A Very Good Liar by Erin Branning

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pile of sliced avacodo wedges

I am standing at the kitchen sink next to my mother. It is mid-afternoon and the strong Sacramento sun streams through the sink window, haloing her. The rest of the kitchen is shadowed. My mother is home from the hospital after being sick, and I want to stay close to her. It is a beautiful day outside, but I would rather be here, inside with her, than outside playing. I am seven, in the second grade. I will learn later that this is not the first time in her life my mother has been sick, but it is the first time she’s been sick in mine. I am standing next to her watching her for any signs she might leave for the hospital again. 

My youngest brother, Ian, sits in a swing clipped into the doorjamb, bouncing on his toes. It’s the very early eighties but the kitchen is decorated like it’s still the seventies. The walls are clad in waist-high, dark-wood paneling below white wallpaper printed with yellow- and orange-checkered daisies. The tile counters, linoleum floors, and appliances are green. Avocado shades of green, the peel and the gradated flesh. Avocados are a high-potassium food grown in California where we live. The wooden table, dark brown like an avocado pit, is pocked and scratched from our forks and knives, pencils and pens. The wood of the table is so soft that the slightest pressure, a fingernail even, can make a dent. 

That I am alone with my mother (aside from Ian, jumping in his swing) is a rarity. I am the oldest of four and I help take care of my siblings. I have also been helping take care of my mother, helping my dad mix the IVs she has two or three times a day in this kitchen as she cooks and cleans and talks on the phone, its spiraling extra-long cord tangling around her IV pole. The catheter for her IVs is inserted in her forearm and is replaced every few days. The tubing and butterfly needle are covered in surgical tape and then again with a terry-cloth tennis sweatband — she has them in all different colors to match what she is wearing. 

Displayed on the avocado-green refrigerator, held up by a magnet, are her daily lab readings of potassium levels. Every day she has blood tests. The blood tests tell us the amount of potassium in her blood: 3.6 is the low end of normal; 3.6 is what we are shooting for. 

When she was in the hospital, we stayed with friends. In the beginning, when my dad was still trying to take care of the four of us, he would try to curl my and my sister Amy’s hair at the kitchen counter. But it was too hard for him, too unruly and time-consuming, so he took us to his barber and had our hair cut. I remember walking into my mother’s hospital room afterward and seeing the look of shock, then contained anger, on her pale, drawn face, her mouth a thin, straight line.

But that was a couple of months ago. My hair has grown out now; it’s long enough to be curled again. She looks down at me and smiles. She looks calm, happy. Her short brown hair is thin and cut in a Dorothy Hamill bob, just like mine and Amy’s. Already, at seven years old, my head reaches almost to her shoulder. My mother is not tall — only 5 feet 2. I am going to be much taller than her — everyone says so. 

I watch her cutting celery ribs, which she will fill with peanut butter for a snack. I observe her carefully with the knife. There is a story of her cutting her hand once by accident while slicing a roll of refrigerator cookies. The knife went all the way through her hand. She was so lucky not to have cut an artery or a tendon.  

“Celery is the only food that has negative calories,” she says. 

I don’t know what this means. I don’t know this word calories. I am seven. “What’s a calorie?”

“It’s what food is made of, and what your body spends when you exercise. You burn more calories eating the celery than it contains.” 

“Does celery have potassium?” I know that this is what her body needs, what the IVs are filled with. She has been diagnosed with a disease called Bartter Syndrome, which makes her kidneys filter out the potassium her body needs. Salt is another thing she needs — she pours salt on everything she eats. She’s told me that the salt helps keep the potassium in her cells.

“Not celery. But avocados and bananas do.”

“Should we buy more of them?”

She laughs. “I could never eat enough bananas or avocados to get the amount of potassium I need. That’s why we’re so lucky to have Dr. Hansen and these IVs.”

I nod. Jim Hansen and his wife, Sheri, are my parents’ new best friends. They have older children at our school and go to the same church. Jim has recently become my mom’s doctor and has given her the diagnosis of Bartter. 

If it wasn’t for Dr. Jim, my mom might have died. This is what I believe because this is what I am told.

* * *

My mother is 14 and watches her older sister and her mother fight about weight. Her sister goes on an 800-calorie-a-day diet, and my mother thinks that she will, too. After a week, she loses some weight and thinks: That wasn’t so hard. Every day, her goal becomes to eat a little bit less than the day before. 

She wants to be good at something and finds she can be good at not eating. She becomes obsessed with being as small as possible and becomes very good at that. She is capable of something, proud to see results.

My mother runs cross-country for her high school and one day, at a meet in Oakland after she wins the 440, she collapses on the track. 

