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Weight, Body Image and Dying

My mom is finally losing weight, but it’s taken until end-stage Alzheimer’s to get there.

Two months ago, Mom qualified for hospice due to the significant amount of weight she lost over the summer months. She weighs around 170 pounds now, which if she was healthy, she’d be tickled pink to know.

Her Alzheimer’s has essentially pulled apart every bit of her, beginning with her language skills. Then it chipped away at her ability to make a decision. How to get in and out of a car. How to feed herself. When to use the bathroom. She lost her favorite mug for ice water. Then she lost her glasses. Then she lost her ability to say more than five words. Then three words, then all of them.

And now she’s lost weight. This fact is significant to me in many ways.

How my mother perceived her own weight defined how I felt about my own as I grew up.

My body image eventually mirrored her own. “I’m so fat,” became my mantra, just as it was my mother’s for so many years before she got sick. Now that she’s dying and we’re in quarantine and even if we weren’t, I couldn’t ask her about it anyways, I have so many questions.

Now I’m forced to rely on my own unreliable memories of my youth to fill in the story of my mom’s relationship with her own womanhood, her perception of beauty, and why she so often rejected her beauty as a thing to shame and hide.

There’s a radical element to accepting we might not find the answers to our questions.

In my support group with other younger caregivers like myself, it seems to be a running theme among many of us that our biggest regret is not knowing enough about our parents with Alzheimer’s. And to think, we had all that time to ask questions. All our lives!

This is not the kind of regret people feel after someone they love dies, I don’t think. This is a kind of regret that still feels more tangible, the questions still oddly possible to find the answers to because our parents are still alive. The reality, of course, is that even if I ask my mom if she’s having a good day — just a simple yes or no question — she’s 90% of the time unable to articulate even that.

What I wished I could ask my mom now:

“Did you have to take care of your five brothers?”

“What were you like in high school?”

“When did you know you loved dad?”

“When did you know you stopped loving dad?”

“Did you ever stop loving dad?”

“Why did you have to get sick?”

“What would you be doing today if you were healthy?”

“Why can’t you come back?”

Fat Mom

What I do know as a fact is that my mother always struggled with her weight. When I was very young, I loved burrowing my head into the gushy folds of her tummy. During this time, she wasn’t particularly heavy, per se, but she was slightly overweight, at best. As I grew up, however, Mom kept getting bigger and bigger, hitting the 200s by the time I was in third grade.

Her weight was in great juxtaposition to my father, who had always been a small, wiry man with thin legs and arms that became shockingly strong when he needed them to be or when he got angry. I remember learning the old Mother Goose story about Jack Sprat and believing that this story was about my mom and dad:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,

His wife could eat no lean,

And so between them both,

you see,

They licked the platter

Clean.

Mom ate a lot and didn’t get enough physical activity, while Dad was always working on some project or keeping up the lawn or smoking in the garage next to the kerosene heater in the winter. Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. Dad could eat whatever he wanted but Mom just kept getting fatter.

Before the obesity, though, there was just my mom being a young woman in her late 20s, trying to figure out how to be a mother and own a daycare business. And I do believe as fact my parents were in love at this time, as well. To think otherwise breaks me into pieces I don’t know if I have the will to pick up right now; not when Mom’s actively dying and Dad’s been out of the picture for two decades now.

The Polaroid

There’s this Polaroid of my mom from the early 1980s, like perhaps 1982 or 1983, where she’s had someone, presumably my father, snap a pic of her in her bra and underwear. It appears to be the first of a set of “before” and “after” diet photos, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen the “after” picture. Which leads me to believe my mom never reached her goal weight way back then, or it was somehow misplaced when we sifted through the piles “to keep” and “to throw” relics at my mother’s house before we sold it just after her diagnosis.

In the photo, her skin is creamy white around her middle, which looks doughy and stretched. A mother’s tummy, or perhaps what we would nowadays call “gluten belly” or some bullshit that keeps people paying for diet programs. Her legs are chunky, yet stick-straight, and she has tan lines that begin just above her knees and reach to her ankles where her summer color stops abruptly and turns back to her natural creamy whiteness. She has “saddlebags” around her outer buttocks, the same ones I’d eventually grow into myself that make us both undeniably pear-shaped and perpetually dimpled around the thighs and backs of the legs.

