How Losing My Mom Led Me to Neglect a Hungry Heart

by Mallary Jean Tenore

Last month, I mentioned that I had begun a Poynter course on personal essay writing. My goal in the course was to write an essay about how the death of my mother has affected my relationship with food — today and in the immediate aftermath of her death.

This isn’t an easy subject for me to write about. For years I’ve struggled with figuring out how much of my past I should share with others. I’ve shared part of it through the essays I’ve written about my mom, who died of breast cancer when I was 11. In recent years it’s gotten easier for me to write about her death and to not put her on a pedestal, as people often do when writing about loved ones who have died.

But writing more specifically about how my mom’s death affected me emotionally and physically is harder, in large part because it makes me feel vulnerable. I ask myself: When you write about difficult experiences you’ve faced, how much should you share? How do you express yourself in a way that others who haven’t had the same experiences can relate to? How brave should you be?

Mom and me in front of our house in Massachusetts after a snowstorm. Brrr.

I’ve decided to be brave. For the first time, I’m publishing an essay about my struggles with eating. I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should share something so personal, but I’ve realized that I don’t want to keep hiding this part of my life. Eating disorders are so often about hiding feelings, food and the desire to eat. Part of recovery is admitting that you are struggling and, in doing so, acknowledging that for as much as you try to be perfect, you can’t be.

There are ways to write about these kinds of struggles without making it seem as though you’re begging for sympathy. And I think the way you do that is to let recovery be the engine of your story — the narrative device that drives your piece forward and motivates you to want to continue moving forward, too. Healing, after all, involves movement — and a good pair of walking shoes. It’s about taking a few steps forward, a couple steps back, one step forward, and so on and so forth.

One of my favorite writers, Geneen Roth, has a hopeful take on healing, which she explains in “When Food Is Love“: “Life is what happens as you live with the wounds. Life is not a matter of getting the wounds out of the way so that you can finally live. Wounds are never permanently erased. We are fragile beings, and some days we break all over again.”

I’m still learning to be gentle with myself and to see the beauty in baby steps.

So, here’s my baby step toward writing about food and my mom. I plan to continue writing about this topic, so I’d really value your feedback on this post. I’m curious to find out what parts of the essay resonate with you, what you want to learn more about and what you think works or doesn’t work. More importantly, though, I hope you can connect to the essay and gain something from reading it.

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Mom always used to surprise me with a snack when I came home from school. I remember looking forward to the treats, which were different every day. For whatever reason, though, I can’t remember the majority of them anymore.

All I remember are the cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. Butterscotch cookies. Girl Scout cookies. My favorite were the gingerbread men that Mom would buy from Market Basket. They were the sinfully soft kind, loaded with unhealthy frosting and a head made of solid sugar; the kind of snack that lures adults into indulging in calories and fat they don’t need but secretly want. To me, they tasted like home.

I’d savor the sugar, then jump on the couch and give Mom a hug. I’d rest my head on her shoulder and she’d ask me to tell her all about my day.

“What’d you learn today?” she’d ask.

Even when I was really little, I always loved to eat (and play with) the meals and snacks Mom gave me. Cheerios were clearly my favorite breakfast food.

“Weeelllllll ….”

I would go on and on, letting her know about the journal entries I wrote, the jump roping contest I competed in at recess, the A+ I’d gotten on my reading quiz. I’d always “forget” to tell her about the big word I stumbled over when reading out loud, or the math problem I pretended to know how to solve but got wrong.

Mom never went to college and wasn’t that well-read, but she wanted her only child to be. Actually, she wanted me to be the best at everything, so I tried as hard as I could to be the A+ student, the prized daughter, the perfect little girl.

Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I tried to avoid anything that would reveal the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

When you are 8 and your mom’s diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s easy to play pretend. You try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

Mom lost a lot when she was sick, but she never lost the desire to want to nourish me with food and love. The days when I came home from school, I always knew she’d be there to feed my hungry heart with hugs and kisses and fill my empty tummy with after-school snacks.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Well, she was, but in a frightening kind of way. I could tell that something was wrong when I came home from school and saw Mom on the couch. Her face was painted with pain, her forehead a road map of wrinkles, her eyes a wishing well of tears.

Seeing Mom so weak made me long for some sense of normalcy and nourishment — a hug, a kiss, a cookie. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked when I came in the door after getting off the bus.

“Maaaaaal,” she softly screamed. “Call your father. I can’t get up.” It was like those “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials that Mom and I always used to make fun of. They seemed so fake, so laughable. This couldn’t have been more real.

Me and mom in Disney World, 1988.

I tried to lift her.

“C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move!”

