The Other Child: Witnessing Chronic Illness
Creative Criticism by Jared Meijer
The Other Child
When she was eight, Alice found her mother collapsed on the kitchen floor. By age ten, she and her mother shared a diagnosis, that of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or ME. “I remember feeling almost pleased with my diagnosis, even if I was not entirely convinced by it. It made me feel closer to my mother,” Alice Hattrick writes in Ill Feelings. If chronic illness alienated them from the outside world, between them it created a bond made up of shared symptoms and ill feelings expressed through a shared ‘hysterical language,’ that only they could speak and understand. “For a while it was just she and I together – she often liked to remind me of that.” The union between mother and daughter was, and is, primal. Preceding illness, it is nevertheless strengthened by it. But their two-as-oneness could not last, because Alice would have a brother. And because years later, she would spend her teenage years at a boarding school, away from her mother.
If invisibility marks their shared experience of illness, so too is Ill Feelings marked by the invisibility of this son/brother, mentioned less than a handful of times. In conversations with doctors, he is “the other child,” the one “caught in the middle.” He stands in between the mother and the daughter, passive, affected, watching, only to quickly fade into the crevices of the text. We wonder at what he may have seen. When their mother writes in her diary, following her collapse in 1995: “Alice witnessed this,” we recognize it to be only the beginning of decades of witnessing. But what has he witnessed? We know that through illness, Alice and her mother became engaged in a shrouded and singular exchange of sick care and symptoms. The son/brother exists on the fringes of that conversation, the text, eavesdropping. His exclusion is marked at every turn, as when Alice remarks: “I always knew my illness was a form of love.” If this illness-in-the-text is a mutual expression of love, then it claims mother and daughter for each other and binds them in their sick relation. The text leaves no space for a son/brother, because the sheer fatigue of chronic illness does not permit it. But we know that he was there, that he was “distressed” by what was happening, and that he, too, must have witnessed this. In a narrative peopled by daughters and mothers and their shared invisible illnesses, there might simply not have been any room for a son/brother-as-witness. After all, too great has been the focus on anything but the anamnesis. And yet, his specter is there, and we ask: what does it mean to witness illness? Belonging fully neither to the ill or the well, illness subsumes him and in that very same motion, spits him out again. Can this witness speak?
A Brief Interruption on My Way to the Bathroom or Kitchen
The only person generally allowed to enter her room was our mother. The simple fact of a person’s presence exhausted her, and I quickly ran out of means to camouflage or neutralize myself. From the doorway, where I often stood, if only briefly, halting on my way to the bathroom or the kitchen, one could peer straight into the thicket of a pine forest, as oversaturated photo wallpaper covered the far wall, a single bed propped up against it. My mother was often found on the edge of that bed, hushed and illegible, one body obscuring the other. By the opposite wall there stood two bird cages. In one, two parakeets. Green, blue. In the other, two yellow canaries, given to her by our grandmother, who got tired of their incessant singing. At night the cages were covered with thick, colorful blankets, so that the birds would know it was night. Shortly thereafter the birdsong would stop, and they would sleep, even if she did not.
The First Interruption, or When I Too Was a Witness
When she was eleven, my sister was diagnosed with glandular fever. She spent that year on bed rest, felled by chronic fatigue. Despite its severity, the diagnosis promised an outcome we felt familiar with, and eventually, she recovered. She regained enough strength that by the end of summer she could have a sleepover. Our stepfather put up a tent in the backyard for her and a friend, and throughout the night I could see their phones and flashlights shine through the tent cloth, which shook with wind and bustling energy. They stayed up most of the night. The following morning she was exhausted. We did not know then that she would eventually be diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and never not be tired again.
Even in Absence: Belonging
Even if the true cause of her mother’s illness remained an enigma, the bout of pneumonia that caused her collapse, and the flu-like symptoms accompanying it, offer a context. Alice’s illness, on the other hand, could only ever be read in contrast with her mother’s, she having turned into her mother’s unwitting double. Some believed that Alice’s mother was making her ill, or that Alice was mimicking her symptoms. Her maternal grandmother suggested that Alice go to a boarding school, where she would remain until she was eighteen. “If illness was our problem, separation appeared to be the only solution.” Separated, she was “unable to pick up symptoms off her. I recovered, for a time, but I am not well now, and we are further apart than we have ever been.”
In 2017, five years prior to publishing Ill Feelings, in an article by the same name, Alice notes how she and her mother would not see each other for weeks and barely spoke. They lacked the closeness of the single mothers and daughters Alice saw around her. “And yet, somehow, I existed in the space between me and her. Somehow I always had.”
Interruption as the Daughter Is Taken from the Mother
Daughters have a long history of being sent away, or taken. Persephone is one such daughter. In Averno, Louise Glück examines two versions of her story.
In the first version, Persephone is simply taken. Her father Zeus weds her off to Hades in secret. Discovering that her daughter is missing, “the goddess of the earth / punishes the earth”, and thus the earth is cast in an endless winter. Eventually Persephone is returned, but does that mean she is ‘home’? After all, the “the return of the beloved / does not correct the loss of the beloved.”
Ill Feelings, too, marks the return of the daughter, who following her long absence must find a way back to her mother. But no matter how she tries, it is impossible to regain fully what was once shared so intimately. She reads her mother’s letters and journals, her medical history. Much is similar, much too, is different.
In the second version, according to Glück, Persephone is dead. “You ask yourself: / why is the mother’s body safe?” But this turns out to be the wrong question,
the daughter’s body
doesn’t exist, except
as a branch of the mother’s body
that needs to be
reattached at any cost.
