My beautiful, powerful, and very fat mother, Rose, died of breast cancer when I was twenty-two. In the year after she died, I gained a hundred pounds.
My mother had been sick almost my entire life. I grew up in constant terror, always wondering: What will I do when my mother dies?
Eventually, I found out.
What I would do was raise my mother from the dead. I’d become as fat as she had been, and then, I’d have her back.
Rose was enormous. Her larger-than-life personality was built with equal parts love, rage, and empathy. She was on her own frequency, able to tune into all the beauty and pain of the universe at once. She was exhausted from watching the evening news; whatever was happening in the world, good and bad, was happening to her. She took on the feelings of her Overeaters Anonymous friends who’d call her on the edge of a binge, hysterical at a payphone outside of a McDonald’s and from the callers who anonymously rang the crisis hotline she manned every Friday and Saturday nights. I was jealous of the strangers who needed her to talk them out of jumping off the Indian River Causeway and angry at how much her mood would change after she’d hang up, matching all the pain she’d absorbed. I was desperate to be included in the darkness she loved swallowing.
On the morning of my eleventh birthday, Rose had her first mastectomy. Before she left for the hospital, she slipped a five-page letter she’d written in perfect teacher’s penmanship under my bedroom door. The letter had been placed inside a blush-pink envelope she’d sprayed with Anais Anais perfume I’d bought for her on Mother’s Day. She licked the glue to seal it shut and left a smear of red lipstick behind. I’d seen After School Specials. I knew this was the kind of letter a mother writes a daughter when she’s dying.
Rose left me instructions on how to be a person. She told me to call my friends when I felt sad because they weren’t mind readers and that I should consider being a lawyer, or even a judge because of my commitment to fairness. She signed off not with advice, but with a premonition: Most importantly, be careful of eating too much food when you’re sad or lonely or angry, because then you’ll be left with two problems — the problem you started with and the problems that come from eating too much food. I remember how the shame flushed my face. I wanted to be like my mother in every way but this one. What did she see in me that I couldn’t see yet?
A childhood ritual: Rose singing Me and My Shadow to me every night as I followed her up the stairs to bed, working hard to stay in step. It was our schtick, we were the only audience that mattered. When she leaned down to kiss me goodnight, I slipped inside her through her deep, brown eyes. It was always hard to know where she began and I ended. I was her and she was me and we were going to be together forever. I knew this was true because she told me it was.
Rose was soft, in every definition of the word. I pressed my finger into her stomach like I’d seen the Pillsbury Doughboy do on TV and she squealed like he did. I could never get close enough. Rose was a pillow of protection I could press into. She told me, If someone is going to hurt you, they will have to get through me first. I didn’t know yet how many ways there were to break a girl. She cried easily, at sad movies about lost dogs and sappy commercials for car insurance. I sometimes found her with a box of tissues and an empty movie theater-sized bag of M&M’s, sitting in front of the television in the dark. A good cry is one of the best ways to flush the system, she assured me.
Rose was brave enough to be big in a world that told women to be small. She wore vibrant colors, bold patterns, giant earrings. She’d dance her bloated hands along her waist while shimmying. I might as well flaunt this. She was body positivity long before those two words were paired together in a hashtag. Rose wrote an editorial for The Florida Today newspaper titled: “The Fat Lady is Singing” about how her value in society was not equal to her dress size. It ran next to an ad for a lingerie store. We watched soap operas every afternoon together. She hated how thin all the actors were. These people do not look fun to hug, she’d say.
Rose wore her obesity like a badge. She dared people to look past her fatness, past her famous polyester pants and unruly, frizzy hair, past her no-breasted chest she refused to reconstruct with surgery or prosthetics. It’s too fucking hot in Florida to strap plastic tits to my chest. She’d leave her shiny, chicken cutlet-looking fake boobs on her dresser, collecting dust. She loved when people stared at her to try to figure out why her shirt was caved in above where her stomach stuck out. Do you think we should tell them, she’d whisper, our inside joke. She taught me that fat could come in handy when you needed to weed out unworthy people. When a man loved a woman who was big, like my father loved her, that was real love, she told me. In this way, it makes sense that since she died, she has only gotten bigger. She’s testing me.
I was always a fat kid, or at least this is what I was told by the other more appropriately-sized, blonde, and athletic children I went to school with in my little beach town. When I’d cry to Rose about it, she’d tell me, Don’t worry about those idiots. They’re prisoners, trapped inside their lack of imagination for beauty. All those sunkissed, button-nosed kids weren’t wrong. I was too Jewish, too thick, too different—just like she was. When Rose dropped me off at school, I couldn’t help but see her through the shocked stares of my classmates. At home, it was easy to forget how different she was than the other moms, but in the relentless glare of the Florida sun, I’d become as judgemental of her body as everyone else. Then, I’d hate myself for it.
Rose promised she’d keep me safe; safer than she’d been kept as a child. She told me about the cousin who’d touched her down there in the middle of the night and how she got fat soon after that because, in the end, it’s always safer to be big.
One afternoon she burst out of her bedroom and grabbed me by the shoulders while I was doing homework. She locked eyes with me, overcome. Listen, she hissed, you’re going to need money that no one knows about and you’re going to have to learn to drive. A woman must always be ready to run away.
What I heard her tell me was: Something is coming for you and you are going to need to find a way to survive.
A friend at school told me they were adopted. I went home to ask Rose if maybe I was too. She laughed. I’ve got the scars that prove you’re mine. You were a very big baby, you know.
I’d heard about how some kids were born: from C-sections, lifted out of their mother’s middles like a game of Operation. I looked at her stomach which was bloated and hard, like she might still be pregnant.
No, not there. Do you want to know where?
