It’s Lent. Again. And again I think about what it is I’ll give up.
My Lenten sacrifices are almost always connected to food. At 288 pounds, it’s safe to say I’m an eater. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m eating a cheese, mayo, and Doritos on rye. And I’m having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a sandwich. I’m diabetic. And it’s 1:25 in the morning.
Food has always been a struggle in my life. And so too, food is part of my Lent. My Lenten history includes giving up chocolate, soda, candy. Two Lents in a row I gave up whole meals like breakfast or lunch. Not long ago I chose to fast one day a week. And there was that one time I went paleo – nuts, fruits, red meat – stuff cavemen would eat. I took on Lent as a diet, which is not what Lent is for.
And yet, food has never failed me. It always shows up when I need it the most or when I don’t need it at all. It’s like the friend I’ve never had and yet the worst kind of friend I’d never want. Tomorrow I will wake up, check my blood sugar levels, and I will see how good this friend actually is.
It’s a Wednesday in January, 2015. I’m required to eat dinner in my community on Wednesday nights. But today I’m not feeling it. Today I’m too upset. I buried my mom a few weeks ago and I’m not adjusting well. So I’ve decided to leave.
I live on the third floor of an early 20th century walk-up in Chicago. Behind the building is the wooden fire escape I use to avoid everyone. I walk down the alley and up the street to a pizza parlor. I’ve been there before but on happier occasions.
I walk into the restaurant. Immediately I order three slices of cheese and pepperoni and the largest Coke they sell. Before I pay I snag a double chocolate chip brownie sitting in a red plastic basket near the register. I take my receipt, claim my tray, and find a table.
I proceed to inhale everything.
My reflection is in the glass of the window ahead of me. I see myself eating among the cars passing by on the other side. I look a lot like my mom. And so I see my mom eating. Tears are falling down my face. I’m experiencing the unspoken lessons of my mother playing out in my life in real time. I am eating my feelings, trying to rest in the comforting familiarity of food. But it’s not working. Food was the accomplice to my mother’s demise.
I will turn 39 in July. The same age my mom was when she married my dad 30 years ago. Glancing back on memories I notice how much I am actually like my mother. The other day I was watching TV. My right hand rested under my chin and my left hand found a place under my thigh. My legs were extended out in front of me, and my feet were rocking back and forth. I was sitting exactly like my mom. Then there’s the way I smile and laugh and wipe tears from my eyes. And that’s not even the half of it. My mother’s imprint runs deep.
My mom used food as an escape, and so do I. She may not have readily admitted this fact about herself, and I don’t want to either. But like she always said: “Actions speak louder than words.” When she was in pain the food would go in, and my mom was a woman who hurt. But don’t get me wrong, she also knew how to celebrate, and food was there to punctuate the joy. And like my mom, I hurt too. And I celebrate, just like my mom. And food is at the center of it all. I am my mother’s son.
I love how I was raised. I love who I have become and am becoming, and all of this is due partly to my mom. She laid solid foundations for me to be me. But not everything she taught me I want to keep. I want food to be the thing that sustains life, not what diminishes it.
This desire to change my relationship with food isn’t about the typical Lenten sacrifice – taking something good away for the sake of an experience of discomfort. I want to take the discomfort away so I can live better. Perhaps even longer than my mom did. Or if anything, live healthier than she did. But I’m still trying to figure that out, how to unlearn and let go, and even though it can be difficult, to not be so much like my mom.