Damian Cooper grew up in the shadow of his mother’s battle with Anorexia Nervosa. A single mother, they formed a close bond. In his memoir Angela’s Anorexia Damian writes about his boyhood, a time set against the poignant parallel story of his mother’s excessive focus on body image, food, diet and exercise.
At the end of the school year, Damian, almost 7, is flown from Auckland to his mother’s new home on the Sunshine Coast, arriving at Brisbane international airport where his mother is to collect him.
As I rounded the corner into the public arrivals lounge, a bobbing sea of unfamiliar faces confronted me. I stared at the faces before me, watching as individuals randomly sprang forward from the mob to embrace loved ones from among the rest of the passengers behind me.
For a moment I was struck with a fear that I had been on the wrong plane or that no one would be there to meet me. My fears were not so much allayed, but redirected when I finally spotted Angie tentatively emerge from the crowd. My hands tightened around the handle of my trolley bag as I developed a sickening feeling, first of sadness and then embarrassment, as the skeletal form that was now my mother moved slowly toward me.
Angie was dangerously emaciated. Her hair, although dyed auburn red, was brittle and straw-like. The twinkle of delight that would normally shine in her crystal green eyes on seeing me was lost in the dark, sunken recesses of her face. The dimensions of her skull were striking; her cheek bones were ledges above the gaping depressions of her face; her jaw seemed suspended like a science classroom model skeleton. Her gums, which were a patchy dark purple, had receded, exposing her teeth above the enamel and causing them to decay. Her skin was paper-thin and covered in abrasions from minor accidents.
A thick pasty sort of smell hung in the air, which I found out later was cod liver oil. A thin coat of oil lathered her skin, its rank smell intensified by the humidity, making it inescapable. Her skin hung loosely on her frame, revealing the contours of her bones where normally flesh would hide the inner workings of the body. She hugged me in an insubstantial embrace. I held her as tightly as I dared and imagined that I was holding the body of a dying alien, prematurely hatched from its cocoon, which I had just seen on the flight movie.
Nothing was said as we made our way from the airport terminal to the car, under a blistering sun. The awkwardness was palpable. I sat in the passenger seat with my knees closed together and pulled up against my chest while I stared out of the window, trying to understand who this thing was that sat next to me.
‘Did you have a good flight?’ Her question cut into my thoughts as a far off reminder of something very familiar.
‘Yes, thank you,’ I dutifully replied.
‘Well, that’s good. It was right on time which is always nice.’ She was making an effort, her soft clear voice catching my attention. ‘And there’s not a cloud in the sky today, which is what it’s like here most of the time, not like back in old NZ’
She spoke with what seemed like a sense of growing hope in her voice.
‘Mind you, you’re probably going to feel the heat for the first little while. It gets hot enough to fry an egg on the bonnet here, but the beach isn’t far away.’
Slowly, as I listened, I began to realise that buried somewhere beneath that hellish façade was the soft kind mother of my memories, and with every word her voice – which was unchanged – drew me back in.
‘I have gotten us a lovely little place right by the beach, which you’re just going to love. And, sweetie, I think we are really going to be able to stay here together this time.’
‘Okay,’ I said.