My son told me this morning how helpless he feels. His father (my ex) has to have have triple bypass surgery. My son is worried and I wish I could tell him something that would make him feel better. But I can’t, except that most people come through the surgery with no problem. I even know a few.
I felt the same way when my mom had her first heart attack at 76. She was a woman who unrepentantly ate salami, cheese, bacon and eggs for years.
The only exercise she got was joining in with Jack LaLanne’s exercise TV show in the mornings when I was little. Although watching her cheat — she was supposed to be touching her toes, but only going half way down — left me in hysterics as a five-year-old, I doubt there were many health benefits to her routine. She’d been obese since I was born, so it was a miracle she stayed healthy as long as she did.
Her heart attack came when I was 35, idealistic, and thought I could change people. I made a reservation for Pittsburgh and was going to whip my mom into shape with a proper diet and exercise. I made a vow on the plane to be every bit as determined as she could be stubborn, because now her life was at stake.
After her attack, she felt weak because her heart muscle was damaged. When my brother Bernie walked into her hospital room, she looked at him sadly and said, “Imma dead a duck.”
Then she launched into a dramatic retelling of what happened while they were waiting at the hospital for her to be seen. “I was a dead onna da floor and dey brought a me back. Eef a we wasn’t a here atta da hospeedal, I would a been a dead a woman. I’m a not a keedin a you! Tang a God Mary (my sister) tookka me here.”
My mother may have been tired, but she never lost her ability to tell a thrilling story.
When I first saw her, I was both, unbelievably happy that she looked like her usual self, and angry that she didn’t take better care of herself. As usual, I found myself hugging her and wanting to strangle her.
First, I visited her cardiologist, who was also overweight and did nothing to help convince her she had to make changes. I knew this was a war I was waging alone, so I charged in.
The first thing we did was go to the grocery store, where I tried to explain what was good and bad for her. Salt was bad, salami was bad, bacon was bad, proscuitto was bad, but chicken was good, olive oil was good and vegetables and fruit were great. She didn’t take the news well.
She walked around the store slowly with a scowl on her face and every time I put a can of anything labeled low salt in the cart she stuck out her tongue and said, “But datta shit don’t taste offa nading.” My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Frances, it looks like you got your work cut out for you. I tell her, but she don’t listen to me. We’ll see if you can do any better. Maybe she’ll listen to you.”
I had one week to prove that, just because something was good for you, it didn’t have to taste bad. I made all my best nonfat dishes, said bread wasn’t great to eat, and tried to get across how important vegetables were at every meal. I showed her that most everything was available with less salt now.
I made big charts to remind her when to take her heart medicine, with a place for a check mark each time she did. The chart had a photo of my husband and me on it with the caption, “If you don’t take care of yourself and take your medicine, you won’t be around to see our children.” To this she replied, “Wen a da hella you gonna have a keeds a… wen I’mma dead? Whad are a youns a waitin a for?”
Things were going fairly well. She told me she didn’t have much of an appetite anyway and that when she did she’d make chicken soup with pastina, and that would hit the spot. She had me convinced the heart attack scared her and she was going to change. She sincerely said, “Don’d a worry about a me Frenzy, I be okay.”
A couple of days after I arrived, we were sitting at the dining room table, waiting for dinner to cook. I’d baked cornish game hens with lemon and herbs, and she was getting irritable because she was hungry. “I don’d a care about a da damned diet food, Frenzy, she said pounding her fist on the table, I’mma hongry and I wanna eat a now!” I tried placating her with carrots and celery, which didn’t go over well, then I got distracted for a moment and left the room. (As you know, this was never a good idea.)
I came back and she was gone. When I went downstairs to our other kitchen, I found her at the meat slicer. She was slicing salami and eating it, saying, “Dammit, a your fodder’s a hongry, what a does he gadda do, wait alla day?” She always blamed Dad, saying he was the one who was hungry, but felt funny mentioning it.
I sank down on the steps watching her and felt like a failure. My energy completely drained as I realized I couldn’t change her, no matter how hard I tried. I’d held out hope that this time would be different. Maybe she’d be scared and so afraid of losing her family that she’d do it. I tried to frighten her with the facts, but she either couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that far.
I knew I had to let go. I’d have to start preparing myself for the inevitable. I was going to lose her. I suddenly understood my dad’s speech at the grocery store. He’d been trying for years, always telling her not to eat too much, watching her kill herself with food a little bit every day, and knowing there was nothing he could do to change her.
I wanted to take her to a health spa, lock her up and force her to be healthy, but I knew that wasn’t an option. I couldn’t afford it, and she’d have bribed someone to smuggle in salami. Knowing I’d have to let her live life — on her terms, even if it meant losing her, was one of the hardest realizations of my life.
I hope my ex realizes what’s at stake and makes the necessary changes, so he can be there for all the great moments to come — the ones that, sadly, my mother has missed.
Sauteed Spinach with Garlic and Olive Oil (Very healthy and good for you!)
2 cloves of garlic minced
1 to 2 tsp of olive oil
3 large handfuls of fresh spinach (rinsed and spun dry)
Fresh lemon juice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste, or use low sodium soy sauce, or Braggs Liquid Aminos – available in most health food stores
Heat the garlic and olive oil in a large saute pan and add the spinach. Saute the spinach on medium to high heat until the spinach is wilted. (Five minutes or less.) Remove it from pan, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with lemon juice if desired.
(In the morning I eat this as a side dish with my eggs, or scramble an egg in it and add a little goat cheese. I also chop it up and add it to chicken soup. I also make pasta with it, adding a half cup of chopped chicken sausage, some olive oil and a bit of chicken broth.)