Friday, September 17, 2010

Tell It To the Marines

I just walked out of my Weight Watchers meeting because I could not stand to listen to another sob story from a fat girl. I was weighing in after a two week hiatus to attend to more pressing matters than counting points, like traveling back and forth to Albuquerque twice, first to say goodbye to my beloved brother in the declining moments of his life and then returning, a week later, for his funeral.

If ever there was a good reason to binge eat, I had it. And I’ll concede that I’m a little bitchy right now, and not overly sympathetic to women who would have you believe that someone has force fed them like suma wrestlers, narrowly escaping their food torture bondage, to show up to Weight Watchers sharing their tales of hostage cuisine hell.

But I maintained. I maintained.

After going around the room with their giddy weight loss reports, “four pounds!,”
“two-point-eight” “one-point-six!” (like taking a thimble of sand from the Sahara Desert, by the way) this one woman raised her hand and said, “I’d like to share a story....”

She proceeded to tell us about how it was her third week into the program and she had yet to lose a single pound. She had, she said contritely, gained a pound and a half, which given the fact that she probably needs to lose about 80, would seem to be physically impossible if she had indeed stayed “on the program.” (Well, she did confess she was using ALL of her weekly 35 extra Bonus Points, which any Weight Watcher worth her fake salt will tell you, will limit your weight loss efforts!) Anyway, I looked askance when she said she’d counted her points and logged her daily diary and had shed nary a pound, but “I’m not discouraged,” said she. Hell, I’d quit! If I stayed religiously on the program, I’d look like Karen Carpenter by now! She went on to share how it had been her birthday this past week, and how tough it had been, but she’d remained steadfast within her daily point limit, and how that hardship was COMPOUNDED, by the stress of driving a car pool with five kids, one of whom was charged with “special snacks” one day! I can totally empathize, because I am sure one of those little brats must have held a juice box to her head, telling her, “pull this fucking mini-van over” after which they all lept from their child safety restraints, four of them holding her hands and feet, while the other one shoved the entire 13X9 pan of freshly baked brownies down her throat. Such untold perils in the war against the muffin top and jelly roll!

I just wanted to say, wah-fucking-wah. Instead, I got up and quietly walked out.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

I could have raised my hand and said, “I’d like to share a story....”

And then I could have imparted my weighty tome, the stress of standing in front of 300 mourners, with my two eldest sons and my sister-in-law of 46 years and her grown children and grandchildren, and my younger brothers and their families all crying while I eulogized my eldest brother. This little command performance on the heels of 11 months of having my stomach in knots, because I knew, from the moment he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that, A) it was not good and, B) he’d probably want me to speak at his funeral, which is precisely what he did. Because, this is what I do.

Write and talk.
Write and talk.
Whether a reporter, corporate or political flak, when my words come out of other people’s mouths, less adept at delivery, (like the well intentioned hayseed who became Governor) or as the family eulogist, a job for which I did not apply, but appears to be my birthright now, this is what I do.
Write and talk.

But in the midst of rewriting the eulogy five times, I did engage in a fair amount of food and alcohol consumption, because this is also something I do, in increased quantities when I’m on the mourning tour. I don’t think this is atypical behavior.

The first of my guilty pleasures was with my youngest brother, who is homeless. He needed a hamburger. And we both wanted a Blakes’s Lota’ Burger, with green chile and cheese. I had to track him down through the cell phone number of a landscaper he sometimes works with. He asked me to meet him out in front of Walgreen’s, rather than me coming to get him at the backyard garage apartment in which he lives. Or sleeps. This being only a temporary arrangement. We ate. He enjoyed it. And then I took him to buy some decent clothes for the funeral; pants, dress shirt, belt, shoes, dress socks -- all at the Goodwill because Lord knows I could not afford a whole new wardrobe. And, truth is, my deceased brother Don, had frequented the Goodwill store a few times himself, which is what I told Paul, and we indeed, found some designer label clothes and probably the best pair of shoes he’s ever worn in his life.
We purchased a complete funeral ensemble, plus two t-shirts for $26.43. Don’t let it be said that I am not frugal.

Course there’s no fixing his front teeth which are now missing due to years of meth abuse, and his arrested development, which maturationally speaking, dropped him off somewhere around 16. I didn’t have to attend Al Anon meetings to realize that there truly isn’t much I can do for him, except pay his life insurance and send him new blue jeans, shirts and a jacket once a year and birthday money, when I can find him.

