When I think of my mother, I think of uncooked chicken on a cutting board. I think of her on her hands and knees on the floor cleaning our kitchen tiles. I think of her plump, pale white skin, and the heavy sound of her breathing as she trundles up the stairs. And most shamefully, I think of the single word I used for most of my life to describe her, and hate myself for it: fat.
My family, we’re Albanian Muslims, which means that not only do we like to eat, it’s our main past time. When we have parties or family gatherings, we can’t start doling out the booze, so we just start serving more food. Consequently, we were a tribe of eaters, ministered to by my Mother, who seemed to always be hunched over the stove growing up, cooking our favorite meals for us day or night: a lifetime spent frying or baking or sautéing or reheating food for the seven people she loved.
But never for herself. As long as I can remember, I’ve seen her counting calories, sometimes for months at a time. It didn’t matter; she was always shopping for looser pants or looser shirts. Her daily regimen of chores would have reduced other guys’ moms to skeletons: she was always lifting, always cleaning, always killing herself for a house we couldn’t afford, smack dab in the middle of New City, a small but wealthy suburb in New York, with its three floors and disastrous mortgage.
Her daily regimen of chores would have reduced other guys’ moms to skeletons: she was always lifting, always cleaning…
Eventually, my father lost his business, and so my mother lost her home. We moved out, into two cramped, Lodi, New Jersey apartments that were hastily renovated, but still far smaller than where we’d previously lived. And without a chandelier to Windex, or floors to constantly keep scrubbed, my mother just gained more weight.
She slowed down. She’d always hated going to the mall, which she associated with our toy aisle temper tantrums, and the humiliating experience of having to buy new clothes. Now, though, just walking to and from the car was a chore. Around the house, she’d get dizzy spells when she stood up too quickly. She’d even start to breathe heavily when doing simple things, like pounding chicken to grill for my brother, who insisted the protein was vital to his weightlifting “gains” process.
She was selfless. No matter how much her weight made it harder for her, she was selfless. She drove us to and from school, cooked for us, washed all our clothes, dealt with all our shit. She cleaned toilets, and bid on construction jobs for my father, who–after failing another business venture and plunging our family into debt again–seemed to do nothing but nap all day. But it was she who was tired. Yet she did it all, quietly, never appreciated.
The excessive fatigue and weight gain finally forced her to see a specialist. But it tooks years to get a diagnosis. She’d see a doctor. They’d put her on medicine. It wouldn’t work. They’d try another a month later. That wouldn’t work. They’d try another medicine. Finally, some results. But then the insurance would run out. She’d have to see another doctor. Rinse repeat.
It took about 11 years, give or take, before they finally diagnosed my mother with Hashimoto’s disease
It took about 11 years, give or take, before they finally diagnosed my mother with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that gradually destroys the thyroid, eventually leading to weight gain and fatigue. It turned out that, with the right meds, her younger, better years could have been saved, but better late than never, right?
Sometimes, I look at these pictures of my mother when she was still young and I cry. She looked like she’d been carved from marble: beautiful, tall. She somehow managed to make the outdated hairstyles of the early 80s look good. Her skin was clear, her smile was warm and vulnerable hovering above a straight posture that ran a line down to her feet.
Then I think of her at the height of her obesity. Her face, full and tired. Visibly shorter, as if she’d collapsed in on herself. And when I compare her to her past self this way, I ask myself: was it really the Hashimoto’s that made her sick? Or was it my family, which ran her ragged, and sapped the energy out of her, and never appreciated her?
It’s at these moments that she seems, to me, to be most tragic and mysterious. Do I really know this woman, who gave up a computer science scholarship to Princeton to marry my father at 17? What lies in the soul of this woman who would thrill me as a child when I heard her tip-toe through the house at night, softly singing lyrics from the Quran?
How could I have taken her for granted for so many years? How could I have dismissed her as fat?
She was, and is, so much more.