Why A 92-Year-Old Calling Me Fat Made Me Change My Life

A few months ago, I traveled home for my birthday. At the party, my grandmother, always a subtle and delicate woman, gave the following toast in my honor: "Michael, you’re fat. You need to lose some weight." Not exactly what I was expecting, but nobody ever accused The Greatest Generation of having an overabundance of tact. And the fact is that she wasn’t exactly wrong. Over the past few years, I’ve managed to balloon from 125 to slightly over 200 pounds, the simple result of too many eight-pint nights and too much neglect for myself.

While it may not have been in the form of kind and loving support, Gran had given me the push I’d been waiting for. Apparently, getting called out on my physique on my birthday by a particularly beloved 92-year-old was all the motivation I needed: It was time to draw up a plan.

I grew up as the fifth-generation progeny of Italian immigrants in New York; in my family, hints handed down from the older generation are basically edicts. As a kid, I was never more than a five-minute walk across the city from any member of my family. Sunday dinners with more than a dozen people gathered were commonplace, and holidays would see 30 or more people around the table.

We ate a lot. I was a pudgy child. 

I moved to the South a while ago, but every time I came home, Gran always had a new list of suggestions (OK, demands) for me. After greeting me, she’d start in quickly: "Michael, when are you gonna get married?" This sentiment was usually followed by, "You better have children while I’m still around." While I’d been expecting the reprise of these particular desires on my birthday, my weight somehow earned multiple mentions. Losing a few pounds sounded just a bit quicker and simpler than getting married and fathering a child, so I figured that was the ticket. I’d be home in four months, and by that point, she’d be able to see me a bit trimmer and on my way to being healthy. No sweat.

My grandmother died a few weeks later.

It’s funny what a sudden death in the family can do. Everyone’s on the next flight home, at the wake, at the funeral, at wit’s end trying to process what just happened. It becomes easy— in fact, essential—to put one’s own life on hold. I spent days in the funeral parlor, in the church, at the cemetery. My plans went out the window.

When you lose someone close to you, your life tends to get thrown off balance. How do you pick yourself up and keep going where you left off? And when your inspiration for changing yourself disappears, how do you keep going?

I’d had a Rocky montage in mind, but my body could only tolerate a Jane Fonda tape.

That’s how I found myself realizing that there's no central reason to do anything. It’s all on you. You’re the only one who can reliably get out of bed, look at your day, then set off down a smart path. Routine is an easy road to drive when things are going your way, but grief is a collision that can send you flying in all directions, your careful route disrupted.

At the lunch after the burial, I sat in an Italian restaurant, sandwiched among 50 aunts, uncles, and cousins, each of us joking or otherwise trying to throw off the terrible sadness of the day. Out from the kitchen came plates piled high with ravioli as big as my fist. They looked delicious, but my first thought was: "I shouldn’t eat this. I’m already fat enough as it is."

While I wasn’t being kind to myself, at least I acknowledged that I still wanted to work toward my goal. But of course I ate those ravioli. I was grieving, and they were amazing. 

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I spent at least a month watching my brain tell my body to get up, while my brain heard that message and steadfastly sat on the couch watching Netflix. Did you know that every single episode of Airwolf is on there? I was somewhere in the middle of the third season of hot Ernest-Borgnine-flying-a-helicopter action, sprawled on the couch, passively hating my body, when I realized what I was doing.

I had to stop worrying about my weight without actually doing anything about it. I’ve noticed that when my life goes a little off the rails, my goals tend to stay in place, but I stop advancing them. I’ll stare at a goal, ponder it, think that maybe I should do something about it, then steadfastly ignore it.

And this time was no different. But it was time to try, and I wanted to acknowledge where I was starting from. After peeling myself away from a Quantum Leap binge, I took a hard look in the mirror, and realized that I didn’t look anything like I thought I did. After a careful examination, I determined that I’m not fat, I just have fat parts. My legs look great, and my arms are spindly like an old cartoon character’s. It’s just my torso that’s a problem. Some days, I look at myself and wonder what it would cost to get lipo just for that piece of me.

I was 208 pounds the day I started the plan. I started out thinking that I would jump right back into cardio, weight training, running, the whole nine yards, but I’d injured my knee pretty severely a few years ago, so while I’d had a Rocky montage in mind, my body could only tolerate a Jane Fonda tape.

The searing pain in my legs that came from running full-out that first day nearly sent me back to the couch. After all, there were seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to watch if I gave up and went back to my living room.

But I stuck with it. Mostly, I’m doing a lot of walking, a little jogging, three times per week on the elliptical, and push-ups until I feel just short of awful. (This usually means 10 push-ups). I still find myself thinking about death a lot. Sometimes it’s easy to get tripped up on that looming thought: Why exercise if death is coming for us all? I wonder if when the end comes, I’ll be happy with how I treated myself. I figure I probably won’t, but I’m glad I’m on this better path. I want to keep going. I guess that’s what we do; we move away from sorrow any way we can.

I want to honor the memory of my grandmother, to remember who inspired this healthy change I’m making. I know that moving is good for me. It helps me get in shape, and it helps me clear my head so I can organize my thoughts. 

I don’t presume to know anything about the afterlife. But I’d like to think that my Gran is somewhere taking note of my progress, understanding who I am and who I’m probably always going to be, proud that I’m still trying.

And then telling me to lose 15 more pounds.

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