The Polaroid is shot in my parents’ bedroom, and in the background, I see moody-green floral print wallpaper and a closet door closed halfway. My mom’s smiling awkwardly, or kind a little like Mona Lisa — the smile you’ll never quite figure out; frustrating like a Rubik’s cube.

The look on her face suggests she’s already worried about what she’s going to look like in the photo before it’s even been taken. Will she look svelte? Is her perm in place? Has she pulled in her mommy stomach sufficiently enough to take off a few pounds? Does my father think she looks beautiful standing there?

Or has the weight gained since having two children changed the way he sees her?

Maybe these are questions she asked herself, or maybe they’re ones I’d ask myself if I had done the same thing as her.

She looks shy and hopeful, but also she looks exposed standing there in her bra and underwear, because who wouldn’t feel weird about being photographed in underclothes unless you’re a lingerie model or an exhibitionist. She has a little bit of a double chin, too, but I can’t tell if it’s just the way she’s holding her chin in or if she’s actually got one.

On the back of the photo lists her height and weight:

5 ft. 5 in.

160 lbs.

May 1983

This photo would have been taken the month I turned 4 years old, which would make Mom age 31 at the time it was taken by my father, presumably. Had it not been him, it could only have been a trusted friend. Aunt Rae, perhaps.

I would think it odd that women were already taking before and after photos like this 40 years ago, but then I look up just how long the diet industry has been around, and that dates back to the 19th century or more, at least in America. And just one scroll through Instagram these days and you’re sure to stumble upon someone’s “amazing transformation” from fat loser to sexy winner. So nice to know things have changed around body image since forever.

Diet Crackers

The funny thing about the photo, too is that I vaguely remember my mom during this time doing Weight Watchers, or Jenny Craig; one of the two. She had special diet foods she’d eat, and even though it’s really odd and specific that I can recall some of the finer details of her dieting life when I was just four, it’s something I do, and perhaps something that shaped the perception of my own physicality.

Probably right around the same time my mom took her before photo that never had an after photo, around the same time I turned four, I specifically recall a box of what might have been Melba toast crackers she was eating at the dining room table. Her diet food.

I was sitting next to her, and either I asked for one or she gave me one. To this day, I can remember the taste: rye, crunchy, a little sweet and very delicious. I reached my hand out to the box to take another one and my mother slapped it away. Hard and angrily.

“Those are mine!” she yelled at me.

I immediately started to cry, not because I couldn’t have another one of my mom’s special diet crackers, but because of the sheer rage my mother had for me when I wanted a second one. It was very rare for my mother to get so angry, especially towards me or my brother. And it was just a cracker. I didn’t understand.

Chips and Salsa

I didn’t ask to share my mother’s food for a long time after that. Not until I was in third grade in the middle of winter on a night when I’d been tucked in but couldn’t sleep. Mom always kept the door to my room cracked open a little and left the hall light on to keep the heebie jeebies out.

On this particular night, around 9 p.m.; it felt really late and naughty to get out of bed, but I could hear my mom opening up a bag of tortilla chips. Then I heard a container of salsa being opened up, and I couldn’t resist. I crept to my bedroom door and peeked out, my eyes adjusting to the light from the hallway. I pushed the door open with my fingers and the hinges creaked. There was no going back at that point.

“Lonna?” I heard my mom say softly.

“Can I come out and have a chip?” I asked just as softly back.

“Come here.”

I scuttled out the door and into the hallway excitedly, then perched myself next to Mom on the couch. The bag of chips open in her lap and the salsa balanced on her knee, she handed me a chip.

“Do you want some dip on that?” she asked.

I nodded and she took the chip back and gave me a kid-appropriate layer of salsa. Then she hugged me and it was the best-tasting chip with salsa of my life, but I didn’t ask for a second one, nor did I reach my hand toward the bag.

I fell asleep sitting up on the couch with my head resting on my mom’s lap and woke up when the nightly news came on and Mom rolled up the now-empty bag of chips and set it on the coffee table next to the couch.

“Time to get to bed now,” she said, lifting me into her arms even though I felt too heavy for her.

Too big. Too much.

NOTE: This is an early-draft excerpt from a book Lonna is working on about the Alzheimer’s epidemic.

Lonna Whiting is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently working on a book about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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