Rose liked to make me squirm. She believed it was important for me to lose my shame around the idea of The Shell; what she had begun to call her body once parts of it started to get torn away every few years.
Okay. Tell me, I said, even though I didn’t want to know.
My vagina, she said. I got the stitches in the space between my vagina and my asshole. You ripped me open when you got here, but they sewed me right up and all that pain was worth it because it meant I got to know you.
Rose told me what she wanted me to do on the day she died, for my father and I to go out to our favorite Chinese restaurant and eat shrimp chow mein and pepper steak and egg rolls and wonton soup like we all used to do together every Saturday. Then, we were supposed to talk about how great she was. Rose delivered these last instructions to me as if she were sure she would be given some small, closed-circuit TV to watch me keep this promise from the other side. Suddenly, eating became a seance, a way to conjure my mother any time I missed her, which was all the time, always.
On the February morning my father called to tell me, it’s over, it’s over, I drove myself one hour east towards the Atlantic Ocean in the red Honda Civic hatchback that my mother was jealous of. One of the last things she said to me, from the rented hospital bed we’d set up at home for her to die in, was about that car. You mean you get to just get inside of it and start the engine and drive yourself anywhere? Wow, that must be awfully nice.
As I drove home, the sun was rising in a perfect orange circle, in that way the sun does sometimes, when you can look right into it without hurting your eyes. I didn’t play music. Instead, I opened all the windows and the Florida-frozen morning slapped me awake. In the whir of the wind, I watched the bright ball inch up slowly in front of me, forcing the blue sky behind it into neon. I could hear my mother saying goodbye from inside of my bones as I drove towards what was left of her.
At the restaurant, after stuffing myself as she’d instructed me to do, I broke open my fortune cookie. It read: You are heading for a land of sunshine.
For decades, I went searching for my mother’s secret messages to me on slips of fortune cookie paper, inside what must have been thousands of cookies, always broken open in my sweaty fullness, hoping she was hiding inside.
A few months after she died, I remember wondering why my clothes didn’t fit and what those translucent stripes appearing across my stomach were, but I didn’t own a scale and I was in so much shock and on so many milligrams of Paxil I couldn’t see what everyone else could: I’d expanded so quickly, the shape of my face had changed.
I ate so much and all the time. Ten-pound bags of takeout meant for entire families, every grain pushed into my starving mouth, boxes licked, and sauces drunk from the bottom of the containers like soup. Dozens of donuts. Chips, cookies, saltines even, entire sleeves devoured all at once. Salt and sweet dissolving onto my tongue was now love and it could be found everywhere. When my stomach was full, I could sleep. When my mouth was full, I was not alone. I’d chew and cry, the salt from my tears, a soothing lick. All the places inside me were empty until I stuffed them. I looked forward to evenings eating three or four hours at a time and passing out into black. Desperate for a way to keep her close, I prayed in the lulling, soft tones of Food, the tongue she’d taught me. I prayed we would be reunited somehow, and soon. God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food.
I never made some big, aware decision to use food to navigate my life without my mother. This was me, breaking the emergency glass she’d planted inside me. Rose taught me food was the way to make it out alive from a burning building. Food was comfort, love, a reliable friend. We ate when we had something to celebrate. We ate when we were sad. We ate when we were lonely or bored or angry or frustrated. We ate to mark the hours of the days. We ate in public and alone. We ate at buffets, fast food restaurants and in grocery stores—when the cashier had to scan our empty candy wrappers because we weren’t patient enough to wait to pay for them. What I did after she died cannot be called self-care. The binging that ended up changing the trajectory of my body was me, knocked to my knees, desperate to find a way to stay below the smoke.
With each pound I gained, the heft of the flesh of my mother fell back easily onto me. When I looked in the mirror, I began to recognize her shape. The roundness of my skin grew. My reflection became a grid of the two of us, placed loosely over each other, making some new, third form. She was so close I could grab her on my body and with my hands. The feeling of the weight was a hug and then eventually, a smothering. As I got heavier, my breathing became difficult, my movements slowed. Putting my mother’s enormous, lifeless body on top of mine kept me sedated. I grew thicker, my skin retained her fluids and her roughness.
I felt her oversized presence return to me. I was being rewarded for my work. She crushed down onto me from some other place. The feeling was supernatural. My body was back inside my mother’s once more. This was a return that felt inevitable, a birth after having been born. I was building new genetics. I refused to see my endeavor as impossible, or believe the truth: her body was uninhabitable, dead and dust and gone.
Only now can I finally see how this had been our pact all along. We’d decided between us, somewhere along the way, and without any real discussion, that my mother would be the flower and I would be the wax paper. It was going to be my job to preserve her bloom by pressing the broken remnants of her body firmly into mine for safekeeping. I was going to be the one responsible for keeping us together for all time, and that be that.
For the next twenty-five years, I happily kept our agreement. I became a very fat woman, just like Rose had been. I carried her on my back every place I traveled – from Manhattan, to Hollywood, to Tokyo. I brought her on all my first dates and all my first days at new jobs. I went to bed with her at night and got dressed with her in the morning. This was a tradeoff that made sense to me. All my labored breaths were worth it if it meant I got to keep her close. I thought I was so smart, as if I were the only person to ever crack this existential code. She was gone, but always with me.
Today, I am fifteen years younger than the age Rose was when she died. Only recently have I been able to see that beneath the weight of my mother’s ghost lives another lost body—mine. Under layers of rotten grief is my long-ago self, with her own strong heart and worthy bones. Sometimes, she and I talk.
I’m coming for you, I tell her. Soon.
I’ll wait as long as it takes, she promises.
I can hear how much she wants to believe me, in that way a child always wants to believe their mother.
Rumpus original art by Emily Jean Alexander