18 Feb How To Say, “I’m Not Okay!”

If you read my last post you know that, due to a convergence of stressful factors–starting with Jill’s terminal diagnosis–I am in a bit of trouble emotionally and physically. I knew my blood pressure was high but was stunned, nonetheless, to discover it was this high: 190/115. That’s a hairbreadth away from stroke. Timebomb stuff.

Hypertension and heart disease are the legacy of my mother’s side of the family. Virtually all of her Appalachian family members, including eight of her nine siblings, were felled by strokes. Because I’ve long been active and slim, I always assumed I’d be the exception. But, now 30 pounds overweight, I’m slim no more. And not nearly as active as I used to be (I was once a long-distance runner). My condition didn’t happen overnight, of course. These things tend to creep up on you until one day, after months of denial, you simply cannot fit into your jeans anymore.

When I first met Jill’s father and stepmother, they were amazed by how much I ate at our first dinner together: three servings of spaghetti, as well as salad, sides, and two servings of dessert. One time Jill and I went to a dinner hosted by a couple we’d met recently; Jill was helping out in the kitchen when the host turned to her and said, “Would half this [one-pound pack of] spaghetti be enough for the four of us?” Jill laughed. I routinely put away a pound of spaghetti at a meal and still had room for dessert.

Let me be clear: I’m hardly boasting and certainly not complaining. Yes, as a big-eater who never got obese, I was most fortunate, wasn’t I? I can joke about it but I have to admit that an eating problem–that is, a problem with food–is almost always a potentially serious problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re “slim.”

My mother, may she rest in peace, was one of the worst cooks I’ve ever known, so I understood nothing about good food. She married right out of high school and had never spent time in a kitchen. Hers was the generation that delighted in the convenience of Betty Crocker cake mixes and frozen TV dinners. She tried her best to keep up with her three sons. There was always food on our table and in our house but, in my estimation, there never seemed to be enough. As the youngest of three, I had to fight for my share. To this day, it informs how I eat: when people want to share, say, a pizza with me, I get anxious because, whenever I shared food with my brothers, I came away hungry.

I love to cook. Although my meals aren’t sophisticated, they are ample. I’m never satisfied serving a single entrée. I’d prefer three, for variety. There’s nothing I enjoy more than cooking for others. It’s a form of nurture that yields immediate gratification. Always I over-feed my guests because I don’t want anybody to feel they haven’t gotten their share. Of all the foods I love, pizza is my favorite. Until recently, I was in the habit of eating a large pepperoni pizza as a snack and two large pies (or more) for supper.

On one of my book tours out West, a friend took me to a pizza restaurant with his family. He, his wife, and their three kids shared a large pizza with me for dinner. I politely took my share (two pieces) and, at the dinner’s end, thanked them for their hospitality, then excused myself to run some errands (we had driven separately). As soon as I waved them off in the parking lot, I returned to the restaurant and ordered myself a large pizza, which I ate in short order.

Yes, I am a pig.

But get this: for twenty years, I ate no sugar or anything that contained it. I started eating for health in college, after reading nutrition books by Adelle Davis, who enjoyed tremendous popularity at the time (she would die just a couple of years later of bone cancer, decrying herself as a failure). Whereas I grew up eating baloney sandwiches on white bread with a slice of “American cheese,” I now ate cucumber and parmesan on whole grain bread with alfalfa sprouts. Yogurt was a revelation. This was the 1970s when it wasn’t easy finding alternatives to the mainstream American diet of burgers and fries. You really had to work at it. After reading Sugar Blues my senior year of college, I cut all sugar from my diet. I ate sweets only if they were made with honey. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed this kind of discipline, though I can reveal that, when I was 12, I quit eating candy for a full year. It was a test of fortitude, inspired I’m pretty sure by my thoroughly disciplined father.

Dad was the kind of guy who never betrayed his emotions. A Depression-era kid who believed you had to tough it out, no matter what, he refused Novocain whenever he went to the dentist. Yeah, one of those guys. He died of stomach cancer when I was a senior in college. True to his example, I suppressed my emotions. In fact, the day after his death, I helped a friend move from her apartment and never said a word about my pain. Later, she was furious when she learned that I’d hid my grief from her. I thought that’s what men are supposed to do.

That’s why–years earlier, in seventh-grade P.E.–when I broke my finger while attempting to catch a fly ball, I said nothing about it. Despite the excruciating pain, I refused to believe my finger was broken. To this day, that crooked finger reminds me of my father’s masculine legacy. My point is that it’s been very difficult for me to admit when I need help. After my father’s death, I should have had counseling. It took me fifteen years to come to terms with my loss. There’s some work you simply can’t do, shouldn’t do, alone.

Which brings me to my current situation. In the face of Jill’s imminent demise and the fading of our farmlife dream, I’ve been adrift, struggling to bear up, be the strong man that Jill needs. But I’m not Superman. Last week Jill and I were about thirty minutes into our weekly errand drive (the only outing we get these days) when she said matter-of-factly, “I can’t see.”

I glanced at her. “What do you mean?”

“My vision,” she said. “It’s like I’m looking through shattered glass.”

I gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “You can’t see?”


“What’s wrong—are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she said, “I just can’t see.”

Secretly I’m saying to myself, Holy shit! Holy shit holy shit!

“You mean hardly see?” I said.

“It’s called visual scatter,” she said. Again, matter-of-factly.

“But there’s no pain?”

“It’ll go away, I’m pretty sure.”

Later it did go away. This is her life now. It’s like she’s leaving me by degrees, in bits and pieces. One day, I’ll look over and she won’t be there. I know there’s no way I can prepare myself for this. But I try to steel myself nonetheless. I’m now able to talk very directly about her dying—no euphemisms–as I discuss contingencies with my financial advisor or accountant or insurance agent, experts who deal with actuarial charts and predictions rooted in firm data. The latest contingency is the prospect of my own death. Yes, it’s time to talk about that.

And we do. This is now my greatest worry, that I’ll leave Jill in a lurch, an ironic twist of fate that takes me out first. So, two weeks ago, I got some help. Medication for my blood pressure. Medication for my depression. No apologies, no excuses. Just do what needs to be done! I’m practicing “portion control” when I eat. Also intermittent fasting. Also 8-9 hours of sleep. Don’t fuck this up! I’m exercising every day.

And still we work on the house, now finishing what will become the library. I hung and wired our way-cool antique ceiling light today (a showpiece!)  while Jill painted the trim all around the room. Tomorrow we’ll start on Jill’s home office, the last room to strip and paint. We’re making great progress. I want this house to be a sparkling beauty while Jill can still enjoy it. I do believe we’ll make that happen.

Jill’s Go-Fund-Me page