The debate rages as to how many annual U.S. deaths can be blamed on obesity: 40,000? 400,000? Absent a definitive digit, obesity acceptance groups counter that maybe being obese isn’t the threat headlines proclaim. Either way, using mortality figures to gauge obesity impact isn’t the answer. Medical advances can keep the obese living decade upon decade, whether they suffer from diabetes, heart disease, orthopedic problems, cancer or all of the above.
Consider my grandmother. At five-foot-nothin’ she tips the scale at 300 pounds. For decades, she has lived in a self-decreed obesity exile, where she won’t socialize beyond family, hides when the cameras come out and refuses invitations other than to sedentary gatherings where she can hold court from her easy chair—or in recent years—her bed.
You’d really like her. She’s a sassy and skilled conversationalist with a great sense of humor, a heaping dollop of southern hospitality and a dash of gossip. Her looks harken back to a 40’s movie studio starlet: heart-shaped face, smoky eyes and full lips. Grandmom was always voluptuous—when voluptuous meant curvy and curvy meant hourglass, not fat. Since the 60’s, becoming twice widowed and after numerous failed diet attempts, she donned a muumuu, surrounded herself with walls of commissioned artwork of luxuriating beauties, and added another 150 pounds to her petite frame. As the weight increased, so did the limits on her activities. It’s the norm now, but back in the early 80’s my grandmother was the first person I ever knew who had a handicap parking pass for obesity.
She’s survived breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, orthopedic issues of every kind, broken bones from falls—the list goes on and on. At 82 years of age, Muriel “Merle” Hamilton Coomler Hamn Williams is certainly alive and off the obesity mortality chart.
Her way of living wouldn’t rate as living for many of us. Her colossal adiposity suffocates. She’s in endless and indeterminate pain. Frequently hooked up to oxygen, the pressure from fat poundage on her chest leaves her breathless. Surgery is out of the question. Instead she’s now hooked on OxyContin, amid a sea of other pills, inhalants and medical gadgets. My once lucid grandmother is uncertain as to who is or isn’t in her family—and if she does guess that you’re “in,” you’re likely mixed up with an aunt or uncle of a different generation. My grandmother is certifiably alive, but dead to me. Don’t worry for her feelings; she’s forgotten she has a granddaughter.
Grandmom is cared for around-the-clock by Carolyn, a pseudo-nurse, who’s mostly my grandmother’s gofer and sole companion. The family is immensely glad for Carolyn’s existence and crosses fingers she’ll never leave, die or be run off. She is sent out daily to purchase a bounty of pies, shakes and cakes. Sometimes she fibs that Piggly Wiggly is out of cakes. But that doesn’t fool my drugged-out grandmom. She manages to collect herself enough to make a quick call to the bakery department. “Thaay haaayuv caaakes nowah, Darlin’.”
You also help in my grandmother’s care. Medicaid, or was it Medicare, came in as an answer to Carolyn’s pleas to force my grandmother to bathe. She had refused to leave her bed for any of life’s little emergencies. Too much effort.
If she were anorexic, suicidal, even one of today’s “cutters,” the family likely would commit her or at least convene one of those terribly awkward interventions. But that’s just not done when the danger is obesity. Discussing a Southern Belle’s ample weight is simply out of the question. She’d rather die.