Chapter 14: Ash

As Ellen neared the end of her life I made an oath. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.

My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary fourteen-year-old body.

I sat squarely in the Fuck You God camp, but Ellen still believed.  Probably more so, because eternity was coming closer and she smelled like death topped with glory shavings.  Her only fear was living away from Mama.

Abruptly, the sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  In an interesting turn of events her voice synthesized into a weepier version of Julia Child’s.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her, as any 5’10” sixteen-year-old would do. Then a little diaper dance.

Her slow Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can see her bumpy head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger than in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.

There’s this picture I took after one of the Malibu fires burned up the hills surrounding my neighborhood—charcoaled soil punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  For a moment the charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.

Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of verdant life and love.

It was here, at this moment, that I decided my Fuck You God stance wasn’t going to serve me so well in the coming month.  I knew I would die in some way, too.  If she trusted Jesus with her bumpy life, maybe I could cling to the same Divine Love that Ellen knew so completely?

Could something be both Good and Hard at the same time?  Can God exist as Good and Hard at the same time?  Do Good and Hard even really exist?  Does anything matter anymore?  Because I’m about to watch my sister die in the back bedroom of my house and I want to pummel the pause button.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire.  I can hear it still.

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Chapter 13: Food

It happened like this:  After a hike through the Santa Monica mountains my athletic, Baltic Papa took my ten-year-old apron of extra belly and grabbed it.  I’m sure he spoke words while holding onto my flesh and fat, but trauma can cause bits of your brain to collapse for a moment, or until you go to therapy every week for eight months decades later and decide to talk about your weight shame.

Every photo taken of me before the age of fourteen (when I started cutting instead of eating) proves I binged every possible moment of every day, or imagined food I would enjoy shoveling inside.  No barfing for me though, because the more padding between the scary, yell-y world and little Claire the better.

So much padding.

Around the age of eleven I realized all of my XXL and size 16 clothes came from countries that documentaries informed me were poor.  Citizens of Cambodia and Thailand are tiny, I thought.  What do they think about the disgusting fat people for whom they manufacture all these tents?

Replaying their snickers and laughs as they held up giant pairs of cotton shorts with elastic waistbands became a hobby.

Stretch marks found me before babies.

Of course it is wrong for a woman’s thighs to touch; but when you’re a kid and your thighs press together it’s punishable.  Which is maybe why Papa grabbed me?

Oxycodone was the drug that got my ass into rehab, but food was the one that kept that ass big.  To this day I am 35lbs “overweight.”  Even after all the Goodhardgood work of finding myself.

This tummy has ruined my life.  It’s why the boys didn’t like me (in addition to my scary intensity and insecurities).  It’s why no nurses could get a good heartbeat of the babies in the delivery rooms, and why ultrasound techs always seemed bothered by its mindless folding & flopping.

They made me hold the flesh back at a recent biopsy in my pelvis.  For 45 minutes I mashed my underbelly back into myself, apologizing the whole time to every person I offended with my XXL presence.

My flesh was always the problem.

Inhale.

Exhale.

This is a tricky one for me, because I’m at the tail end of my addiction to cheese and bread and veal marsala.  It’s still steaming, just barely, like a dog turd starting to loose that pungent edge.  Sarah Bessey talks about the sanitized stories we like to tell, and I want to dab this one with hydrogen peroxide so badly.  If only this part of the tale would fit nicely under the control top underwear instead of bulging and flopping out.

But the truth is, I ate thirty cookies the other night.  Will you judge me less if I clarify that they were the tiny Trader Joe’s ones?  Still, that’s at least 3 regular cookies.  Three regular cookies is no fun.  Thirty tiny cookies is very fun for people who enjoy mindless conveyor belt handfuls of food.

Until you’re done and the headache hits.

“What the hell just happened?  Here I was, flipping through Instagram and now I’m hungover, my biceps hurt, and my sofa is covered in crumbs.”

“Oh, that’s because you just ate four handfuls of cookies, Sweetie.  It was an interesting choice.”  God replied.

Adam and Eve know how that feels.

“Wait, we have clothes on and God is calling our names.  What did you do, Eve?”

“Me?  You took the first bite!”

“We ate the fruit?!”  They say in unison, but not so loud that the Gardner hears.

When God finally finds them it hits the fan, right?  Instead of headaches it’s childbirth (sans epidurals) and shittier soil.  I really hope God taught them how to fashion a garden ho, it all seems impossible without a ho.

My network of healers have carried me through the last three years with holy care and insight, so when two of them suggested I try Mayan womb massage to release the traumatic energy my stomach holds I decided it was time to stop laughing at how it sounded leaving their mouth holes, and maybe give the woman a call.  It was exactly what I didn’t want to do, which meant it was something I had to do.