Shortly thereafter, she is told by her parents that she is going to be hospitalized for six weeks and cared for by Dr. Knowles. It is the winter of 1965, and she is now 15 years old. In the hospital, she wraps her meals in paper towels and throws the food in the trash. One day, Dr. Knowles comes to visit and picks up a mound of discarded food out of the garbage can. From then on, she must eat in front of the nurse’s station. 

After six weeks, she has not gained, but instead has lost another five pounds. She has not been told what is wrong with her, but she is told that if she doesn’t gain weight, she might not survive. The head nurse says, “Boys don’t like skinny girls so I am going to pray that God will prepare a boy for you to marry someday.” 

One afternoon, while sitting at the nurse’s station, she sees her chart and the words Anorexia Nervosa written under Diagnosis. She doesn’t know what this means, and no one has ever used those words with her.

* * *

I am 10 years old and sit with my mom on our scratchy wool couch, going through old photo albums. There are pictures of her looking much healthier than she does now; she has breasts and she is wearing short sleeves. Her arms are skinny but not completely down to the bone.  

“Mommy, how come your breasts are so much bigger here? How come you look bigger?” I say. 

“That’s what nursing four kids will do to you,” she says.

I believe her when she says that we were the ones who did it, took away her breasts, her health. Now that I think about it though, I realize she must have been wearing a padded bra in those pictures; her breasts couldn’t possibly have been that big, ever.  

I used to think my mother was a very good liar, but really we were all pretending not to see what was right in front of us.

* * *

My mother is transferred to Concord Hospital for another six weeks and is put on a feeding tube. She is visited by a psychiatrist, Dr. Cramer, who gives her a “truth serum,” sodium amytal. He asks her one day if she knows what a “hard-on” is. She does not. He says, “Well that needs to happen or else it’s like putting spaghetti through a keyhole.” 

He tells her that while she was under the effects of the sodium amytal, she told him she wanted to be a C-cup bra size. 

A different man, a medical resident, takes her into a dark room one day to perform tests, and she feels woozy and disoriented from some medicine he has given her. 

Back in her hospital room, she is sore and in pain and the next day develops a sore throat and a rash. She is told she has scarlet fever and she thinks of the book The Scarlet Letter and is terrified that someone might know what the resident did to her. 

The only reason my mother thinks she survived the hospital is because of the kindness of one person, Sandy Donato, a Black nurse. She called my mom “Sugar.”

* * *

While my mother is in the hospital, Matt Hagan walks up to me in our second-grade classroom and says, “My mom told me your mom’s gonna die.” I don’t say anything back to him but I ask our teacher, Mrs. Warren, if I can go to the bathroom so that I can cry without anyone seeing me. 

The next time I visit my mom in the hospital, I ask her if it’s true. 

“Oh Erin, I can’t believe someone would say something like that. I’m going to call the school. How dare any of the parents be talking about me to your classmates.”

* * *

My mother’s records are retrieved from Oakland Children’s and Concord Hospital and, in her Sacramento hospital room, Dr. Jim tells my dad that she had been diagnosed with anorexia when she was a teenager. My mother, lying in her bed, listening to these men talk, can hardly breathe. 

“What’s the treatment plan?” my dad asks. 

Jim says they will continue with the feeding tube until she weighs ninety pounds and then she will be referred to a psychiatrist named Dr. Treat.

“Well, won’t that be a treat?” my dad says. 

My dad and Jim laugh. My mother cries. 

Jim leaves the room and my dad doesn’t say anything about what he’s just learned. 

My mother wants to disappear just like she did when she was a child and overheard her parents talking in their bedroom about how they will not tell anyone what the “quacks” said about their daughter having a mental illness. 

* * *

Home from college one summer, I take her to the hospital very early in the morning to get a new PICC line inserted for her IVs. I wait with her in the hospital room until the nurse arrives to prep her for surgery. The nurse pulls down the shoulder of her gown to look at the spot where the tube and catheter will go. There is nothing but skin and bone and a nipple, not the slightest trace of any breast tissue.  

“Oh my goodness, you are just skin and bone, so tiny,” the nurse says. My mom looks up at me from the hospital bed to see my reaction. She looks so small and so sad that I need to leave the room or I will cry, and I cannot cry in front of her.

I lean over the exposed nipple and kiss the top of her head, inhaling the metallic smell of her citrusy soap, the Betadine on her shoulder.  

I walk back to the car in the 5 a.m. darkness. I think about how in health class, they tell you anorexics lose their breasts, they lose their period, their bodies go back to a pre-pubescent state. But she can’t be anorexic. She would never do that to herself, right?  She is just very sick, that explains how emaciated she is. It’s Bartter syndrome, that kidney disease. The smell of her lingers in my nose and reminds me of illness, bile, hunger. 

I drive home, leaving her alone in the hospital, leaving her to her surgery. 

