We used to eat together at our dining room table very night … until I was four years old. That all changed when my father died at age 50 from chronic heart disease.
From what I remember and from what I’ve been told about my dad, this five-foot-nine-inch, World War II veteran from Greenville, Mississippi, was one of the most disciplined cooks and eaters. Having recovered from his first heart attack at age 26, he managed to slim down his 205-pound frame during a time when most people were not very health conscious. He followed all of his doctors’ dietary restrictions (no smoking, drinking only skim milk, eating artificial egg whites and steamed vegetables, consuming margarine, and lots of what we now know to be Omega-3-rich fish and oils). He would only take a glass of red wine on holidays – I even remember taking a couple of sips with him. Occasionally, he was permitted to eat my mother’s Angel Food cake. His dietary needs were so integrated into our family meals that those needs continued to influence our food choices long after his death. But, none of that thoughtful care taking prevented his involuntary departure.
With each passing Father’s Day – this being the 47th year without him, I find myself missing him even more – not just because I’ve spent most of my life without him, but because my two older brothers and I, now have all existed on this earth longer than him. With each passing year, two points still remain needlessly unchanged and extremely pertinent for the times in which we live: First, wellness – especially in America — is expensive. There was a reason why my father would rarely risk sharing his garlic halibut fish with me, his finicky-eating preschooler. Second, if you’re poor or a person of color, the right to wellness feels exclusive, inequitable and often inaccessible.
Wellness Then and Now
We’re living through a pandemic. From everything that I know about this insidious virus so far, being overweight, or having any one of the nutrition-linked underlying conditions (diabetes, hypertension or yes, chronic heart disease), could mean the difference between life or death. So, when I think about the 100,000+ hardworking, innocent people who have already died back home in America alone – many of them “essential workers”, I cannot help but think about the links between affordable, accessible food, wellness and my dad. I pray for my family members, friends and even strangers that I don’t even know, because there are so many people at risk. If my father had lived during these turbulent times, he, as a food factory worker and custodian, would have been considered an “essential worker”, too. With a chronic heart condition, he would have been at risk, and he would have had to deal with the stressful, and difficult choice between wellness and a paycheck.
That’s why now, more than ever, finding ways to make wellness accessible and equitable IS the “essential” work that we must place collective focus. Addressing this issue is directly linked to our protests for other types of reform, be it racial, economic, educational, health or justice.
Wellness is for everyone – not just for those who are lucky enough to afford it. For me, this is a personal fight and I’m ready for the challenge. Like my dad, I was born in a turbulent year; for me it was 1968. When I was born, he said that he knew that I was a fighter because I was born with my hands already formed as fists.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you for continuing to inspire me and reminding me to always think about self-care, the care of my family and also the care of others.