We buried my cousin Anita last week. She was a beautiful, saucy blonde who used to tag around her brother Martie and me back on Fork Road in Neshoba County. Our mamas--both deliciously loud women married to Ladds--were great buddies, and took turns "keeping" us all. Martie and I were born the same year, and people used to think we were twins.
Cigarettes killed sweet Anita, whom I will always picture about 12 years old, even though she was 46 when she died.
The last time I saw Anita, it was at our cousin Sherry's funeral in Neshoba County. Sherry died of a heart attack. She, too, was in her 40s.
I have a history of early deaths in my family. I lost several aunts and uncles at young ages; one of my favorites died in Jackson from a heart attack when he was 37. My own father died at age 50 of a heart attack.
I'd hoped that my generation would escape some of the health issues of our parents and grandparents. It is a different time than when they were working in fields, living in or near poverty, relying too heavily on prescription drugs and antibiotics, and eating fried chicken several times a week.
But the curse clearly hasn't passed my generation by, especially our women. This makes me sad and, frankly, scares me a bit.
I don't live the same life that my forebears did in Neshoba County. I am much more educated than my parents; but I'm beginning to wondering just how much illiteracy-to-Ivy League in one generation really helps. I mean, I've exchanged my parents' hard lives for a version of my own: workaholism and the hazards that come with it. I don't eat meat, but I have a couple more cocktails than I should each week (yes, I switch to water after one or two these days, but still.) I work 12-hour days several times a week. I don't sleep enough. My back and shoulders and neck hurt all the time. I eat on the run too much. And I don't find enough time for serious exercise.
Oh, and I've never been able to afford good, regular health care. Neither have most people in my family. So I put stuff like routine exams and tests off.
I've never been one to give two whits about getting older; I wear my age (now 48) on my sleeve. I hate it when women, or anyone, are embarrassed by aging. I want to age with style. And, frankly, there are so many mental advantages to getting older that they balance out any physical ones.
Still. When younger cousins start dying, whether suddenly or after a prolonged bout with lung disease, it gives one pause. I'm pretty sure I have some bad stuff tucked into my genes--hell, it could be straight-up karma considering my genealogy discoveries of late, but that's a story for another day--and despite my organic diet and meditative practices, I may not have transcended the odds.
This column, though, isn't meant to be morbid or even particularly fearful. It's more of an effort to reach out to my fellow Mississippians with an invitation to ingest a big dose of reality alongside me. Our health matters. And even if, like me, your biggest concerns are beyond yourself and lie in making a difference in your community, your state, your city, we need to face a simple fact. We need good health to sustain our work. In order to leave the world a better place, we need energy and vigor. We need to be zen about the stupidity around us (President Obama is my idol on that, if not his dumb-ass smoking); we need to breathe deeply, and we need to sleep enough.
We're not robots or super-humans.
So I'm asking all of you to join me as I try to improve my personal health and increase my odds of getting more accomplished in this lifetime, not to mention be a good example for all the young people around us. We all have our bad habits, and we have the stuff we don't want to give up. Many of you don't want to give up the "soul food" (which is the food my family ate, and eat, too) that our mamas made so well. You can't imagine cutting back on meat and fried food. You might eat too many sweets.
I don't have the same weaknesses as I did growing up. I probably had Coca-Cola in my baby bottle--most kids around me did--and I was addicted to the sugary poison well into adulthood. But after I left the South (and endured ribbing for using it to wake up in the morning), I conquered the addiction. I just stopped buying it and bringing it home. Still don't, although I'll have a Coke at a movie theater or while traveling sometimes.
I was fortunate that my mother didn't believe in desserts after every meal, so I don't have a strong sweet tooth--dessert is a treat. But I (and one of my cats) can devour an entire loaf of bread in one sitting; I am trying to control that urge. I don't eat meat of any kind or many eggs, but I can go to town on dairy. But I choose low-fat options, including non-fat yogurt for smoothies and skim milk for my coffee (just work down to skim gradually).
We can do this, Jackson. It won't be easy; we are the capital city of the nation's most obese state. Too often, southerners assume that we could never change our diets and, worse, then pass along those bad habits to children. And the tykes have it worse: Many of the foods we grew up eating now have hideous ingredients, and the sodas and fries have been "super-sized."
I encourage you to just start. Order the smaller soda even if the kid in the movie line thinks you're crazy because you don't want free refills. Get a salad with dinner and eat it first. Do like the first lady and grow something, and get the kids to help. Have a few meatless meals a week, and use the money you save to buy organic milk. (You really don't want to ingest the garbage they're injecting into cows.) Have fruit for snacks every other time.
And fit in the exercise. Don't choose the closest parking space. Walk early or in the evening. (My day isn't the same if I don't walk for at least 10 minutes in the morning.) Get outside on the weekends. Breathe deeply.
On that note, quit smoking. Now. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones. I will never forget my cousin's 27-year-old son's pain last week at the cemetery as he had to give up his mama way too early. His life will never be the same without her.
Let's band together for a new kind of renaissance in our state: good health. Do it for those we love, and for those we've lost.
Wow. Powerful stuff, Donna. We need to be reminded of the consequences of even our smallest decisions, like food or smoking. Your personal choices maybe yours to make, but I think everyone should remember that those you love can be left dealing with the aftermath.
- bryan doyle