* * *

I’m 26 years old and my dad has been dead 18 months when I find out the truth of what is wrong with my mom. She’s had two heart attacks in the span of a few months and has been spending bouts of time in the hospital again. When my dad died, my mom had been relatively healthy, healthier than she had been in several years. Despite the fact that they had been separated for six years, my dad had asked her to move back in to his house to take care of him. She did and it seemed to make her happy.  

After the second heart attack, I call her doctor and leave a message. To my surprise, she calls me back.

“What’s wrong with my mom?” I say. “Why is she having heart attacks?” 

“If your mom would eat, she would be fine,” the doctor says. “Taking her anti-anxiety medicine before meals would help, too.”

I am speechless; I cannot believe what I am hearing.

“What do you mean, she doesn’t eat? She eats more than anyone else does during a meal.”

“She purges if she has to,” the doctor says and sighs. “She came to me a few weeks ago in a panic because she’d seen a better anorexic than her in the grocery store. It sent her over the edge. Your mother is always right at the edge.”

When I am told this, I think back to the second grade, when she was hospitalized and when Matt Hagan told me my mother was going to die. I am consumed with the question of, Why then? Why stop eating when you have four children, 7, 5, 3 and 1? And perhaps because I myself was trying to become pregnant and was more aware than ever of the nutrients I was putting in my body, I told myself the following story: She must have stopped eating because she was done having children, done breastfeeding, done nourishing bodies other than her own.

But when I was writing this essay and mustered the courage to ask her, I found out the truth was so much more benign.

About six weeks before she was hospitalized for weight loss, my mother had an experience she just couldn’t shake. She’d spent an afternoon hosting a Brownie picnic at the park that included everyone from my second-grade troop and my sister Amy’s first-grade troop. After it was over, the parents picked up their girls and my mom cleaned up before heading home. In the car heading home, she suddenly realized she couldn’t remember Melissa Wolf’s parents picking her up. Had she left a little girl at the park by herself? How could she have made such a huge mistake? She became overwhelmed with fear that something might have happened to Melissa.

When she called Melissa’s mother to tell her what happened, she assured my mother that her daughter was fine. No one was upset; no one was hurt. Still, my mother could not seem to excuse herself or forgive herself for what she had done.

She stopped eating to cope with her distress. Eating — not eating — was the only thing she felt she could control.

* * *

I used to think my mother was a very good liar, but really we were all pretending not to see what was right in front of us.

When we went out to dinner she would finish everyone’s plate. I would feel sick and she would still be eating. We would drive to McDonald’s and she would order two large French fries and then douse them in salt, more salt, more salt, more salt, she would say to the person at the drive-through window, and I would feel embarrassed because I could see from the look on the cashier’s face that this was not normal. She cooked all the time but she never ate dinner with us unless we were out at a restaurant. She had so much dental work done — none of her teeth are her own. She drank Coke all day long.

She’s never weighed more than ninety pounds. 

She wears jeans and sweaters in the summertime in Sacramento in 100-degree heat. 

I have a picture of us on the beach in Maui. I am sixteen, a junior in high school, and my friend Pam is with me lying on towels in the sand, matching black bikinis, our bodies glistening in sweat. My mom is sitting next to us on a beach chair in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a cardigan. 

I have not seen any part of my mother’s body other than her hands and face since that morning in the hospital when I was in college. 

I suppose I am thankful for all of the layers of clothing she covers herself in. I am afraid of what her body looks like. When I hug her, I get an idea. When I hug her, it feels like she might break. 

* * *

When I ask her now about my father, she says, “He loved me but he didn’t really like me, and he didn’t help me. When he heard my story, I was even more on my own. He respected my right to privacy, right or wrong, good or bad.” 

When I am with her now, I find it hard to look directly at her, and I can’t help but feel that her body is a rebuke to my love. I could never make her well.

* * *

I used to think my mother was a very good liar, but really we were all pretending not to see what was right in front of us.

My mother is excellent at hiding the truth, at obfuscating, at providing alternative explanations for things. For most of her life, she has adhered to her narrative at all costs, but I realize now that she was never allowed to tell her story. 

She hid the truth because everyone she loved did. She thought that in order to be loved, she had to hide it, too.

Meet the Contributor

Erin BranningErin Branning is a fiction editor for TriQuarterly, Northwestern’s literary journal, where she’s published interviews with Ben Fountain and Lily King. Erin has also had work published in Manifest-Station, LitBreak and Delmarva Review. Erin holds an MFA from Northwestern University, a bachelor of arts in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master of public policy from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her four children and is currently working on a memoir, Wanting: A Memoir of Marriage, Privilege and Patriarchy, from which this essay is adapted.

Image Credit: Dee Bamford/Flickr Creative Commons

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