I can’t do much for my next younger brother, who has his own issues to deal with. Don’t we all? This is harder on Jay, Don’s death piling additional pain into a life that’s already had more than its fair share -- a child who died, cancer of his own to survive. Jay’s lost his role model, golf partner and fishing buddy, source of consternation and never ending amusement. They were closer in proximity and aggregated more life experience together than any of the rest of us sibs. All I could do was be present to his pain.

“He will never know how much he influenced my life,” Jay said with tears in his eyes as we held each other in the hospital bed next to Don’s. Minutes later we’d be laughing about Don flipping the nurse off after she said, "Mr. Whatley, you really can not get out of bed." He was past the point of self-editing. The next day after she told him, "I'll be back to give you a bath," he whispered to his son, "and a blow job?" Way to set the bar high, Don. You were funny to the end.

Which, within a week it was. In the Labor Day heat, too hot to be wearing black, all the mourners perched like crows in the grass, laughing and crying again, at the house after the funeral. The surviving story tellers, sharing a tale or two, because that IS what families do, pass on our oral tradition, phrase by phrase, beat by beat, in the cadence of our clan, with the same pitch, the same punch lines, unaware of how natural it is. I heard my mother’s voice, the voices of both my brothers gone in the words that came from younger mouths, and in the hearing, a single death becomes a collective loss, stirring up that tar bucket of grief for everyone I’ve ever lost. There have been too damn many.

And yet, in the midst of the acrid smoke, there is a bright spot, a shimmering, ice-blue sliver of hope for something I hold as dear as my dog. As I sit in the front yard full of relatives and friends, juggling piled-high plates of funeral food, there resides a tickling hope in the back of my mind. Just days before Don died, I had learned I was a finalist in a writing contest for women. I gasped when I’d read the email, which made my daughter jump a foot. It was, after all, my first day back from the “goodbye tour” to Albuquerque, and she assumed I’d received the sad news from my laptop that Don has passed. Although, I seriously doubt my sister-in-law would have simply emailed me, efficient as that might have been. Okay, so we were all a little jumpy after I got back. I had gone, I had stayed as long as I could, but the lingering could have been indefinite. I had the blessing of seeing him, when he still knew who was in the room.

I’m grateful for those moments. My voice would stir a look of recognition. He’d raise his eyebrows and turn his head toward me, focusing his blue, blue eyes on my dark, dark brown. He drank a whole carton of Yoohoo with me holding the straw. I fed him orange jello and spoons full of a vanilla malt. We flipped through the classic car calendar hanging on the wall, something his son had brought as a diversion.

“57 Impala,” he said emphatically, albeit quietly in his cancer muted voice, “63 BelAir.” And then, when asked if he was hungry, “I am fucking starving.”

His daughter and I fed him a tiny bit of spaghetti, with just a dollop of my homemade sauce . “It’s cold,” he said. We heated it up and he ate it all. I told him I loved him and he said, “I love you too,” and he kissed me on the lips. Here in this bed, the same big brother who carried me on the Lambretta scooter to the Forest Park Public Pool, when I was a chubby 9-year old, brown as a bun, hanging on to my towel with one hand and him with the other. The same big brother who let me drive the VW van on the Pacific Coast Highway, when I was only 17, with his whole family snoozing in the back, and him singing along with Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” taking in the scenery in his Andy Capp tweed cap and hair down to his shoulders. The same big brother who, 25 years later, respectfully refused to back my gubernatorial candidate, even though I was the dude’s press secretary, proving that union solidarity is thicker than blood sometimes. We had blossomed by then, he and I, into a commandingly handsome, charismatic union leader and I, an accomplished, journalist turned spin doctor, both of us known throughout New Mexico. No brag, just fact.

In that dying room, none of that mattered a rat’s ass. It was the same two people who, through the intimacy of shared blood, shared experiences from growing up under the same leaky roof, two people out of the remaining four people on the planet, who shared the inter sanctum of our oft times bizarre upbringing and a communal purple heart from surviving it, it was just a big brother and his little sis in an appalling version of the The Last Comic Standing. Another one of the remaining four was about to bite the dust. Goddamn this devil called cancer. Saying goodbye was like watching Old Yeller on a continuous loop for four days, heartbreaking and precious at the same time. But, how much better it is to kiss his hand, his cheek, his forehead, when he is still warm.

But I maintained. I maintained.

