My Grandma's Dying Wish was To Be Thin
She held up her arms like a prizefighter and looked at me expectantly. I wasn’t sure if I should shake one of her hands, embrace her, or notice a ring or bracelet that only she could see. “What beautiful nail polish!” I ventured, hoping my response would fit her hallucination that day. “Is that all you have to say?” she asked. Nodding at her wrists, she said hoarsely, “Only two inches around!” Enlightenment dawned. There was no imagined jewelry that day, no search for affection. She sought praise for her shriveled body size.
After six months in a skilled nursing facility, Grandma had lost nearly one hundred pounds. While losing her battle with a trifecta of heart disease, diabetes, and kidney failure, she talked to dead relatives. Grandma shooed imaginary children out of her way day and night. She believed that there was a factory in the bath attached to her room. She no longer recognized her own family, but this one thing she knew: thin was good, and she had finally achieved it.
Grandma had been heavy for at least the last forty years of her life. She loved food, and she loved with food. When I was a child, Grandma delightedly served me cake and Pepsi for breakfast. She dedicated wide kitchen drawer to the storage of full-sized candy bars. For as long as I could remember, she fed anyone she could as much as she could.
I only heard her say the words “I love you” a handful of times; she preferred to show love with her special Hershey Bar cake. In return, it was my job to praise her generosity and confectionery skills. In her eighty-four years, nothing made my grandmother happier than for someone to tell her that her cakes or pies were the best they had ever tasted.
Grandma grew up poor during the Great Depression. She and my grandfather became financially secure later in life, but she never lost her fear of hunger. While eating one meal, Grandma planned the next. At restaurants, she would encourage me to take the extra rolls and put them in my purse. We might be hungry later, she said.
Paradoxically, she despised her body weight, and she disliked overweight in anyone else. The size of her body and everyone else’s was a continual topic of conversation. The message was mixed: Food is love, eat it up in large portions, but stay thin to be lovable.
At the end of her life, my grandmother lost touch with reality, but the desire to be thin was so firmly embedded that she was dispensing dietary advice from her deathbed. “I’ve figured it out,” she told her nurses, “Eat three peanuts when you’re hungry and go to bed and forget about it. See? Just look at my arms! Everybody’s jealous of how skinny I am!”
It overjoyed my grandmother to be thin while she was dying. Her pleasure in her emaciated body was bitter evidence of her lifelong body shame. It saddens me to think she spent her whole life feeling like her body was unacceptable. It also makes me more certain that we need to think and talk about women’s bodies in a way that makes space for people of all sizes to feel good in their skin.
Before she died, I prayed that God would take Grandma swiftly so she would not suffer. Instead, she endured a slow and painful death. Today, I pray that we can find a place of acceptance for women of all sizes, so no one else suffers a lifetime of body shame and dies with her weight on her mind.