My Daddy was fat. Not just overweight, he was obese.
|Salt and Pepper
My father was fat. Not just overweight, he was obese. So similar sounding to the word obscene. It was obscene in some ways I suppose. But mostly for a little girl it was just sad.
“Your Dad’s fatter than Santa Claus,” the kids at school would tease at Christmas. And being of Hispanic decent, his dark skin, curly hair and big lips, elicited cries of “Hey, Hey, Hey it’s Fat Albert.” I didn’t mind those taunts so much; I liked Fat Albert and Santa Claus. They were both happy jolly kind-hearted people like my Daddy, but they got around a lot better than he did.
I vaguely remember when he could walk without a cane. I must have been five or six. We would go outside, and he would pitch balls to me practicing for my dream to be the only girl on the neighborhood little league team. But one fateful day, somewhere between my sixth and seventh birthday, he fell at work taking his 400 pounds down and onto the slaughter-house floor falling with as much force as the cattle they knocked out there before gutting.
It was on that day, in that place, that his weight ripped the meat, tore the tendons, and plied the cartilage loose from around the knuckle joint in his knee and hip. It was that slip that resulted in his use of a cane and which perpetuated a snowball of obesity launching him into a lifetime of agonizing disability, pain and an additional two-hundred pounds of weight gain.
But mostly I remember his cane. It was a cane to walk with and to talk with, and he grew accustomed to waving it at people when making a forceful point. The cane like his weight became a tool to scoot things away with and to pull things closer – like the salt and pepper from the other end of the kitchen table, like my mother and me.
That cane nudged the dogs to move aside and tapped me on the head asking where my common sense had gone to. The cane helped him up and down two flights of stairs in our house and closed the car door he couldn’t reach once squeezed in behind the steering wheel of his black late model Lincoln Continental with the seat positioned all the way back.
It was from that Continental that Daddy sat parked behind the fence delineating homerun territory past right field. At eight years old I would turn and wave and smile excitedly “see me out here” I’d holler as another ball flew past my head unnoticed. He would tap the horn and point his cane out the window – meaning ‘keep your pretty head in the game now Peep!” That was his nickname for me, Peepers.
Win or loose, we always went for ice cream.
Orange Soda Courage
"Want to pick some cotton Peep?" Daddy pointed a crooked finger over the steering wheel, gesturing to an endless white blanket resting upon rolling green fields. Picking my head up from his soft shoulder, I peeled my thighs off the sticky leather arm rest and tucked them under me to sit on my heals. In this position I was almost eye level and could see the road much better. "Ok, Lets do it!" I answered. Daddy's free arm was usually stretched out across the seat and made a great head rest for me up there beside him. Other times, when he had to stop fast or someone cut him off, it would swing down fast across my chest to catch me from flying into the dash. Today I got a one-armed squeeze while Daddy stopped along the shoulder of a dusty two-lane Brazos County highway.
I wiped sweaty bangs and peered out the rolled down window. There it was, a bunch of white fluff stuck like cotton candy to the tops of rather ugly stalks, and it went on forever. Daddy switched off the engine, and the hiss of the cooling car blended with the audible buzz of summer. I crawled over to hang out the window and consider the journey out into the heat and the bugs. Part of me desperately wanted to explore the snowy summer field and investigate the obvious dichotomy, another part did not want to go alone. Contemplating my options, I imagined each puff a vanilla flavored snow ball sitting there waiting to be plucked and gobbled up, but that was just for pretend of course.
"Go ahead peep! Go get some, you can ....!" A whoosh zoomed by, rocking the car with the hot displaced wind of a too close for comfort semi truck. Daddy didn't seem to notice and began clapping and singing,"Sit right down pick a bail of cotton, git right down pick a bale a day! Sit right down pick a bale..." I didn't ask him to stop singing and come with me. I knew Daddy could not walk without pain and could not move fast enough to be safe getting out along the highway-side of the road. I could see in his imploring eyes that he would have come along if he could have, but he couldn't; so I didn't ask. I got to be a big girl and do it all on my own! I one-hand clapped my thigh along with his song, turned up a swig of warm-orange-soda courage with the other, and sent my six-year-old self out to pick us some cotton in the 100 degree Texas heat.