I walked out of his room, out of the hospital, into the nourishment of the high desert sun straight to the nearest Lota Burger. I got one to go and was back in the Midwest by sundown, although not nearly so splendid as the one the day before. Home. Home to monitor my Blackberry, which would vibrate on the nightstand in the middle of night with the goddamn weekly grocery ad instead of the death call, waking me from a sound sleep to tell me flank steak was on sale. “Why did I give them my email address?” I wondered as I’d try to settle back to sleep. Only to be awakened a short time later, the death call cometh on a rainy Monday morning a week later. I jumped on a plane, and was back to the searing sunlight, the sixty-mile vistas and cumulous clouds in the afternoon, stacked as far and as wide as the eye could see, the magnificence of it all, tinted like a gel placed over a studio light, colored by the tyranny of death. Funny how we reflexively look at the sky when people die, as if we could see them rising.

But I maintained. I maintained, in front of the mourners and the greeters and the weepers because that’s what my mama taught me and that’s what my brother asked me to do.

Write and talk, that was my job.

Then laughed and drank. With the first ex-husband and his familiar, loving embrace and his band of brothers, five out of the eight -- former brothers-in-law all, as if no time, no legal document could sever the bonds of our past. And the margarita meet up with my best friend from high school, whom I have not seen in more than twenty years -- and she shares a story so similar to mine in the revelations of former husbands, I want to jump out of the wrought iron chair in the Mexican restaurant and scream,

“No fucking way!”

But I don’t. We quickly move on to more savory topics like our pot smokin’, Spanada swillin’ days of youth and stories I will not disclose here, because friend or not, she might sue my ass. It was all that, but NOT a bag of chips, because all the while, I was trying to maintain.

And I did. Even after I got home, after my first day back to work, writing scripts about millionaire athletes who deserve a fair deal, and millionaire entrepreneurs who want to grab life by the balls, as I check my bank balance, trying to figure out how I’m going to recover from emergency funeral flights for three, I open a few cards from my blessed friends and discover checks. Yes, checks from my St. Louis friends, who, when asked, “what can I do to help?” to which I replied, “send money,” and they did. I go to bed feeling so richly blessed, then crestfallen, the very next day, because, old Jean was indeed, a runner up. Not the winner, just a finalist. Everybody knows that nobody remembers the girl standing next to Miss America. The woman who won the writing contest is chronicling her experiences in raising bi-racial children in what she must perceive to be the Reconstruction Era. Cry me a river. But, in becoming a finalist, I have established some connections with a cadre of highly networked (love that word, networked) women, one of whom, a notable editor, is willing to continue to work with me even if I am just a runner up. Blessed be God forever, I have maintained.

Bitches. But I did not share my little story with the fat ladies club this morning, because I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, that divulging the mountain of stress I’ve clawed over in the past two weeks, would have sent the whole room into a frenzied, no-holds-barred group gorge, the likes of which nobody had ever seen! Points be damned! A whole room full of stress eaters, diving for their secret stash of Cheetos and HoHo’s in the hidden compartments of their purses! Snicker’s tucked in their bosom, cookies in their pockets, cellophane ripped off cartons of Weight Watcher snacks, pillaged and consumed, the cardboard cartons flying off like so much sawdust from a bench saw. It could have been ugly, anarchy right before the leader’s eyes, forcing her to cower behind her flip chart.

Nope, I didn’t talk about my stress eating, because through all the comfort enchiladas and burgers and booze, I maintained. I actually maintained. There’s this little stress buster called a brisk morning walk at the Highland High School track, with the Sandia Mountains as a backdrop. Talk about inspiration! But, I keep this to myself. And next week, I’ll come back even lighter.

Because I have another source of inspiration. There’s this little wedding next week and I do not want to plant a child in front of me in every photo.

And, I just might have met a fella.

Which goes to show, it’s never really over until the fat lady gripes.


  1. You are an amazing woman, a survivor, a hero. You've been through a lot. People care about you and good things are waiting! By the way, I would have walked out too. Hugs.
    Linda O'Connell

  2. I'm sitting here crying and laughing out loud. What a gift you have.

  3. O can't top Craig - he said it best. Time to contact the Atlantic Monthly girlfriend!! LMS

  4. When I read your blogs, Jean, I feel like I've been swept up in a huge wave and tumbled along full speed without the ability or willingness to stop. Your words move me, with the full range of emotions. Including awe. Your opening paragraph about the fat girl belongs in the Opening Lines Hall of Fame.

  5. This is so wonderful, and touching, and funny, and just plain honest... I can't wait to continue reading.

  6. I found you before you were the runner up but just a finalist. I was not wrong in reaching out to you. You are an amazing writer and now I get to catch up on all your entries.

  7. Madgew,

    I just now saw your post. Thank you so much, I'll be sure to check out your writing. LA, huh? I'm there frequently. Perhaps we could being a verb these days.


  8. Erin

    It really touches me that you'd say this. So much fun at the wedding, huh? God bless and all the best.