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In Alzheimer's, Preoccupations Die Hard

“I eat. Why are you saying I don’t eat!?” my mother shrieked at the doctor, a soft-spoken woman with round wire-rim glasses and a round face, like the rest of her.

“The reason your daughter is concerned is because you weigh 95 pounds. And if you eat the way you say you do, you’d look like me, not like you.”

My mother sighed and looked at the floor.

That was refreshing, I thought. Someone finally speaking some truth. Infrequent in geriatrics, I am finding. Reminds me of when my father was dying of cancer. Rarely did anyone have the courage to call out what was really going on. “You look good,” they’d say to my father, his face sunken, eyes searching for answers, his skin the color of rice that’s been cooked with saffron.

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“Well, it’s ridiculous, because I EAT!” my mother reiterated. I could feel her frustration. It was compassion I had a hard time mustering.

My mother has been screwed up about eating and her body my entire life. When my sister and I were kids she was constantly on some kind of diet. Hardboiled eggs and grapefruit only for weeks, Atkins, Pritikin, a food scale sitting on the dining room table where other families have their salt shaker (God forbid). A former showroom model whose employment depended on staying a certain size, her obsession with her body remained at the forefront of her mind. And ours.

My sister is 5'2" on a tall day and had Dolly Parton-size breasts until she had them reduced at 15. She was never thin enough for my mother. She liked to eat. Mom tortured her with liquid protein diets. That was particularly hard for her, not just because in 1972 they tasted like plastic, but because, ironically, food was the great anesthetic for our family. Bowls of it were placed on the table with its built-in “Lazy Susan,” a wooden disc you could spin for seconds of corn or chicken or whatever. Before the adolescent dieting lockdown, my sister and I made ample use of this handy device. You had to stuff yourself, or otherwise be present during endless dinner conversations riddled with anxiety about money earned or not earned that day.

As long as she was thinner than every woman in the room, she still had a legitimate place in the world.

My parents were real estate brokers. Because he worked for commission, my father’s self-esteem rested entirely on whether he had closed a deal and for how much. He was an eater like my sister and me, so depending on whether he was up or down in sales, he spun that great wheel of food with as much gusto as we did. He would slim down every 10 years or so, surrendering to my mother’s overbearing obsession with thinness like the rest of us, but he didn’t really care. He was fine being fat, as long as he made money. My mother liked to make money, and she did get a lot of her self-esteem from professional status. But at the core, as long as she was thinner than every woman in the room, she still had a legitimate place in the world.

This was the stage on which two young girls were raised in a soul-crushing piece of theater called, You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin. In one scene, where the younger daughter is feeling lonely, separated from her peers by driving herself to leadership in every school activity but real camaraderie in none, her mother coolly advised, a glass of Chardonnay in one hand, a Marlboro in the other, “What can I tell you? It’s lonely at the top.”

That's the woman who is now 80, meeting with a slew of doctors trying to keep her brain intact. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. With real estate investments, stocks and long-term health care, unless she lives to be 100, she has more money than she will spend in her lifetime. By most standards, she has rich covered. As noted, she weighs under 100 pounds. She also lives alone, but for her dog, and has very few friends. The phone lays silent. She rarely leaves her apartment.

Even when I am at my most angry, cursing her for passing on a preoccupation that has me running to try on pants from 1990 to see if they still fit, I can appreciate how terribly lonely her days must be.

“I used to be fat,” she looked up and told the doctor. “I was fat my whole life as a kid. I had big chubby cheeks and my mother always told me I was fat.”

The doctor listened, checking off items on her clipboard. I checked emails. I simply can’t listen to her talk about this.

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“Uh huh,” said the doctor. “Well you’re not fat now, huh?” she said gently, smiling.

“I just don’t understand,” my mother said.

I looked up from my screen, and saw this tiny old woman. I reached out to hold her hand and took a deep breath. I'm grateful that, despite what feels like an endless struggle with ideas my parents carved too deeply in me, I do know you can be too rich and too thin.

Well … maybe not too rich, the kids do love Hawaii.

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