‘You’ll be ‘dick’ like your mother,’ my father-in law told me over lunch. He is German. Dick translates as fat. What he meant though was: ‘You are dick.’ Maybe I had unwittingly exposed myself, by accepting his offer of pudding.
Mother was dead when he made this observation. She was also fat. Lovelorn she was only able to rely on a chocolate and caramel surrogate. Until Motor Neuron Disease made it impossible to swallow. But my father-in-law has never acknowledged her dying, and has no idea how it went. Motor Neuron Disease robs you of everything, even chocolate.
Mum fell by hours and days and weeks from millionaire shortbread and Diet Coke down through blueing bread to gavage. Soon we had to pump protein packs directly by tube into her stomach. They smelt of school dinners, of hospital trays, of wrong. From the first day that sticky plastic syringe was put to use, there was a yeasty heaviness that hung about her, the house, my hands.
Each time we loaded her lunch I wondered whether she had been able to mark the last time she tasted love. Whether she had enjoyed the soft sweetness, or if that final square of Dairy Milk had been rushed, undone, unenjoyed, forever laced with the sourness of guilt.
ALS, as this neurodegenerative disorder is called in the US, progresses rapidly. It is fatal. Nerve cells deteriorate, and along with cell death the ability to regulate muscle. Yet scientists writing in the Lancet have found that what makes MND blaze slower through a body is a high calorie, high carbohydrate diet. A millionaire shortbread affair.
Mum first lost control of her mouth - the elocuted sound of her gave into slur. Without the ability to chew and to swallow she lost all motivation to eat. Loss of weight, both muscle and fat, is common as this disease progresses. Obese patients, research has found, live longer. Yet she did not. Because what had kept her from stepping over the edge into rampant obesity was guilt.
Guilt killed her months earlier than necessary. Nerve loss ran down her neck, killing first the swallow, and then, within a year, the breath.
Although my father-in-law uses health as his excuse I have always suspected that what motivates him, when he judges others, is Selbstachtung. Self respect. Fat is a letting go, a miserable lovesickness that we should not force into the face of others.
For me there were only two possible responses: to eat or to starve. So I went with the latter. Because much more essential than living or loving, is winning. Though there is some irony in knowing that if I ever start slurring, the choice to eat would possibly save me months.