Big John…my Dad.
I made a promise to myself to write about the hard things. The things I don’t really talk about, the things many people in my life don’t know about, the things that would be better off left down deep, hidden away under lock and key. Only I don’t have room for them anymore.
I came into this world weighing only 5lbs, 14 ounces…go figure. My parents were not your typical couple as my Dad was much older than my mom. Which meant my Dad was 57 when I was born. I don’t have many memories of him when he was not “old”…and sometimes I think in my mind I confuse pictures I saw of him when he was young as memories I have of him, but sadly I think I really only recall him being old. He adored me and I loved him for it. I was a total daddy’s girl….he lit up my world like nothing else and I wanted to be just like him. I wanted a cowboy hat, I wanted to shave like he did and when he took out the blade in one of his razors for me to “pretend shave” and gave me a WHOLE can of shaving cream in the bathtub when I was little….nothing could tear him down from the pedestal I put him on….or so I thought.
He taught me about all the best things in life… the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Cash, brown cows, and how all animals are to be loved and never treated badly. (He once brought home a sick cat from the bowling alley that had been shot through the top of it’s mouth with a bb gun. He named the cat “Sabo” after Chris Sabo with the Reds. While at the vet to fix the wound we found out he was in fact a she, so Dad just changed the spelling…she became “Sabow”!
People called him “Big John” at nearly 6,3 he was tall and broad, not fat or overweight but a large man. I can count on one hand the times I had seen him mad, he was a kind, gentle soul who preferred to make you laugh and always saw the good in people. He was an artist by trade and very talented, he could paint and draw in almost any medium. He did everything from paint lettering on riverboats to beautiful detailed oil paintings and everything in between. He was recently retired from Western & Southern where he in charge of all painting in the building by the time I was in third grade. He had volunteered at my elementary school to give new life to the mustard yellow walls that surrounded my world. He transformed the walls in a maze of brilliant colors and swirls. All the kids loved him and affectionately called him Mr. “Big John”.
My favorite part of the day was lunchtime. My Dad would meet us in the lunch room, stand in line amidst the hungry kids avoiding being seated with the teachers and adults but rather squeezing his large frame into the white formica covered picnic style benches that were meant for much smaller bottoms. He would tell us jokes and stories and sometimes draw our favorite cartoon characters on the rough napkins with pencils or crayons. Whatever he had handy to work his magic. I remember very vividly looking up at him thinking I was the luckiest kid in the world.
I could tell you many, many wonderful things about my dad, and they would all be true and it would be very sweet and lovely to remember just those times. That unfortunately is not the whole story. When you are a young kid, you are not prepared to deal with an elderly parent, let alone to care for an elderly parent.
I was an ass… that you should know. A know- it -all kid who thought she knew everything there was to know. Reality was, I didn’t know shit. I didn’t understand what dementia or Alzheimer’s was at that time. I was not mature enough to deal with it and we did not really talk about what it was, so I didn’t know it was anything other than him getting old and I feared that so much. It started probably when I was in 8th grade or so, the symptoms they come so slowly. When I was scared, overwhelmed, anxious, mad, frustrated…I ate. I overate. I binged. I did everything I could to forget what he had become, how he could not remember, how he got lost, how he argued about everything, how he became a man I did not know. I screamed, I was mean, I said things that haunt me still to this day. In my rage of words he just stood there with that glazed over, lost look in his watery pale grey eyes. The words they flew from my lips, not a thing in the world could stop them, they were out of my mouth and stagnant in the pungent vile air before I knew what happened. I was 17 when I would scream at him. Old enough to know better, young enough not to care. He would be in a nursing home by the time I was 23 and he would be dead a few years later. I watched him slowly lose every ounce of dignity he had over the last years of his life. At age 24 I weighed over 600 lbs.
I am not writing this to blame the situation for my weight but rather to own it, to take responsibility for what happened, and to try to offer some insight into some of the factors that played into my severe obesity. My Dad’s illness or age was not solely responsible for my weight. The groundwork for that had been laid many years before, but it was certainly a situation that fanned the fire to be out of control.
The last year of his life, my love for him was never greater and I began to understand, with that knowledge I was also aware of the finality of it all and it made me appreciate the time we had left together. The memories of his shaving cream would reappear for me and every Sunday I would roll him into the bathroom at the nursing home. I would put a warm towel on his cheeks and gently sooth his skin, I would then put an obscene amount of shaving cream all over his sweet face and we would both crack up. I would shave him as delicately as possible, his skin was so tender and sensitive. It may sound silly but it was something we could share together, and in those moments instead of him being sick, being old, the end being near…he was just my Dad again.