In Ill Feelings Alice returns to her mother’s body, her body, and their shared lives, their ill feelings, and tries to mend what has been severed. By way of writing, she is grafted onto her mother’s body. But even if she succeeds, the brother remains disembodied, a root severed, twisted and hidden in the soil. The brother, who has never truly belonged to the mother, can never return, nor correct the loss he has suffered.
Interruption as Old Memories Gain Significance in Light of New Circumstances
Some years before my sister fell ill, our mother was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I found it hard to imagine my mother as no longer my mother. But if that particular fear eluded me, it did not elude my sister. She had always been clingy, but now she could no longer sleep lest my mother was in the room with her. If she were to wake up and my mother was not there, unable to find her, the panic would set in. She could not be left alone. And I remember that often she would renounce her last name, the one she shares with me, our other sister and our father, and claim instead our mother’s maiden name, and get upset if we tried to go against this self-made truth.
It seems easier to sympathize with such behavior now that I am older, as I realize more than ever that our mother was, in fact, terribly sick. Near the end they had removed her ovaries, uterus, and cervix. After rounds of chemo and radiation therapy, it was presumed she would also need to undergo a mastectomy. They settled for the lymph nodes in her right armpit, for which she wears compression sleeves to prevent swelling. The chemo and radiation have weakened her heart. She is easily fatigued and no longer able to work.
All I really remember of that time, is that she often wore a shoulder-length wig that was a deep, dark red, the same color she had dyed her hair for as long she had been my mother. It was the only wig she would ever wear, and it grew increasingly scraggy. Over time, the color shifted, and an orange hue appeared. Her hair has grown back, but now it is thin and brittle, and she dyes it blonde.
Interruption upon Discovering Incongruence
Often, too, I was ill myself, in and out of therapy, having never spent a year at the same school, and prone to months of truancy. But illnesses are incongruous, and though the physical illness affects the mind, and the mental manifests itself throughout the body, they require different types of care and do not account for what might be called shared suffering. At the very least, I never felt as if my illness brought me, my sister and my mother any closer.
Interruption as One Tallies Things Lost
She is six-and-a-half years younger than I am and was just about to reach that age where our relationship started to take on a different form. I was no longer cool, but we could speak. She was full of perspective, opinionated, and deeply attuned to life. When she fell ill, there was no longer such a thing as a casual conversation. For a time, the conversations ceased altogether. Sealed off from the past and any possible future, we had only the present, wherein she could no longer be reached. And I learned that the loss produced by illness belongs first and foremost, but not solely, to the ill themselves.
Interruption, or a New Name
Six years before publishing Ill Feelings, Hattrick wrote a series of letters to friend and writer Naomi Pearce. Somewhere in between those letters and the book that would become Ill Feelings she stopped writing “my mum” and started writing “my mother.”
Interruption of Care
The only person my sister ever went to for care was our mother, and so they both were swallowed up by illness, subservient to it, but also allied facing it. Their time belonged to each other, and to illness, but was otherwise unobtainable.
Interruption by Pain
Hattrick quotes Adrienne Rich: “the problem is / to connect … the pain / of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world.” Where does a brother, who exists in the world, attach to the pain that is sister and mother?
Interruption before Sleep
The swelling of birdsong. A poor man’s caged bird metaphor for a child leading a caged life. The world moving on without her. But believe me, the birds they sang and their cage was often open and their birdsong floated up into my room.
Interruption, or an Invitation
My mother writes: ‘You should have been a girl. You would have been happier.’
Interruption as My Sister and I become Emily Brontë
In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”, the narrator has just broken up with her lover and is on her way to visit her mother, who lives on a moor. She has brought a stack of books, including those of her favorite author, Emily Brontë. Emily, the narrator remarks, is a “Whacher.”
She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
no ledge to climb up to—
To be a whacher is to be a witness. And if Emily enjoyed a life of limited mobility, so too do Alice and her mother, my sister and my mother. When Emily’s biographers write of her “sad stunted life”, we hear the echoes of phrases directed at the chronically ill, and pity we can hardly eschew.
We learn that Carson’s narrator’s father suffers from “a kind of dementia.” He uses “a language known only to himself,” his own hysterical language “made of snarls, syllables and sudden wild appeals.”
Deeply listening, it is be possible to understand what they are saying, both the surface and the depths of things. On my part, I watch and listen doubly. On the one hand, illness is a voice I know and recognize. I know its smell, its gait, its atmospheric pressure. Those who have lived with illness know how time and space themselves can become ill. But there is another voice, the white noise of the witness, the brother, stood in the door frame, watching, but unable to enter or leave. Yet all I write and live now is in search of a way to be nearer.
Jared Meijer is a Dutch writer and photographer with a BA in Creative Writing from ArtEZ, the Netherlands. His work has appeared on Dutch literary platforms, such as De Optimist, De Reactor, and Notulen van het Onzichtbare. Mistland (tr. The Land of Fog), a novella dealing with chronic illness, loss and loneliness, was his graduation work. He is currently completing his MA in Comparative Literature at Utrecht University.
- Carson, Anne. Glass and God. Cape Poetry, 1998.
- Glück, Louise. Poems 1962-2020. Penguin Classics, 2022.
- Hattrick, Alice. Ill Feelings. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022.
- Pearce, Naomi, et al. Under The Influence. Centre for Feminist Research, London, 2014.