The Decorative Apple
Let me tell you a story.
I’m sixteen years old, sitting in the kitchen with my mother while she makes dinner. And just for purposes of context here, let me also tell you a little about me at sixteen: I’m a hot mess. I’m drinking, I’m drugging, I just got my heart truly broken for the first time by my first love, I cannot bear to be in the same room most of the time as my mother (and honestly I think the feeling is mutual). And I’m starting to feel things—big and heavy adult things, like pressure and inadequacy and pain and depression and anxiety—and I’m convinced I’m so amazingly special that I’m the only person on the whole planet who has ever felt these things. Basically, I’m out of my mind and terrified.
And then on top of everything else I’ve stopped eating, which at this point isn’t even a conscious decision as much as it is a misguided coping mechanism. I certainly don’t realize then that I’m probably starving myself in an attempt to slow down or even reverse time, to carve the new curves out of my body and keep me a kid a little while longer, where life felt simpler and less lonely. No, at this point all I know is that obsessing over food and my body feels a heck of a lot easier than actually facing anything else I’m feeling.
Anyway, so there I sat in the warm kitchen, watching my mother make dinner. I’m sure I was supposed to be doing my homework or something else but I don’t remember any of that. I just remember watching her. And God was she a sight. If I was a hot mess (and I was), she was my polar opposite, fresh from her big job in a power suit with full makeup, big shoulder pads and bigger diamonds. She’d been commanding rooms since well before I was born and the kitchen was no different; it was hers and I was a visitor, desperately trying to shrink myself into the corner. By then things were tense between us most of the time, and in the kitchen it was so quiet that the click of her heels on the hardwoods rung out like a heartbeat.
“Are you okay?” she asked me, finally, probably weirded out by my staring. And isn’t that the question, right there? Was I okay? I was not okay, and I was sure she could see that if she just stopped and looked, like really looked at me, my dilated pupils and the hollows under my eyes from not sleeping, the way all of the weight I’d lost made my clothes hang off of me, the protective way I’d hunch my shoulders around my heart and try to curl up into the smallest configuration of myself as possible.
But I lied; told her I was fine. Of course I did because that’s what we do, right? I’d already learned at sixteen that in order to survive—in order to remain upright and breathing and presentable—I needed to hide some things, paint over some things, suck some things in and swallow some things down. Some things were to be avoided, like food or truth, and others were to be flat out denied. So I let my chance go by and I lied, and instead of looking at her in the face, I let my focus rest on the kitchen table in front of me, and more specifically, on the ever present bowl of apples in the center of it.
This bowl of apples was a fixture in our house, and they were not for eating. They were the best apples, the biggest, shiniest, roundest Granny Smith green apples specially picked to sit in this blue bowl on the kitchen table, catching the evening light through the window and looking perfect. (If you wanted to eat an apple, the ordinary ones—the ones just for eating—were in the fridge.)
Gosh it sounds ridiculous now to say that but it was just the way it was, and yet I was sixteen and a hot mess and kind of a jerk and I decided that I was going to eat one of these decorative apples right there in front of my mother just because I could, because the air in the kitchen had filled with the smell of olive oil and garlic and all I could think about was how I was just so very hungry. This isn’t surprising—in every memory of high school I have I am hungry as hell, except “hungry” probably isn’t even the right word. It’s more of a deep emptiness, a lack of something that goes well beyond food and even biology and edges itself into this idea of not enough, never enough. It’s an emptiness that I will carry with me in some fashion for most of my life, an emptiness that despite all the work and all the wisdom that has come I still wrestle with, even now as an adult the same age my mother was in that kitchen all those years ago.
So I found the best apple, the shiniest and the roundest and the greenest of them all. I picked it up and turned it around and around in my shaking hand to find the best first bite, and just as I brought it up to my mouth, it cracked clean in half in my hand. The two pieces fell open onto the table; the inside of that perfect apple was rotten, all brown, soft, mealy, and gross. I spent a long time looking at it lying on the table in front of me, smelling that sickly sweet fermentation smell, remembering how perfect it had looked on the outside, convinced there was a message there for me. And there was a message in there, alright, something big. I wasn’t old enough yet or ready enough then to get it, but I felt the edges of it tugging at me anyway. I looked from that rotten apple to my gorgeous mother; the heartbeat of her heels still clicking around the kitchen. It had looked so perfect.
We lost my mother five years ago to suicide. It was, as these things often are, totally unexpected. In the first few days after it happened people just kept coming up to me: her friends, her neighbors, her coworkers, even her family, saying the same things over and over again:
“But she was so perfect.” “She was so beautiful.” “She was so together.”
And what did I remember? The apple. I thought of that decorative apple and how it had been picked for display and never for function, and I realized that maybe the thing that had tugged at me as I sat there in the kitchen smelling garlic and holding a rotten apple was this idea of how what we show the world on our outside doesn’t always match what’s actually going on in our inside.
Right? Our outsides can lie. They can lie the same exact way that we do, the way we’ve learned to lie when people ask us if we are okay and we say, “No, really, I’m fine, it’s fine, everything is fine,” when maybe the truth is we are dying a little inside. The way I was already lying all those years ago at sixteen, starving and drinking and hiding the truth away. The way my mother maybe lied her whole life, hiding everything going on deep inside and out of sight. The way we’ve created a whole culture out of making ourselves presentable, perfect, shiny, and filtered, and sometimes no one really knows what’s going on inside until it’s too late.
