“The first time that I saw the movie ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ I wanted to run and hide. It hurt that this movie was somewhat of a hit with Leonardo deCaprio and Johnny Depp,” says Michael Staley. “My mother was almost as big as their mother in the story. She got so big that she could barely walk and preferred to lie in her bed.”
Michael remembers most of his younger years as being painful. Most of the time he was hiding in embarrassment. The kids at school were merciless. Every “yo’ mama’s so fat..” joke he heard ten-times over. Each one, no matter how many times he heard it, cut him to the core.
Michael’s mother was always large. Younger family photos show her as a heavy set woman, but her weight really ballooned after her second pregnancy. She had a difficult pregnancy and an even more difficult second birth. The doctors had put her on bed rest and given her a cocktail of drugs. Her recovery was slow going, and after Michael was born they missed an important bonding period when his mother spent most of her time sleeping because of the medicines. He was not breast fed like his sister, nor did she hold him much because she could barely lift her arms and sit up and was afraid she’d hurt him. The family had a nurse who came in and checked on their mother and the baby who stayed until his father returned from a long day at work.
Michael blames this for a lot of his problems and attitude towards his mother growing up. His mother was a gentle soul, one who never had a bad word to say about anyone and would always try to find the good in people, even people who were nasty to her.
But Michael’s overriding feeling towards her was disgust at her weakness. He thought she had no self control and that if she wanted to be thin, she could be. He believed that she found the good in people because she felt they were all better than she was, so she bent over backwards to be nice to people in an attempt to get them to look past the rolls of fat that spilled from her massive bulk.
His father spent most of his time at the office, trying to keep his family financially afloat with the never ending medical bills, but Michael thought his father worked a lot to keep away from his mother and didn’t want to be home with them, where SHE was.
When Michael was 19, he took off after high school to hitchhike through the States. He called home whenever it hit him to do so, which wasn’t often. One call he placed from a pay phone the phone just rang and rang. He pictured it ringing in his family’s hallway where it sat on a thin wooden table with a desk of pads of paper and pens so anyone could leave a message.
“He believed that his mother found the good in people because she felt they were all better than she was, so she bent over backwards to be nice to people in an attempt to get them to look past [her weight].”
Shrugging it off, Michael didn’t call home again for another week. This time his sister answered the phone breathlessly, “Michael, when can you come home?”
Michael’s mother had died in her sleep the week before. The funeral was going to be on Saturday - could he make it home in time?
“Michael is that you? Where are you son?” his father’s gruff voice had an edge to it he’d never heard before. Was it defeat? This surprised Michael so much that when his father told him there’d be a ticket waiting for him at the closest airport Michael did not object.
The next day he found himself back in his childhood home, a place he thought he’d left for a long time. The house was full of people he didn’t know. People who knew his mother, which he found again surprising because he had spent so much of his childhood hiding her from anyone else that he never thought about her actually having friends.
Respecting her wishes, the family had her cremated. Her remains were at the funeral home, his sister told him. He wondered briefly if they’d had any issues with her size, but then felt guilty and banished the thought.
People continued to stream in for hours, expressing condolences for how lovely their mother was, what a wonderful person she was. Michael shook hands numbly, trying not glare at people as he assumed, as he had always assumed, that they were hiding smirks and laughing as soon as they were out of earshot.
The service was simple. A preacher stood up and talked about Michael’s generous donations of money and craftwork to the needy. Michael knew that she was often knitting, and never saw anything completed. He just assumed that she had started over because what else did she have to do with herself?
Other people came up, one by one and said their goodbyes briefly, everyone sharing a story about the generosity of his mother’s spirit and her kindness towards people. Michael didn’t understand - his mother rarely left the house, so how did all these people know her, let alone care about her and have great stories to share?
One by one the stragglers left the house, most it seemed, reluctantly, turning around and waving at the motherless family that watched them disappear into the night from their doorway. Shutting the door, Michael’s father returned to the living room and grabbed his glasses before he shuffled upstairs without saying a word.
He helped his sister clean up and then went upstairs himself. Passing his parent’s door, he heard the muffled but distinct sounds of his father quietly weeping.
Michael went into his childhood bed and lay there for hours, trying to picture his mother, but all he could conjure up were feelings of shame and guilt. He drifted off into an uncomfortable sleep. In the morning, the sun was hot on his face as he’d forgotten to shut the blinds and he opened his eyes to the steamy yellow light. Staring at the light filled window, he was suddenly filled with a sense of peace and love unlike anything he had ever experienced. He didn’t hear a voice, but rather the words were just there in his mind that everything was going to be ok. Smiling, he recalled some happy times with his family - playing Monopoly, baking cookies (back before cookies became a shameful reminder of his mother’s weight and therefore unenjoyable), him and his sister in the park swinging and stretching their legs to try and reach the clouds.
Going downstairs he found his sister and father eating their cold cereal silently. He pulled up the chair beside them, and asked them if they could tell each other stories about their mother.
Thank you Mike, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life