Before he got sick, my dad considered himself a healthy eater. He would often boast about his cooking skills, which included a no-salt policy, though it took two heart attacks for him to kick that habit. More often than not, I'd get wistful listening to him talk about his dishes and wish I didn't live 2,000 miles away from his kitchen.
After we got his diagnosis and I moved in, my dad's eating habits changed radically. No longer was he interested in cutting out salt or keeping up with a healthy diet. Chili spaghetti. That's what he wanted. And frozen dinners. And hot dogs.
I balked. For one, I consider myself a healthy eater as well. I haven't eaten a hot dog in more than a decade, and though I don't expect anyone else to swear off cured meat, it seemed excessive to eat it every day. Two, I wanted my dad to eat well so that his body could stay strong for as long as possible.
Watching him fill the grocery cart with frozen Salisbury steaks and Swedish meatballs filled me with anxiety. Surely this kind of diet would only make it easier for the cancer to take him more quickly.
But my dad was stubborn. He wasn't interested in having me cook for him. He wouldn't touch anything I made. He wanted what he wanted and ignored everything else. I eventually gave up my crusade of encouraging a better diet. Though he never verbalized it, I suspect that my father had decided to just enjoy what he liked while he could. How could I argue that?
When going to the grocery store became too daunting a task for him, my dad would send me off with a list of the usual staples: chili, spaghetti, hot dogs, ice cream sandwiches, pistachio nuts, potato chips and a half-dozen frozen dinners. God forbid I should come home with turkey hot dogs or unsalted nuts. I made both those mistakes and was quickly made aware of them.
One night, as my dad was enjoying an ice cream sandwich, I finally folded and grabbed one from the freezer. He smiled. "Good, aren't they? Have another." He was also generous with his pistachios and chips. He even offered me a frozen fish dinner. It was tasty.
So began my dietary decline. There's no way getting around it: salt and sugar taste good. And when in the guise of potato chips or ice cream, it was hard for me to ignore them. My father also seemed to get a kick out of our little binges. They usually took place while watching our favorite shows, so I think he enjoyed the communal aspect of it. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love chowing down on those sweet and salty treats with my dad, too.
Thing is, I wasn't sick. I was caring for someone who was. But after a few months of eating so much junk, I wasn't feeling so great. I was lethargic, and lo and behold, my clothes were tight.
I'm not the first to say that overlooking your health is common when you're a caregiver. I don't think it's a rapid 180 degree change in lifestyle, though, which is why it becomes such a problem. First, it's eating potato chips for dinner. Then, it's skipping your workout to do laundry or get groceries. You might not even think about all the changes until you feel too awful to ignore them.
It was really hard to pull in the reins and clean up my eating habits. If my dad wanted an ice cream sandwich and I returned from the kitchen with just one, he would look almost hurt that I didn't take a second for myself. And honestly, I caved a lot.
But on the days when I was more successful—maybe I kept my hand out of the chip bag or actually went for a run—I felt so much better. It provided me a measure of power over my life that was feeling increasingly out of control. It also made me physically and emotionally stronger to deal with whatever issues popped up for my dad and me on those days.
So, the refrain of "remember to take care of yourself"… I get it. And you owe it to yourself.