January 25, 2022

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

A year of lost weight, lost loved ones and lost connections

I tell them, “I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

When you’re winning on the scale, losing can be a tease. Over the past 10 months, I have felt lighter and lighter. I have acted out my favorite athlete cliché, the one in which a player emerges from the offseason claiming to be in the best shape of his life. Discarding pounds has been a method of control, a way to corral the chaos and make lemons into sugar-free lemonade. This pursuit seems so right for 2020. We’re all wanting to feel light again.

But as we have been reminded in a year of illness, death and strife, loss can be heavy, too. There is a poignant multiplicity to loss. At present, that poignancy keeps thwacking me in the heart, the same heart I thought this skinny me would protect.

How much have I lost? I will let you know — but not in celebration. This is surrender. I’m not quite done shaving pounds off my body. However, I cannot bear losing anything else.

Gone are 123 pounds since Feb. 7, heft dismissed via low-intensity exercise and a keto-based diet. But also gone are my paternal grandparents and a maternal great uncle, all of whom were buried in Louisville during a two-week span around Thanksgiving. I’m light, finally. Yet heavy, again.

The devastating part is that so many of my actions in 2020 have been to avoid suffering. The motivation to drop weight? A dizzy spell that prevented me from covering an NFL playoff game in January. During the pandemic, most of our family has kept at least one foot in lockdown mode. We live in bubbles throughout the country, and for as difficult and mentally taxing as it has been, we had delighted in being healthy, in fending off the physical agony of covid-19.

Still, suffering found us. My three loved ones endured well past 80, for which we are grateful, but as usual, the ailments of aging won.

I did not travel from Seattle to attend any of the funerals. My brother, who had a bout with pneumonia in the past year, did not leave Boston. In our bubbles, we watched live streams of funerals sparsely attended. My wife and I watched them during breaks in our oldest son’s virtual school day. Nothing is sadder than sitting at a table of computers — unable to comfort my devastated father — and attempting to reinvent rites taken for granted.

I am not writing just to expose loss, though. I don’t want to wallow in grief. It’s the meaning of it that matters to me. I feel this ambiguous connection to strangers I have had to avoid, and my soul demands exploration. There is pain and confusion and anger in the losses of 2020. There is community, too.

How much have you lost? So much can be revealed: Weight lost, people lost, innocence lost, ignorance lost, patience lost, apathy lost. Shock lost. Seriously, can life ever be considered surprising again?

A better question: Will we turn this wretched experience into something meaningful?

Grandpa loved to joke. Give him a compliment, and he would still send a quip boomeranging back. I used to hug his thinning body and declare, “You look like you’ve lost weight.” He would counter, “And it looks like you found it.”

He wasn’t being mean, just real. His affable delivery kept me from turning sensitive. It was far more bothersome when people I didn’t know would refer to me as “big man.” They weren’t being mean, either. And there was no use lying to myself just to disagree.

When I said enough and stepped on that scale Feb. 7, it flashed a terrifying number: 327.2. It was at least 30 pounds more than I had anticipated. And while the 327 was most troubling, it was the point two I couldn’t get past. Point two. It was the most taunting two fastened to the end of a big number since Alex Rodriguez signed that contract for a stunning $252 million two decades ago.

I weigh 204 pounds now. So make that 123 point two pounds down. I am 6-foot-1 and hope to lose 10 more pounds, but my goal is not to lower the number as much as it is to maintain good health and stifle obesity for the rest of my life. Our boys, 5 and 8, often begin sentences with, “Dad, when you can eat sweets again …” I think to myself, “Jerry, when you can start drinking again …”

There is no intentional inspiration in these words, no declaration of, “I lost 123 (point two!) pounds, and so can you!” I did not swear off carbs, sugar and liquor for praise. I did not fall in love with celery root, fennel and jicama to satisfy vanity. I did it to breathe better, to stop the peculiar aches, to chase the kids longer and play basketball without needing aspirin.

My doctor said something that made me think of it this way: My body still wanted to be a great team. It was resilient. It still had potential. But with my indulgences and mindless behavior, I was being a lazy ball hog. Or just pigging out.

Many times over the past 10 months, I debated whether to share, how to share and when to share the news. In my mind, this despicable year kept demanding that I wait, for a better time, until the right moment.

This year, however, is numb to right.

Besides, there is no established way to reveal that you have lost more than the combined weight of your children. Is that worthy of bragging? Can it make me forget how the scale used to inspire fear, then anger, then sadness? Excessive pride in this accomplishment — this salvation of my health — feels inappropriate. After being heavy for the better part of 20 years, it also feels wrong to risk coming across like I am better than someone else just because I followed through on a commitment to get lean again.

My grandfather’s witty retort kept coming to mind this year. One afternoon, I researched what happens to lost weight. I had to make sure nobody found mine.

In a philosophical sense, to live is to lose. Losing is an inevitable part of the experience. To find is more elusive. Finding is no joke.

In sports, there is noticeable tension between how participants and viewers perceive winning and losing. The public and media are consumed with the overwrought judgement of every result. The greatest athletes and coaches care mostly about discovery along the journey. Their obsession is to find themselves — to find their best — and use every triumph and failure to get there.

Heather Tarr, the magnificent softball coach at the University of Washington, told me once at the end of a regular season, “I hope the year has taught us enough about ourselves.” Her team was 45-6. What else was there to know? But she wanted to achieve something greater than a gaudy record. The best in sports are purists that way. Some wins frustrate them. Some losses reassure them. They look beyond what they are going through and prioritize where they want to go.

That’s where I want to be, mentally, emotionally. I am not there yet. But that’s my aim.

Grandma died first, leaving this world feeling excruciating pain in her hips, pain that turned her beautiful soprano singing voice into screams with even the slightest movement. Hours after her funeral, my grandpa started to let go. He had barely survived surgery last year to remove cancer from his lung. He suffered from dementia. It seemed as if, after she died, his mind forced him to keep losing her again. He was ready to stop losing, and his lungs were eager to assist.

The timing concluded the sweetest cannot-live-without-you love story. James and Barbara Hightower grew up together in Warren, Ohio, built a life together through military travels and settled in Louisville together as a churchgoing, community-fabric couple. Their marriage spanned 63 years, not always wonderful and rosy but undoubtedly persistent and engaged.

We have done a lot of tallying of loss this year. The tracking of these numbers feels like a morbid version of sports. Our dissimilar reactions to some of them — the covid-19 deaths and infections, the jobs erased, the economic devastation, the senseless killings by police, the baseless attacks on the outcome of a presidential election decided by a 7 million-vote margin — fuel mistrust and resentment at a time in which pandemic-dictated caution limits the type of connection we need to heal. So much has been lost. So little has been found.

Every day, in the quiet moments at home, I stare out a living-room picture window, waiting and wondering, gazing at people roaming the neighborhood in small clusters and staying politely apart. I daydream about normal living, good living, robust living. I imagine my friends being able to joke in person about “Skinny Brew.” I don’t hear anyone calling me “big man.”

If weight loss is my good loss for the year, the maintenance of this new body tasks me with an unending responsibility, one that mirrors the challenge to soothe all of this 2020 pain.

In the last phone conversation with my grandfather, the day before his wife’s funeral, I told him I weighed the same as he did, only I’m five inches taller, so my frame holds it better. He laughed. Then he forgot. So I made the joke one more time.

He didn’t have a good comeback. His mind had lost its reserve of lighthearted banter.

In his absence, I have yet to find it. But I will keep searching.

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