I called Dad because he always knew how to fix stuff. He rushed home from work, but he was too afraid to pick her up for fear that he’d hurt her even more. It was the first time I remember thinking of my dad as being helpless.

Knowing she needed medical help, he called 911 and we soon heard the sound of sirens. The EMTs couldn’t lift her either. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket she was resting on and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away.

It was late, and I hadn’t eaten dinner, let alone my afternoon snack. That night, dad made “the usual” — the ever-so-simple spaghetti and peas. I liked the meal the first five times we ate it, but after a while the spaghetti seemed to get harder, the peas mushier.

“Daaaaad. Again? Why can’t we have Mom’s pasta primavera? Or her macaroni and cheese?”

The grainy grossness was a rude reminder that Mom was too sick to cook and that hard as he tried, Dad just didn’t know how to nourish me in quite the same way.

“Maybe tomorrow, Mal,” Dad would say. “C’mon, you love spaghetti.” He worked full-time and was trying to take care of an ailing wife and a young daughter who craved the kind of care that only moms can give.

“I used to like spaghetti,” I said. “But it doesn’t taste good anymore.”

Dinnertime felt so lonely without Mom. Something was missing, and food wasn’t filling the void. It never really does. I missed Mom’s meals and my after-school cookies. I was tired of coming home to an empty house. I was tired of the hideous hats Mom wore to hide her baldness or to “make a fashion statement,” as she preferred to say. I was tired of seeing Mom confined to a bed when everyone else’s mom seemed healthy enough to attend school functions and cheer for their sons and daughters at soccer games.

Mom was just busy, I told myself. She was fighting in a battle and hiking up a hill. She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

When Mom died, I felt empty and defeated. The “let’s play pretend” game was up and I’d lost. But I started it up again soon after Mom’s death, this time on my own. Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be ok, so I tried to be ok for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. I wanted to be strong.

Me and Mom on Christmas morning. Taken about a year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Dad,” I said the day after she died. “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, at age 11, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

 

“Everything happens for a reason, although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we readily admit that something as devastating as losing a mom just plain sucks, we’re being true to ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

Looking for something to control, I started to control what I ate. Nothing tasted good anymore, and it didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s food did. Since Mom wasn’t there to make me meals or leave me snacks anymore, why even bother eating? After all, those super skinny girls in the “Seventeen” magazines that I peeked at in the library probably didn’t eat. How else would they have such perfect bodies?

It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

Me and dad have gone through a lot together. When I was sick, he was one of the few people who believed I’d get better. He was right.

I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, then I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention.

My battle with food led to four hospitalizations, two month-long stays in a psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Arlington. I’m better — so much better than I ever thought I could be, thanks in large part to the choices I’ve made and to my supportive dad. But still, I struggle.

When I was home for Christmas this past December, I told Dad I was craving one of the gingerbread men that Mom always used to buy. I didn’t buy one, though, because I figured I didn’t really need it. Too unhealthy.

Two days later, my dad handed me a bag from Panera Bread.

“Here, Mal, this is for you.”

He had a big smile on his face. I peered inside and saw a gingerbread man.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, pretending not to want the treat. “I’m not hungry now, though. I’ll have a piece later.”

But then I changed my mind. It hurt me too much to say no. I wanted my dad to know how much his gesture meant to me, so I broke off a piece of the smiling gingerbread’s head. It was harder than I remembered, the taste of ginger wasn’t quite the same, and there wasn’t nearly as much frosting as there should have been. Not like the kind Mom used to buy. The spaghetti and peas equivalent of Mom’s pasta primavera.

You wouldn’t think eating a gingerbread man’s head would be that difficult. But when you’re used to a routine, deviations make way for chaos and temptation. I often eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner because it helps me feel in control. When I’m feeling lonely — because my friends are out at dinner and I’m being a workaholic, because it’s late and the guy I like hasn’t called yet, because I miss my mom — my first instinct is to sneak something from the nearest candy jar, raid the vending machine or open the refrigerator door in search of nourishment.

Dad and I live 1,500 miles away from each other. I always look forward to the late summer, when he usually visits. Here we are on my front porch last year.

I’m trying to find healthier ways to feel full, and to let go.

I’ve found that when we experience loss, we have a tendency to hold on to what we’re afraid will be taken from us. It’s understandable, but in doing so we can miss the point: everything that is good is a gift, freely given. When I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to the people in my life, I’ve missed the experience of the gift of their friendship, love and nourishment. To fill this void, I too often turn to food.

I know, though, that all the cookies and gingerbread men in the world can’t satisfy me. So I’m learning to fill the emptiness with something other than food, and to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Mom would want me to. Sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I slip up. And that’s ok. I don’t want to keep playing pretend.

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