My sister moved from Dallas to Boston today.
She’s a teacher, so she waited until the end of the school year to resign. Then she got on a plane and went, leaving her husband behind to rattle around in their big, empty house with their two cats.
Not that her husband is home all that much, anyway. He’s an executive who half the time lives on planes and in hotel rooms. He spends one week out of each month in Germany, and has for years. My brother-in-law will fly up to Boston on the weekends and stop there on his way back from his trips to Europe.
It’s not like my sister went to Boston for a job, although she does intend to look for one there. Right now, she’s staying at the home of friends who have decamped to Cape Cod for the summer. With her extensive experience in education, I have no doubt she’ll be employed again when the new school year begins in the fall.
The reason my sister abruptly moved 2,000 miles away is her daughter, my niece. She is struggling with anorexia in Beantown and is not doing well. We all fear she will starve herself to death. I have no idea what words to use to describe my feelings on the matter. It’s like a big blank space. What can one possibly say that would be even approach being meaningful?
My niece has now been through two programs, expensive residential programs that are designed to teach her proper eating habits, how to prepare balanced meals and how to keep her inner demons at bay. As if such a thing were possible.
I don’t have much contact with my sister (it’s a long story), but I did call her while she was visiting in Boston recently. She reported that at least my niece eats some ice cream in the evenings. Did I mention that my niece now weighs about 70 pounds?
I wrote two letters to my niece earlier this year, addressed to the residential treatment center where she was then staying. I was nothing but cheerful, omitting mention of my wife’s surgery and my problems at work. I regaled her with tales of my adventures in Scrabbleland. I sent her cute cat pictures. I discussed birthdays and vacations.
Not that I really expected to hear from her. I mean, what is she going to say to an uncle whom she barely knows? I’m locked up for my own good, I hate it here, and your pathetic efforts are not helping? I know you hated that place, Rebecca, and I’m glad you’re back home now. Yeah, I heard about the thing with the bacon. Um, we’re Jewish and, well, it’s not like they never heard of Jews in Boston, so I don’t get it.
The doctors and therapists advised my sister not to move in with her daughter. So she’s giving my niece her space, hoping to make Shabbat dinner for her on Friday nights and to be nearby if needed.
I always thought that anorexia was a problem faced by middle school aged girls who think they’re fat. Just call me stupid. Not that you can entirely blame me. The first time I ever heard of anorexia was back in my college days when, home for the summer, I would sneak peeks at my sisters’ teen mags.
These days, I’m told that anorexia is a form of mental illness that is often a lifelong affliction. I don’t know that it can be “cured,” at least not in the sense “make it go away forever.” I haven’t read up on it because, quite frankly, I’m afraid of what I’d learn. Meanwhile, it’s hard to wrap my mind around a brilliant young woman, valedictorian of her college class, who appears to be hellbent on a long, slow suicide. Whose fondest hope seems to be dissolution into the ether, to make herself disappear piece by piece until, like the Cheshire cat, there is nothing left but the smile.
Should I write my niece another letter? Should I just forget about the whole thing, chalk it up to an old fart’s lack of understanding of twentysomething problems, remember her as the cheerful, vivacious 12 year old that she was when I traveled to Texas to attend her bat mitzvah more than a decade ago? Should I heed the serenity prayer and learn to accept the things I cannot change?
At the end of next month, I will be in Massachusetts for a week to compete in a national Scrabble tournament. I will be about a 90-minute drive from my niece and my sister. Should I go visit them? Will I just make matters worse? Should I conveniently omit to mention that I’ll be in the area? Will I feel even worse if I see my niece? I already feel like crud in making it all about me when it should be about her.
My elderly mother is sad that it has come to this, but blames the whole thing on my sister’s and brother-in-law’s unhealthy attitude toward food. Ultimately, I think this may hark back to my niece’s paternal grandmother, who is thin as a stick and despised her husband’s obesity until the day he died. When my niece was growing up, her mother and grandmother made sure she was aware of the dangers of becoming fat, with the apparent implication that food is the enemy. My sister and her husband were pescaterian for a time, then began eschewing “fish meat” and went vegan. Today, I hear, they eat fish again. On top of that, my sister and her mother-in-law are both gluten sensitive, so there are a lot of things that they won’t eat. I get it; I’m vegan and gluten sensitive, too. Not that it’s done anything to change my lifelong obesity.
My niece has two brothers, neither of whom exhibits anorexic tendencies. For reasons that I do not understand, apparently anorexia is disproportionately suffered by women. Could this have something to do with body shaming, with women aiming to succeed by living up to some warped body image concept dreamed up by men, involving waiflike girl-women hopped up on pills so they can strut their stuff on the runway and appear on the covers of magazines to the approval of leering male gazes?
Surely it’s more complicated than such a simplistic explanation would suggest. Not to brag, but my niece is not some airhead; she’s a talented biochemist with a bright future ahead of her. At least she could have a bright future ahead of her if she weren’t so intent on turning herself into a puff of smoke that is here one moment, then suddenly carried away on the breeze, up into the clouds to disappear from view forever.