The grass crunched as I stepped away from the car and pressed toward an angry looking bobbed-wire fence. I could feel my father's proud eyes behind me as I fought to keep the scratchy tall weeds out from under my yellow sunflower frock. I am sure my white cotton panties, with the cute ruffles around the thighs, peeked out as I reached through the rusted wire and plucked the little bulbs, careful not to "prick my precious little fingers." It seemed like only seconds and I was back in the car, back in my spot up on the arm rest, celebrating my collection with Daddy. He nodded approvingly, swung back up on the road and a nice warm breeze dried our sweat in no time.
Earlier in the day I had noticed a little line of dirt peeking from under my chin. I could only see it if I stretched my neck up far enough to get a good look in the rear view mirror. I checked again to make sure it was still there and if it was any more pronounced. I thought anxiously about showing it to Mommy when i got home; it was secret proof of a really good day.
As he drove, I continued investigating my bounty. "This is where cotton balls come from?" I asked twirling the little puff in the air. "Yep, sure does and thread too." Daddy informed. "All thread?" I asked." "Yep ALL thread, well most thread" he clarified. "The thread in my dress?" "Yep. "The thread in my panties?" "Yep." "The thread in your shirt?" "Yes, Peep YES! All the thread in the world!" He chuckled and patted my head with his free hand. I looked at the fiber closely, it was not soft like the cotton balls in the medicine chest and it had seeds stuck in it. I tried to pull a few out and obtained them only after shredding the sticky ball to smithereens. I threw that part out the window and tried to show the seeds to Daddy who reminded me that "eyes have to stay on the road". "Well there are little seeds too!" I explained. A good silence set in against the hum of a summer highway and I studied the remaining bulbs in the lap of my little sunflower frock for a good long while. I had only one more question as my sweaty head lolled back into the sleepy crease of Daddy's shoulder, "Hey Daddy?" "Yes, Peep? Can you take me to the yellow cotton? "I want to see where my dress comes from?"
"Dog gone it Peepers, We just passed it!" I guess we'll catch that one next time.
Golden Cheese Crackers
Despite the fall he worked hard to do more and have more than a meat inspector would. The day job was not that physical, he drove from place to place and wobbled in to look around, measure temperatures, inspect sinks and then retreat to a room set aside for doing paperwork. The route covered two counties and numerous meat processing plants requiring him to drive and inspect from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once home, he would make a delicious dinner seasoned with all his love just for Punkin Jones and Peepers - just my mom and me. Then he would head off to manage his Tote Away beer joint with roll-up garage door walls. Those doors were up from noon to 2 a.m welcoming the customers who rolled into the dusty parking lot looking to escape the sun, drink an ice-cold Texas longneck, shoot some pool and shoot the breeze.
At the Tote Away there was always a problem to deal with: fights, drunks, beggars, sobbing ladies searching for their two-timing husbands. And I sat on a barstool and ate Golden Cheese crackers and drank soda and watched the whole thing. Daddy would sit in the back of the bar counting money, a rat would run across the cement floor and I would draw with chalk on the walls – pretty pictures for the sad drunken old men. I remember thinking. The amazing thing was how my Daddy did not mind one bit that I wanted to draw on the walls of his beer joint and toss quarters in the jukebox and sweep around the pool tables on my roller skates. He would clap and say ‘Look at you go,' and 'Hey Buddy aren’t those the prettiest chalk flowers you have ever seen!' And you know being there did not harm me or teach me anything other than that the world was full of very different people who were often not as lucky as me. Of course I also learned that even drunk old men like chalk flowers on the walls.
Daddy carried a gun because he understood the potential for real trouble; and one night while he was closing the bar alone some men who had cased the joint followed him as he left. Having surmised that a fat man with a cane would leave with the night’s earnings, they attempted to run him off the highway. As told, he pulled over, pulled his heavy weight out of the car – stood shaking as the pain echoed in his limbs – and held his pistol with both hands pointing it at the men. “I will kill you –You dirty bastards,” he said. “Take one step and one of your sorry asses is dead.”
As he told me, they wasted no time getting back in the car and making tracks from the scene. Yet I can image Daddy collapsing back into the car seat shaking and sweating with a grimace of pain across his face. I think of it and am saddened greatly. Daddy returned home safe that night and as usual got up five hours later to do it all over again.