At her home office a week later we spent over an hour talking about the first twenty-six years of my life: the cancer, the bone marrow transplant, the men, the dead sister, the dads, abuse, oxy, self-harm and the eating.  I bared it all, imagine Lena Dunham but clothed.

She asked questions like a sage-y preschooler, respectful and rapid fire.

“My stomach has always been the problem, and you digging into it makes me want to cry.”  I started tearing up.  She held the truth & tension so well.

“Well why don’t you go to the bathroom and then come back in here and undress and we will get started.”

Horizontal and waiting I tried adjusting my underwear, the warm sheets, my agony, anything that would make my pudge seem smaller.  But it behaves like soup in a Ziplock—there is no removing or flattening.  Just slopping.

Inhale.

Exhale.

She starts at my feet to prove her loyalty.  The heat begins to melt my tension & feels like a sunrise, or morphine.

Then she moves up to the warm batch of belly soup, and I can sense that she doesn’t want to gobble me up.  She has no desire to shame me.

“This is a beautiful belly,” she exhales.

“I was so worried it would be too big for you to do your work.”

“Have you seen the Mayan women who developed this technique!?  They are spheres; size has nothing to do with this.”

Inhale.  But not all the way because that would make my middle puff out.

Exhale.

Five minutes of soup-kneading pass.

“This is such a soft belly.  This is a miracle house to four beautiful babies.  This is a Good belly.”

I swear to God she said those words.  Somebody told me I had a Good belly.  Capital G.  For the first time my stomach didn’t fuck it up.  No excuses needed; an apology would have fallen flat on its face.

Wait… you mean it’s perfect?

Old Story: Fat is bad and unhealthy.  Having flabby skin, flat hair, brittle nails, wrinkled foreheads, cankles, and imperfect breasts should cause anxiety and correction, they deserve punishment and camoflouge.

New Story: No, none of that’s true…  I’m a human, so is everyone else—and God adores humans.

Which means wounded family members, deceptive beauty campaigns, and insensitive medical professionals don’t know shit.  My tummy didn’t ruin anything!

Inhale.

Exhale.

You are perfect, you are perfect, you are perfect.  It’s what Adam and Eve and you and I forgot.

On the way home from my jungle healer compassion tsunamis in and ravages the landscapes that hold so much horror, here is a fresh start.  I can barely smell that dog turd.  In a moment of silly joy I put my big hand on my big belly and smile out the words, you are a soft and Good belly.  I’ve been saying it ever since.

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Chapter 12: Lion

For her second Make-A-Wish  adventure Ellen requested an RV trip to the beach.  We loaded her heavy graying body into the back of the portable apartment and headed down to Leo Carrillo State Park, a short drive.  Because what if she died en route?  Or there?  Best to stay close to home this time.

The Lion was getting louder, and closerHis breath reverberated off the flimsy plastic walls walls of the recreational vehicle.

Since I’m an honest woman, I will tell you this: it was awful.  In the photos I look skinnier than usual, which means I was turning to food less—razors more.  Her brain had begun to dial the dimmer switch down on those wise hazel eyes.

Where are you, sister?

On the beach one evening I looked up at the sky and realized that parts of her were already there.  In the abyss.  Like Princess Leia when she starts to fizzle in and out of her hologram.  What a blessing it is to grieve like this, I thought.  To progressively see less and less of her, a slow ease into the burning grief.

Thanks God.  Also, could you take a bathroom break?  Maybe a throat lozenge?  My eardrums and my heart have had about as much of that roaring as they can take.  I get it, you’re here.  Reminders of your Goodhardgoodness pop out and surprise me hourly, but I’d like a moment to wallow.

We went back home and she kept dying.

It was important to both Ellen and me that we get to drive just once in my car alone, soon after that trip we got the chance.  If you know anything about the serpentine roads of coastal California (and you do because 90% of all car commercials use those gentle curves to awaken your automotive envy), then you know how absolutely necessary it is that the windows stay rolled down.

We hauled her heavier and grayer body inside and I took off to Carl’s Jr. before a meander down Potrero Road, toward the horses and lavender fields and sea salt.

Looking back I think I should’ve only ordered one large criss-cut fry and maybe half the amount of ranch dressing.  But this drive was too big to feel without the help of my trusty companion—food.

Ooops…

I forgot that she wasn’t really able to sit up by herself anymore.  On a straight road that works out well enough.  But when gravity and centrifugal force come out to play on the twisty roads with us, well then, that’s a problem.  For the first handful of sharp curves I propped her weight up with my right hand.

How will I eat my fries and drive and keep her from falling into the middle console of the car?  And the ranch?!

“Sorry Ellen, we can’t go down there today.”

She was too tired and gray to care.

Maybe it was the open windows, or maybe it was the persistent breath of a loud, protective Lion, but the wind sounded a little bit like Grace that day.

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