Two weeks ago, my dad called and said that my mom’s brother, uncle Jerry, had experienced a mild heart attack.
“Is he alive?” I asked. We’d been down this road before.
She lost one of her brothers to his umpteenth heart attack in 2008. She lost her father to Parkinson’s. She lost her mother and stepmother to cancer. And now, out of the four children, only the two females have avoided diabetes (so far).
“He’s alive and should make a full recovery. Your mother is at the hospital. You should call her.”
Immediately, I phoned and listened to the sterile details. She maintained composure but I knew it was a facade. I knew that familiar voice all too well—that “I’m holding myself together only because I’m the strongest pillar in the family” voice—as her nieces and nephews sat nearby, hoping for good news.
“Was that his first?” I asked. There is no such thing as a good heart attack, but chances of survival are greatest for the first. “Yeah.” “He needs to switch to a plant-based diet,” I responded before I could filter myself. “I’ll be sure to make the suggestion,” she sounded fatigued.
The next day, I apologized for being so insolent. I know how much she’s gone through, how each phone call with bad news is another blow to the gut—they don’t grow easier, they only pile on sorrow.
She accepted my apology. “You know I said that out of love, right?” “I know.”
Since turning vegetarian about five years ago, I’ve extensively studied food and constantly consume books on the subject—its history, its social, and political, and environmental and health impacts. I started filling my father’s Christmas stocking with diet books. I carefully slipped in comments like, “Instead of two heaping bowls of ice cream each night, maybe you should try just one.”
After the first heart attack, the coronary tissue never heals. Unlike a cut, heart cells don’t replace themselves, so it’s only a matter of time before the second and third attack. It’s only a matter of time until the electrical signals pulse no more.
“I hate seeing you like this, mom,” I paced my porch with the phone. “I’m sick of getting bad news about problems that can be avoided, and I know you are too. You’ve got to have a serious heart-to-heart [no pun intended] about your family’s eating habits. They might listen to you. You have to ask yourself, is that awkward conversation worth another fifteen years of your brother’s life? Diabetes and heart disease can be reversed with dietary changes.” She sighed. Old habits are difficult to break, but not impossible.
After a cry-fest with both parents two years ago, they admitted that the criticism was hurtful. Obviously, passive aggressive jabs weren’t conveying my feelings, but goddammit, my sister and I want my parents around for another three decades. The light bulb clicked for both of us. My son doesn’t think we’re fat; he wants us to stay alive for as long as possible? My parents respond to loving conversations, not pithy attacks?
The body is a machine, not a toy. If you play with it in the wrong way, it falls apart. If you conduct thorough maintenance and provide the right kind of fuel, it flourishes.
Trillions of cells depend on what the hand shovels into the mouth. There’s a reason why millions of people will have heart attacks and cancer this year in the United States—we are addicted to faux food.
Not long after that conversation, my father stopped eating processed meats. He now likes oatmeal and drinks tea. He prefers brown rice and fruits. He buys almond milk. He’s not a vegetarian, but somewhere along the line, he realized that even in his sixties, it’s never too late to make subtle changes. The best way to avoid the main Western diseases—heart disease, cancer, brain diseases, etc.—is to eat right. Doctors fix, but nutrition prevents. And a little support goes a long way.
If we’re to truly honor the men who raised us and brought us into the world, now is the perfect time to have a loving conversation over a healthy, colorful, home-cooked meal about his eating habits. Because we love him. Because we don’t want to see him or his loved ones suffer through sleepless hospital nights. Life is too precious, and the body is too fragile to be treated like an indestructible toy.