Beer and Oysters
My mom tells me stories of earlier days, before I was born, and how she and Daddy would walk along the beach, young lovers feeling the tide wash sand between their toes. She says Daddy would wade out with a fishing pole, pull in some redfish or snapper and cook it over the open flame of a bonfire -- a bonfire that with full bellies they would sit by into the night and dream in its warmth of the future before them.
That was back in the ‘60s and Daddy had sold beer and oysters from the back of a station wagon to make his way up into the beach town’s pearled pontoon party boat population. Mama was tan and skinny in designer swimsuits and Daddy fat and busy in the beach business running the Sea Isle and Jamaica Beach marinas.
Yet just a few years later, Hurricane Carla tore its path across the Isle and Daddy and Mamma packed their bags and left the beach not to return until long after my adoption. Returning to the isle 15 years later was as simple as their 12 year-old daughter reaching toward her youthful ambitions. Hearing an ad on the radio for a part in a Galveston beach-side musical, I auditioned and got the part and in doing so suddenly won a ticket that would bring my parents back to the beach where it seemed to have all began.
They loved being back and bought a beach-front A-frame they could not really afford. Daddy would sit on the deck and wave as family and friends scurried out to swim or toss horseshoes or huddle about bonfires. Sometimes Mommy would walk the shoreline and Daddy would cruise along riding the break beside her in the Continental. I didn’t realize then how difficult it must have been for him to watch us all through his lens of immobility tinted with memories of an active past.
I am sure many times he fought back tears wondering why he could not fight off the weight. In later years I tried desperately to help him. I was eight when the doctors told my mom that Daddy would not live to see me turn 12. I was 12 when Daddy got his stomach stapled to try to lose the weight. I remember he went on a ventilator and almost died trying to come off of it. Within months the staples busted true to the possibility that was forewarned, and Daddy continued to gain.
Christmas Eve with Jose Cuervo
At 16, I could drive and was strong enough to push his wheelchair as well as the 500 pounds that seemed to glue it to the floor. Downward inclines propelled it like a rocket as we managed our way in and out, and around and down hospital hallways for check ups and tests. I held on tight and leaned back with all of my 115 pounds refusing to tell Daddy he was too heavy for me push or pull.
The doctors would give him a cup to pee in, and once I asked if he needed help. I remember the hurt and angry look of embarrassment he didn’t mean to give, and I knew not to ask him that again. Still I worried. I knew he had trouble using the restroom at home as evidenced by the spills and splatters on our bathroom walls – which I always cleaned up discretely. And the occasional smell of urine on his clothes also reminded me of the private difficulties he refused to share with anyone.
He had a large wooden bench that sat in the bathtub and a scrub brush. We were all terrified he would slip during his baths that came on the occasion that he could bear the pain and the strain of doing so. I understood the smell of old sweat that seemed to rise up out of the leather of his car seats. Not only did I understand it, but later in life I came to miss it as well.
But he was a proud man with enough humility to bear the brunt of difficulties of his weight with a smile for others, never angry at his place in life, always ready to engage a new day with a smile and laugh, never hinting at the real pain he was in. “Why must they suffer with me?” this was way he would think, while tossing back 10 plus aspirin a day. And this is why I remember so many happy times – ball games, and beach days, huge Thanksgiving turkeys, Easter shrimp boils, and Christmas Eve with Jose Cuervo and Daddy singing Fats beside the tree.
Burgers and Bourbon Street
Fats Domino had been one of my father’s best friends in young adulthood. Together they had bounced from bar to bar in the French Quarter and hung out in joints with such greats at Ray Charles and BB King. Daddy told me how he was in the studio the day Fats recorded Blueberry Hill, and recalled the story as though describing a day they had gone for a burger and tapped a tune out on a napkin box. Daddy also recalled Fat’s big pink mansion in New Orleans and how after a long hot night banging the ivory, he and Fats would chill by a cool swimming pool as maids maintained their scotch and milks – their so called hangover relief. And he would laugh with a hand on the top of his belly saying ‘Those were the days, Peep’ and look 22 again.
