Everyone who makes healthy choices does it for a reason. If you ask me why I’m a vegetarian or don’t smoke, I can give you several: Because I don’t want to buy larger clothes. Because I don’t want to smell bad. Because meat and tobacco are migraine triggers.
Those are the easy answers, and they’re true, but they’re far from the only reasons. There are others that are deeper and far more difficult to chat about on a coffee break. I call these the reasons behind the reasons. Want an example?
When I was 19, my stepmother died, leaving my brother and sister — then 8 and 5, respectively — without a mommy. She was in her 40s. It wasn’t a freak accident involving a bus; it wasn’t a stray bullet from a robbery; it was cancer — lung cancer — something she could have prevented if she’d chosen not to smoke.
My stepmother, Kate, and I were friendly, though our relationship was far from perfect. She married my dad two years after my parents’ divorce. Honestly, though my parents’ marriage dissolved when it did partly because of her, I never resented Kate. I fully believe my mom and dad would have split at another time because they just weren’t happy; she was only a catalyst for the timing. Even at 9, when it felt like my world was ending, I didn’t blame her. I liked her. Our relationship only became strained when my dad’s child support payments put stress on their budget. I know she didn’t mean to make me feel bad, but I was an observant kid, and I knew what was happening. Still, it was an obligation that he had, and she knew that. She was the adult. There were a couple of difficult years, but I knew we were friends. She was a cool, smart, interesting lady, and I was glad my dad was happy.
When she brought my brother and sister — who, as you can tell now, are actually my half-siblings, but I never think of them as anything less than fully mine — into the world, I was ecstatic. I always wanted siblings, and I’ve never stopped being grateful for them a day in my life.
But Kate — like both of my parents — was a smoker. She smoked during her pregnancies, and she smoked in the home when they were growing up. Though I was raised with a mother and father who smoked everywhere and a lot, I never liked the smell of the stuff, and I always knew I’d never take up tobacco myself.
I went off to college two weeks before my 18th birthday. My dad forgot to call me that day, and I was angry. I was 1,400 miles from home and had just spent the most monumental birthday of my life surrounded by people I didn’t know and without a phone call from one of my parents. I called the next day to rip into him, tell him how hurt I was, but I was stopped in my fury by his news that Kate had been diagnosed with small cell carcinoma. Cancer. In her lungs. They were optimistic about treatments, but it was going to be a tough fight. It was one of the worst phone calls of my life.
Over the next six months, she underwent treatments. She was allergic to the chemo drugs, so they gave her huge injections of Benadryl as well, which caused her to be tired all the time. My siblings were 6 and 3 when it all started. The doctors declared that all the cancer was gone, with the disclaimer that it could recur. And it did, maybe a year later. It was in her brain and on her spine this time. She started treatments again, and almost simultaneously, my dad’s best friend was diagnosed, too. In April, he lost his short, awful battle. Six weeks later, on June 4, 2004, Kate finally gave into hers. The tumor on her spine was too large, and it collapsed her cervical vertebra. It was unexpected.
The suffering was over for her, but that day began a long, painful period for my family. Though I still have my mother — and I’m grateful every day for her — it was such a terrible loss for me, and truthfully, I had no idea how to grieve. My father was destroyed. She was the love of his life, and he had watched her die. He had instantly become a single parent to my tiny siblings, my brother who could never really articulate what he was going through, and my sister who was clearly showing signs of autism. I was sad for what I lost, but equally sad for the three people I loved so much. Even more, I was angry — beyond angry. How could she do something so selfish to her children, two small, helpless creatures that needed her? I talked about transferring to a local university so I could be there for my family. I battled the worst bout of depression of my life all the while feeling guilty for not being stronger for them. Again, I was 19.
We all process pain in different ways. Some of us are practical; some are emotional. I’m definitely the latter. My depression included a lot of disordered eating, which I’ve discussed here before, in addition to other psychologically harmful behaviors. Basically, I didn’t treat myself well. I know now that I was trying to make sure I didn’t stop suffering. It was an ugly spiral.
I didn’t fully recover from the cycle until after college. There wasn’t an Aha! moment or anything like that. It was a process. It was me learning to like who I am and respect the journey that had created me. It was also research on nutrition and health that slowly sank in. I finally realized that the combination of anger and sadness I felt would never fully disappear, but there was something I could do: I could prevent my siblings from going through the same thing again.
I am not their mother. I never try to replace their mother. In some ways, I’m something better than that. I’m their big sister. I’m not there when they misbehave, and I never have to punish them. I love them unconditionally, and they know that. Our entire relationship is built around being happy together and having fun. They look up to me, and I look out for them. I would do absolutely anything in the entire world for them, and they know that.
So when I think about making unhealthy choices, I think about Kate and her legacy. I think about how, despite the fact that she was a funny, fascinating person, she was also flawed in a way that took her from us far too early. I think about preventing cancer and other diseases that will kill me before my time. I think of my brother and sister, their beautiful faces, and how important we are to each other. And now that I’m nearing the years of childbearing, I think of my future children, how I want to be nothing less than always there for them. In a just world, we all outlive our parents, but my responsibility is to be there for them for as long as I can.
For me, life is the reason behind the reason.