going to again gorge myself on chocolate. Yesterday I felt disgusting, as I did the day before that, and the day before that.
But each morning, as I walk to my office, I find myself deviating to the local supermarket. My legs carry me through the automatic doors to the aisle containing all the sweet stuff as though I am on autopilot.
I don’t even need to think about what chocolate I’m going to choose; it’s usually the same brand of 70 per cent dark, although the rum and raisin, and peppermint, have started to slip into the shopping bag. I joke to myself that I am single-handedly keeping Cadbury’s profits healthy but such dark humour really isn’t funny. Even as I walk to the checkout, I know I am going to end up feeling terrible. But my desire has a mind of its own.
And once in the office, I am sure my colleagues must notice how I slip the blocks of chocolate into the drawers under my desk and surreptitiously slip off the packaging, before wolfing down piece after piece. But they say nothing, not even as a joke. For that I am grateful.
For a time, as the taste buds in my mouth savour the sugar, I feel content. But I know it is not going to last. And, sure enough, contentment soon gives way to disgust – and exhaustion. I am exhausted by this battle, which has lasted nearly 50 years, on and off, and is starting to overwhelm me.
I don’t drink alcohol and I do quite a bit of exercise to keep my weight in check. The effort of exercising is starting to wear me down as well.
As is the psychological exhaustion. Even my husband – the one person in my life who has given me unconditional acceptance for the past 30 years – has no idea about these habits.
As my mother’s life draws to its end, it seems that all the pain I knew as a child has come back
with a renewed violence. It can be no coincidence that the return to my old eating pattern has occurred as my mother’s health is declining.
I know that as I massage with nourishing cream the limbs of a mother with whom I have never been close that I am trying to nourish myself in the ways of my childhood.
Knowing this does not help – and yet I find myself sitting there on a Sunday afternoon, tired but proud to demonstrate a compassion she rarely showed me.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 13.
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