When I was 18, Fats came to town, and I begged Daddy to let me take him for a reunion. He refused, “Peep, some things are better just remembered.” I knew he didn’t want Fats to see him a bent and broken man. I went to the show alone and realized the irony of it all. Fats was fat too, maybe 100 pounds less than my father, but Fats was still fat and after years of banging out those old classics, he as well had lost something to the years behind him. They both probably could have really used a moment together to feel youth whisper in their veins – yet at the same time I understood. I have a five record Fats album, one of many in my Dad’s collection. It is signed “To Bill” by each member of the band. And if the Hard Rock Café offered me a hundred grand for it – I still doubt I could hand it over, it is so much a part of him.
Daddy Ate and Mama Drank
Always there to listen, Daddy rarely gave advice – it was a piece of his character that bonded us, but it also set me on a difficult path to self-discovery. On the rare occasion that he laid down the law, it was recognized and respected. But it rarely happened. I think he feared alienating me. He left the discipline up to my mother which was an unfair thing to do – unknowingly positioning himself in my eyes as the good parent while leaving my mom subject and solitary to deal with my teenage debate and to punish and worry about me.
When I was 17, my mother told me Daddy had been impotent for almost a decade, and she explained what that meant. I was not exactly shocked because I somehow had surmised that much without ever really considering it. But what this conversation did was bring to mind the issue from my mother’s perspective, and I wondered then and wonder more so today, how grave is the effect when intimacy fades from marriage. How do couples manage when passion for whatever logical reason falls away and seems to outsiders not even missed? My mother missed it I know, and I am sure it intensified before her eyes the evident erosion of the man she married years before.
To be fair she had long ago set her own erosive course as well. The swells of her alcohol consumption battered the shoreline of their marriage - Daddy ate and Mama drank and that was that. But hers is a whole other story. While I blamed her for enabling him, I did not blame her for being mad at him, and I of course understood why she continued to love him as well – but after the age of 10 I rarely remember seeing them exchange more than a kiss to quickly say goodbye or hello.
Yet what more could there have been, if he stood to hug you one hand would wobble on his cane and the other could only cumbersomely curl around your shoulder, there was no lap to sit in – it was squashed beneath the enormity of his stomach. So affection was always received in later years by bending over to kiss him on the cheek as both his arms would swoop up to pull you down onto his chest for a bear hug that made you stumble on your feet and loose your balance and for me that was wonderful and more than enough love – but for them both surely it was a sad reality.
Cream of Wheat and KFC
Believe it or not we did get his lap back. I was 22 when I saw him stand and walk unencumbered across the room 250 pounds lighter than when he had entered the hospital at 650. The doctors had admitted him due to the massive fluid build up in his body, resulting from the inability of his strong but not strong enough heart to move the fluids properly through his body. It was called congestive heart failure with symptomatic and chronic edema.
His ankles and legs swelled up so bad that the skin broke and fluid oozed out and dried sticky yellow on his skin. He had been given special ointment that I rubbed on his legs daily and heart pills and water pills to take. But none of it was going to save his life. Only he could do that; he had to loose some weight. And we cried and we pleaded, and I propped my two-year-old daughter on the table and begged him to choose to live to see her turn three and he did!
The doctors explained that he had lost over 70 pounds of water weight alone and a strict diet of broth and cream of wheat, vegetables plain and other healthy things had done the trick to bring him back to life. At 400 pounds I found his knee which I greeted like a long lost childhood friend, and I propped myself on it and leaned to kiss his cheek and tell him how proud and happy I was to know he would be around a bit longer.
“It doesn’t end here Peep!” He chirped, and I moved back home and followed and delivered his diet with meticulous care. Together we brought him down to 300 pounds in less than a year. Ten months I think. And then I sat on his lap, and I bought him new clothes, and I worried less. We laughed more, and we thought we had this monster that had haunted us all these years beat.
But with his health came the ability to make it back down the stairs and into his car where alone the temptations for just one bucket of KFC would surely not kill him. It it was a reward, and there was the problem as it always had been; food was his reward. Reward was the monster’s name. Why couldn’t the smiles on our faces have been enough reward, why couldn’t another year to live have been the reward. Why were those things not as rewarding as a Whopper or fried pork skins? Didn’t he love me as much I loved him?
Walk Me to UT Cookies
I was 25 with an Associate's degree behind me, when I showed Daddy the letter from the University of Texas. He quickly put on his glasses and began to read, "Hot damn!" he shouted, "my Baby is headed to UT." Happy tears filled his eyes, but I was desperately afraid. I just had to say it, "Daddy I can't leave you."
