Why I Don’t Diet – An Ode to My Father

Tiffany Kell headshotMy father died three weeks ago. He was in hospice, with all the pharmacological and technological assistance available to keep him comfortable and pain-free, but it was still, as deaths go, not a good one.

I had flown in hours after I’d heard about his fall. He was in late-stage heart and renal failure, and this fall was the beginning of the end. When I arrived, a nurse popped into the room to check on him. “Are you in pain?” she asked. “Just a little,” my dad said, joking through his wincing.

It didn’t have to end like this.

My father was born larger than life, to a family of larger than life people. DNA sequencing showed we are almost entirely Viking stock, no great surprise given the height and breadth of our bodies.

When my father turned 20, he was over 6’2 and 300lbs. His feats of athleticism echoed like legends among his family and friends. There was the time he simply forward-pressed an enormous king-size bed from the sidewalk to a second-story window; it took six men to wrangle it inside. There was the time he and my mother were trapped in a collapsing apartment, and he picked her up with one arm and ripped the dead-bolted door out of its frame with the other. There was the time he stopped an attempted mugging by walking up to the assailant and plucking the knife out of his hand, like you or I would flick off a bit of lint. He was a giant, thriving and vital, built of strength and flesh.

But he didn’t want to be a giant. He wanted to be thin.

After trying and failing countless diet programs, he enrolled in an experimental program hosted by one of the most prestigious research universities in the world. The nitty-gritty: he’d live in their neuropsychiatric unit as an in-patient, and he would fast. He would consume nothing but water, calorie-free diet soda, and vitamin/mineral supplements. He would be kept in the hospital to make sure there were no hidden calories consumed. Researchers would learn how the body processes starvation. My father, presumably, would become thin.

He lived in the neuropsychiatric unit for eight months, consuming, on average, 30 calories a day. He recalls that the greatest challenge of this period wasn’t the fasting itself. It was the boredom. He stole a white coat someone had left behind and joined the team of doctors doing daily rounds, pretending to be a medical student. It was months before anyone realized he was actually a patient. I still have the charcoal sketches he made of his fellow inmates, a portrait of the hauntingly beautiful woman with schizophrenia he used to play cards with, or the baby-faced man with bipolar disorder who my father would later teach to drive.

The experiment was to end when my father reached his “normal” weight, which the doctors judged to be around 180lbs. And so he did. He was physically weak, with a newly developed arrhythmia, but he was thin.

This was one of the best moments of his life, and he would spend the next 40 years of his life trying to recapture it.

The thinness lasted less than two months. He obsessively counted calories and ate nothing but the minuscule amount of food his doctors had prescribed, but even so, he gained weight. A year later, he had gained everything back, with interest. He was now over 400lbs.

His pursuit of thinness never stopped. He took fen-phen, and ravaged his already damaged heart. He was still fat, but the hunt for weight-loss made him sicker and sicker.

Eventually, doctors found he had celiac disease. A wasting disease. No one had bothered to look for such a condition in a fat man. Years of being in and out of the hospital, and no one asked why he was throwing up all his food. They joked it was probably for the best that his GI system wasn’t working well. His intestines were scarred, and would never fully recover.

Even though he was as obsessed with thinness as a person can be, and as dedicated to its pursuit as is possible, he remained fat. And his doctors punished him for it. He was called names, refused care, and left without treatment, over and over again.

The last year of his life, he wasted away. His cheeks were shrunken, and his formerly massive shoulders started to look slight. I asked him to make sure he was eating, offered to send him food deliveries. He told me, no need. His doctors were thrilled he was finally “getting healthy” and losing weight. Every week, he gave me his excited “pounds lost” update. Every week, I hung up the phone and wept.

His last night in hospice, I sat by him in his room, his head resting on my shoulder. He was so small. His formerly massive legs had wasted to small sticks – like a child’s legs attached to a man’s body. He was a shadow of himself.

Nurses came and told me they wanted to resettle him in bed. He was partially supported by my body, and they were afraid I wasn’t strong enough to hold him. They were afraid he would fall. They brought four orderlies to help reposition him. Four strangers to move him since he was so big.

I told them no, that would not be necessary. I leaned over and gently lifted him off the bed, repositioning him so that now I cradled him, his entire weight supported by my body. I am more than strong enough, I informed them.

My father spent his years fighting his size, wishing he was smaller, weaker, less of a giant. He was taught to hate his body, and he was ashamed of the amount of space he took up. But he passed his strength to me, and I won’t squander my inheritance. I will not let myself be diminished.

I am my father’s daughter. I too am a giant, built of strength and flesh. And I am strong enough to carry myself and others, even when they can’t carry themselves.


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