Monday, September 1, 2008

Large Sized Woman

Mother went to college for only two years because her father made her attend the then-named Georgia State College for Women instead of the University of Georgia where she had set her heart upon attending. Even without a university degree my mother became an exceptionally well read, incisively intelligent, and gifted woman. She could have been a professional writer but preferred to help her untalented children write their papers for one class or another, or the “I Speak for Democracy Contest.”

My mother was witty and well-informed on many subjects; she could carry on spirited and entertaining conversations with men who enjoyed rank at work, or sometimes those who were known in one field or another the world over.

No one who ever knew her spoke of how fat she allowed herself to become. “Pleasingly plump” or “roly-poly” didn’t fit – she knew she was fat and spent a lifetime on the diet of the day – lo/no carbs diets, fad diets, junk diets, stupid diets, and never succeeded in being slim and fetching. Mother tried to be disciplined but red meats, cake and pastries, and ice cream took their toll.

Her dieting did not succeed until she suffered in Paris the first of many assorted heart attacks, myocardial infarctions, cardiac arrests – whatever her doctors in France or back in the U.S. wanted to call them. She got better for a while at the American Hospital in Paris after the first massive assault, returned to the U.S. to visit me in Dallas-Fort Worth, where I was then living, then went back to France where she promptly had another heart attack that eclipsed the first in severity. She waged a forlorn struggle year after year for twelve interminable years to stay well. Her food intake became increasingly spare but occasionally she allowed herself an indulgence of one kind or another; she deserved whatever little pleasure she was served. She was no longer a large-sized woman but rather a gaunt one who could no longer manage to be a lovely life-of-the party.

Her many friends called to come by for a visit. She had to receive them in bed. Often, the more sensitive among them, male and female, told me they had wept upon leaving. They commented that her wonderful mind, still capable of radiant, insightful conversation seemed to come alive upon being able to discuss an article in the Washington Post, or the recent book by the Australian author, or a new restaurant she had tried for lunch one day when she felt up to going out for a while. Or, more to the point, when someone called to invite her to lunch since she was no longer capable of driving herself.

Every year her coronary heart disease took its toll on her reserves of strength. Even perfunctory regular visits to her physician required him to talk to her about further weight loss and to keep close tabs on her pressure. She was always being asked if she drank (at best she sipped a glass of wine at parties and at home abstained completely) or if she was diabetic.

When finally illness reduced her to the proverbial shell of her former self, her skin had no tone on her bones even though she could take some pride that her double chin and stomach fat were gone. But she had paid an enormous price for every ounce she had lost.

There was no doubt that being overweight, if not obese, ran in the family. Her mother – my grandmother – was a big woman at five feet eleven inches but she was never fat. Her father on the other hand was quite overweight. In fact, before I was born, he went to his doctor’s office one day for a regular checkup. The doctor said, “Walter, you’ve really got to lose weight in order to get your pressure under control.” Walter agreed and dropped of a coronary thrombosis without another word.

As she reached her forties, Mother was increasingly inclined to avoid moving a muscle, preferring instead to let my stepfather or someone else bring her whatever refreshment she might want. Consequently, she tired easily, sweated too much, and breathed heavily performing the simplest of tasks. She avoided taking the stairs or doing any kind of exercise. The thought of walking or engaging in an exercise program was very disagreeable for her.

In the fifties of the last century, until recently in fact, being fat was instantly diagnosed by just about everyone as a consequence of overeating. Losing weight relied on the fat person recognizing the need not to eat so much. Today, we know that the large-sized lady or man may or may not have an eating problem and need not wait around to be overtaken by the ravages of diabetes, obesity, thyroid problems, high pressure, and the -dealing cruelty of coronary heart disease.

I can only hope that many overweight people will recognize and act upon the need to get into an effective comprehensive program that will address their problems before they are told they suffer from much more than a few extra pounds.

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