I was holding his hands tightly in mine when he asked why. Then I spoke that awful truth, "I fear if I leave, you'll give up and die." He didn't deny it when he pulled me close to his chest and pressed his mouth to my ear, "Peep, you gotta think about you. Don't worry your pretty head. I can take care of myself." But we both knew that wasn't true. "Now this calls for a batch of Walk Me to UT cookies," he laughed, and we began to bake our favorite shortbread recipe.
16 Feet Deep
Never once as a child or teen did I ever consider that my father might one day come home and decide to leave. I remember telling my mother at my tender age of six that if they ever divorced I would stay with Daddy, because he needed me more than she did. She would be fine, but Daddy needed me.
Yet on September 30 during my first semester at UT, Daddy left. Just as I had feared, he had needed me there. He died one night after an evening on the deck watching the sun set over the ocean for one last time. He was in his office chair gasping for the air his heart could not find, and I got the call around nine that night. I had been with college friends out on the lake watching the sun make its descent and talking of Daddy and Fats and making plans to see him again.
Then my friend's cell phone rang, and a grave voice simply told me to call home. He was gone, I knew it. I flew to the restroom before making the call, so as not to pee on myself when they told me. There in the stall, I tried to prepare. My mother would bark, ‘your father is dead’ in the same cold way she told me of my grandfather’s death, and I would comfort her.
Choosing to do this alone, I did not return to my table of friends but stepped to a pay phone and dialed anxiously. Mother's expected words yanked across the line like a hook in my mouth. I dropped the phone and was suddenly drowning in a suffocating vacuum of pain. Lungs bursting in my chest. Guts rushing up my throat. The lights in the parking lot began to spin, then someone caught my fall and placed me on my knees. Clinging to a parking curb, I was unable to think, to function, to cry, to breathe. I wanted my Daddy. And now this was registering, reaching my fuzzy brain, and I began to realize I could not escape this net of truth. He was gone, and we had lost the war for good this time.
Ice Cream Anyway
It was I who sat in the funeral home the following week and decided it best to bury him 16 feet deep so my mother could go on top; as his casket would take up the width of two plots. I also brought a suit I doubted he would wear knowing the struggle it would bring to fit 500 pounds into the thing. And while I cleared the pockets irony jumped into my searching hand from the silky inside of his coat - a black printed card spoke, "I feel much better, since I gave up hope." It was a gag shop card with a taxi driver's number on the back - but it was no joke.
It was our extended family that owned the home and this meant that although the casket would be closed, Daddy and I could have a moment alone. I met him that afternoon in a tiny white room. He was wearing a black body bag extra large and tight around his head and shoulders, stomach and thighs. So I could just make out the shape of his face and his hands resting along his side - hands that this time could not reach out and comfort my grief.
I thought of unzipping the plastic sheath that held him in such tight sleep, yet I feared the emptiness of his eyes, and I just imagined him tapping his cane saying "keep your pretty head in the game now Peep."
So I kissed cold plastic and promised him I would win this game of life and knock my fireball so far out of the park he could catch it in heaven. Yet as I shut the door behind me, I heard the umpire shout “he’s out.” The dimming field lights hissed in my ears. Car doors slammed as the winning team headed to McDonald’s, and I shuffled out of the funeral home alone. This time Daddy wouldn’t be there in the Continental to take me for ice cream anyway.
It was Tuesday after he was already at rest in the ground that I stepped to my mailbox and found a letter from him mailed the day he died, “Peep, I paid the electric bill for you, here is the receipt. Love, Daddy.”
That is when I started crying. Since then I have never really stopped the tears I feel are "just ours," the ones I cry when I see a sunset I want to share or wake from a dream and realize he's just draped eyelashes out of reach.
Today I saw a smiling little girl at the grocery store. She sat atop the massive shoulder of the grossly large man she called Daddy; her gigantic hero, his darling princess. “They are just inseparable,” his wife said. The little girl clung tighter and hid her tiny face inside the soft folds of her Daddy’s neck. I turned my burning eyes.
She would someday know the sad secret - there is more to the image of Santa Claus and Fat Albert than Christmas candy stockings, big hugs and Saturday morning laughter. There is the promise of obesity, addiction and all that that implies.
We waved goodbye.