When my mother died and it was time to plan the funeral, the priest asked if he could talk openly about suicide during the funeral mass.
Yes, of course, I said, remembering the apple.
No, of course not, everyone else said, aghast. What will people think? So what the priest talked about instead was this same idea of suffering. Quiet suffering. Private suffering. Carefully hidden suffering, wrapped up and hidden away in the dark corners of our lives. It was the suffering my mother had carried within her whole life and no one really knew, the same suffering I starved myself to get away from, both of us convinced we were the only ones who felt the way we did. It was, the priest said, the kind of suffering that kills people.
He didn’t know us personally, not well anyways, so he couldn’t have known about that time we had come home to find my mother drunk, unresponsive, lying in her underwear on the bathroom floor. How we’d called 911 and an ambulance came, and we’d waited next to her in the emergency room for what felt like forever, willing her to please open her eyes, wondering the whole time if this was it, if this was how she was going to die. How when she did finally open her eyes, the first thing she wondered before even asking what had happened was if the neighbors had seen.
But I guess he didn’t need to know that because he has heard that story or others like it a thousand times before, I’m sure. Because what I’ve come to see is that in some variation it’s a universal story, one that has been ingrained into so many of us, one that we can see reflected back to us plainly every day in our politics and our celebrities and our communities and now in our Instagram and Facebook feeds. It’s the story of a society that’s painted itself over in the hard shellac of perfection and tamped the real truth of our lives down deep inside of ourselves where it can sit, hidden, and fester.
I think back to that day in the kitchen and sometimes I wonder still what would have happened if my mother and I had opened up to each other like that right there. Could we have saved each other? It’s a slippery path, that regret, and I can feel it threaten to pull me under. I could have told her the truth when she asked me if I was okay. I could have asked her to tell me hers. I could have said, “We can do this. We can carry each other. You are not alone.” I didn’t. But I can say it to you.
There’s not much I know for sure. I have four amazing children and my parenting style is basically me making it up as I go along and praying a lot. I’ve been married for fifteen years; occasionally, someone will ask me for marriage advice, and I’ll just stare at them like a deer in the headlights because every day that I wake up and see my husband next to me I cannot believe he is still here. I still don’t know how to apply eyeliner, I’ve burned everything I’ve ever tried to bake, and my house is the place plants come to die. And while we get closer every single day, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I tell you this because I want you to know there is no way I would sit down here and write something that tells you how to live your lives or how to raise your babies or how to find the meaning of life. There is really only one thing I know for sure, one thing I believe in wholeheartedly and enough to write a book about, and that is what I wish I had said to my mother: We can do this. We can carry each other. You are not alone.
I know all too well what it’s like to muddle around in that darkness alone, and I know what it’s like to lose somebody in that place forever. I know this for sure: that feeling of quiet desperation, the voice that tells you that no one could possibly understand, is lying to you. I hear from women every day who tell me how they feel less than or broken or like they are doing something—or everything—wrong. Women who carry that same not-enough hunger I wrestle with. Women who have learned that same lesson I learned at sixteen, which is that in order to survive we need to hide our truths. The messy and the ugly and the painful don’t fit nicely into our conversation at school pickup or in the grocery aisles so they need to be avoided, stuffed down and hidden not just from each other but worse, from ourselves.
Which is, of course, probably the worst and most dangerous thing we can do. There’s tremendous power in speaking up and speaking out and speaking truth. If quiet and hidden suffering is the kind of suffering that kills people, speaking up is, I have no doubt, what can save us.
The first time I told the truth was shortly after my mother died. I don’t remember what I said but I know it was inelegant and weird and terrifying and then freeing and after I caught my breath, amazing. In fact it was so amazing that I got a little over-excited and decided from that moment on I would tell my truth to anyone who would listen: clerks in coffee shops or the person pumping my gas, the waitress taking my drink order, the guy who goes through our recycling bins each week looking for returnable cans. And if that wasn’t weird enough, I also started asking people to tell me theirs. I’d corner my friends or the parents of my kids’ friends or people I saw in the grocery store who I thought I recognized from the neighborhood and ask them how they were doing and then basically not accept “I’m fine” as an answer.
And yeah, it was super weird. People looked at me like I was crazy and let me tell you: if it’s human nature to want to keep our stories to ourselves, it’s even more human nature to not want to tell them to a crazy person. But I knew the stories needed to be told. I remembered the priest’s homily. I remembered the decorative apple. And I knew this was how we saved lives, even if it was too late to save my mother. Maybe I could save someone else. Maybe, even, I could still save myself.
So I sat down and I started writing. I had no training and no idea what I was doing except one guiding rule and that was this: I wanted to tell the truth, no matter what. I made a blog and I started telling stories to my fifteen followers and it felt like the only true work I had ever done towards healing the hole in my life. And then people started to respond and a community grew out of that and there is one thing now that I know for sure and that is this: telling the truth has changed everything.
The stories in this book, like this one, are pieces of a life. They’re the lessons I’ve learned in between the moments of great pain and indescribable beauty. I tell them to you for two reasons. One, so you know you are not alone in any of this. And two, because simply, they are the truth. And telling the truth will set us free.