Illustration by Joe Denardo
Before he died, my father moved from Las Vegas back to Michigan. My sister found him a one-bedroom apartment he could pay for on his Social Security. He bought a new bed, a new couch, and a new television with some of the money he had left, and my sister gave him back the things she had stored for him in her basement while he was in Las Vegas. She helped him with the new apartment—unpacking everything, setting up the telephone and utilities, etc. Our father couldn’t do a lot of these things for himself anymore, and my sister took on most of this burden. Toward the end of his life, my father had difficulty walking. This was partly because of his weight and partly because he had developed bone spurs on his feet (which were partly caused by his weight). The bone spurs were his feet’s response to being asked to carry so much weight. His feet started making extra bone to support the extra pounds. They were the only things trying to do something about my father’s weight. My father had different canes and walkers to help him get around, but his difficulty walking meant there were times when my father didn’t leave his apartment for days or for weeks. During these times, my father made a list of things he needed—mostly groceries—and my sister bought them, brought them back to his apartment, and put them away for him. Right after my father moved back to Michigan, he started calling me every day, and for a while, I talked with him every day. Without the casino, he didn’t have much else to do inside his apartment besides eat and watch television.
Back in Michigan, something changed inside my father and he became really mean again. Usually, the meanness took the form of simple insults and cuts, trying to correct or undercut nearly anything I said, the kind of thing I heard and felt when I was growing up. This time around, though, my father seemed pathetic in a way that allowed me to ignore the fact that the things he said were directed at me. He mostly seemed lonely, and answering the telephone was an easy enough way to keep him company. During these telephone calls, my father would sometimes fall asleep. It didn’t matter who was talking. Sometimes, my father would just trail off into a mutter and then I would hear him start snoring. Other times, it would seem like he was interrupting me, but then I would hear him start snoring. The funniest times were when I just heard the receiver hit the floor and then nothing but background noise.
The first few times this happened, I yelled my father’s name until he woke up. After a while, I just started hanging up on him. He usually didn’t call me back until the next day. My father also started getting confused or maybe hallucinating during some of these telephone conversations. Sometimes, he called me his dead brother’s name, Kenny. Other times, he called me his living brother’s name, Walter. Every once in a while, it was one of my cousin’s names, Butch. It always made me think he wanted a different son. Once, out of nowhere, my father started talking about chili dogs and shotguns. Another time, he started ordering take-out Chinese from me before I interrupted him. Another time, my father started yelling, It’s a bear. It’s a bear. I tried to talk to him, but there wasn’t any response. It sounded like he set the telephone down, and then I heard a loud bang in the background. When my father got back on the line, I asked him what had happened. He said he’d made the bear disappear. Eventually, the telephone calls with my father became so frustrating and difficult I stopped answering. I felt guilty about doing this, and I felt silly about a simple realization: I wasn’t required to talk to my father even if he was my father. The more I didn’t answer my father’s calls, the more he called. Sometimes, he called dozens of times and I would eventually answer just so he would stop calling. Unfortunately, that only lasted for the rest of the day—and sometimes he would even forget we had talked in the afternoon and call me again in the evening, telling me the same things he had said earlier in the day. I can’t remember ending any one of these telephone calls with my father and feeling good about it. I did not talk to my father for most of the last year he was alive. I should have stopped talking to him years before, though—it was such a huge relief. I was so much happier not talking with him than I was talking with him. It was a form of self-preservation.
I stopped talking to my father, but my father did not stop calling me every day and leaving messages. At first, I listened to them, but they were almost always the same: Danny, this is your father. Call me back. It was almost always a statement and a command. He was still trying to tell me what to do.
I kept not answering his telephone calls. I started erasing the messages without listening to them.
At one point, my wife and I considered changing our telephone number. Ironically, that seemed like too mean of a thing to do.
Almost a year passed without talking to my father. I felt lighter and I began to feel like I could answer his telephone calls again. Around Christmas in 2004, I picked up the receiver and my father was on the other end of the line. He was surprised when I answered. He sounded excited that he caught me. He asked me what I had been up to and I told him I’d been really busy. We never said anything else about it.
In one of our last telephone calls, my father told me he had just been to the doctor’s office and that he had gained a lot of weight. He hadn’t used a home scale for years because he couldn’t see over his belly to read the numbers between his feet and, even if he could have, they didn’t go high enough to measure his weight. For years, my father could only find out how much he weighed at the doctor’s office. This last time, though, my father didn’t know the exact number. He had maxed out the doctor’s 500-pound scale. He was heavier than that.
Really fat people move in different ways than people who are not really fat. For instance, my father had to stand up in stages. Since he didn’t really fit into most chairs or on most couches, he often sat on the floor. To get up, he needed to hold on to something he could push or pull—a door, a chair, or another piece of furniture. Then he would roll over onto his side and up onto his knees while pushing or pulling his upper body up. From his knees, he would get one foot flat on the ground and then the other foot. Then he would straighten his legs up. Once his legs were under him, he could raise his upper body until he was standing upright. Once he was standing, he didn’t move for a while. He had to rest and catch his breath.
When my father pushed himself up, he didn’t do it with an open hand. He did it with a fist. The last time he used an open hand, he dislocated two fingers on his right hand. Nobody’s fingers are strong enough to hold up that much weight.
My father’s arms were always bigger than my legs.
My father’s legs were really strong just from standing up and walking. Each step he took had to carry his 500-plus pounds. The legs of super-obese people usually rub together, so they start to throw them out to the side when they walk. Also, their arms get pushed out to the side by their expanding torsos. Their proportions start to resemble those of a baby—except the head is a really small part of the body when a person is super-obese. Almost every obese person is hunched over. My father looked a little deformed with all that weight pushing down on him. He must have wanted to pull himself out of that body. Also, the arms of any obese person seem to be too short. Sometimes, I watched my father reach out for objects and then seem a little baffled when his hands didn’t get there. It must have seemed like an optical illusion, those objects moving farther away from him. As my father got older, his hair started to turn gray, but it just made him look more and more blond. Plus, his face never seemed to get any wrinkles. As he got bigger and fatter, his skin got taut, which made my father look younger than he was. After we started talking again, my father began calling me every day again. The last telephone call I received from my father, he left his usual message. I didn’t call him back because I knew he would call again later or call again the next day. My father didn’t call the next day and I remember wondering about it that night. I thought there might be something wrong with him, but then I forgot about it for a couple of days. My father didn’t call me on my birthday either and I thought there might be something wrong with him, but it was my birthday and I didn’t want to deal with it right then. It was a relief when my father didn’t call for a while. I don’t feel guilty for not talking to my father for that year, but I do feel guilty about not calling him back that one time. There were so many times I thought my father was going to die soon, but he didn’t die any of those times. I started to think he was just going to get bigger and bigger and keep living, and all that size was somehow going to protect him from death. I want to talk to my father again now that he is dead. Once, I dialed my father’s old telephone number just to see if he really was dead. Somehow, it seemed possible he might answer. There was a recording saying the number had been disconnected.