All of life is worth living

The other day, I performed the solemn rite of white women in their late 40’s: I shared a photo of my lunch salad on social media.

The ritual goes like this: I post a photo of my lunch, and I complain about trying to lose weight, and then I humblebrag about my plate full of nutrient-dense leafy greens and lean proteins, and I say that between this and yoga, I’m going to live forever. Then my friends commiserate about how, if I keep it up, I’m not going to live forever; it’ll just feel that way. Then we all anoint ourselves in the digital stream three times, sprinkle ourselves with irony, and we are cleansed.

This ritual has worked for me for many years. I’ve always looked at health fanatics with something of a jaundiced eye, thinking, “If that’s what it takes to extend my life, I’d rather cut it short, thanks.”

Jokes like this were very much a part of my family culture, growing up. My father, in particular, believed that life was worth living as long as you were enjoying yourself, and if you weren’t, well, maybe your time was up. Or at least, part of him believed that. He especially liked to eat whatever he wanted, as much as he wanted, and he really relished heavy foods, sugary, fatty foods, noodles and greasy briskets and things filled with cream. (And so do I.) He wasn’t exactly a hedonist. He believed in constant conversion of heart and the resurrection of the body and things like that; he really did. But in practice, noodles and brisket often got the upper hand.

I want to tread carefully, because it’s easy to get carried away when you’re telling the life of someone who is dead. I don’t want to speak for him just because he can’t speak for himself anymore. So I will just tell you what I observed, as I remember it, and maybe the conclusions I drew were wrong. Nevertheless, this is what I saw:

My father’s health was poor for many, many years, partly because of his personal habits, and partly because of terrible genetics. I remember him going in for serious medical procedures throughout my childhood, starting at about the age I am now. He had a hard time staying motivated to take care of himself, although he did keep trying, for his family’s sake.

But eventually, he really lost enthusiasm. He had the choice to correct a problem with heart bypass surgery, and he didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t seem worth it to him. His family felt differently, and we urged him to consider it. We contacted a friend of his, who had had the same surgery done, and was very glad that it bought him some extra years of life; and that finally did it. My father agreed, and he got it done.

And he got better. He recovered well, even in his old age, and he started doing so well. He had a lot of health problems, still, but he accepted this; and my overall memories of him from this time are of him smiling. Smiling at my kids, smiling up at the sky, smiling at the brilliant clouds, at birds singing, at snow melting, at records playing. This was something new for him, or something he hadn’t felt in decades. He seemed to be enjoying himself in a way that I had never seen him do, ever.

But how strange it was, to see him looking small. I had to keep correcting the image I had of him in my head. I still thought of him as a powerful, deep-bellied, overbearing, heavily bearded man, taking up as much space as he wanted. Never bothering to whisper in quiet places, never bothering to follow signs that said “no admittance.” I still thought of him as doing what he wanted. And he wasn’t like that, anymore. His clothes hung loosely; the top of his head showed through his brittle hair. His voice was muffled, as if wrapped in cotton. He was so physically diminished, and he shuffled, and tipped over sometimes. But he smiled so much.

It was also during this time that some personal reconciliations happened, or started to happen. He knew he was at the end of his life. But that was the key: He knew it, and he was getting ready, rather than dolefully sliding along. He said that the Lord was taking more and more things away from him, and he was glad, because it was getting him ready for death. He smiled when he said this, too. He was grateful it was happening—the getting ready, not the dying.

So, then he died. It happened quite suddenly, and I’m not sure if it was COVID or not. He went to watch TV in his reclining chair, and when my brother went to check on him, he was on the floor. It was very hard when he died, and I won’t pretend he made his peace with every last person, or that he had righted every wrong, before he went. There were a lot of wrongs. But those last few years were undeniably, irreplaceably fruitful. For him, and for many of the rest of us. Fruitful enough that they are not yet over, even though he is dead.

If you are halfway imagining that people live the real bulk of their lives when they’re hale and hearty and doing as they please, and that they slowly dwindle into a less and less meaningful existence as the standard earthly pleasures drop away, well, possibly that’s true for some people. There are many ways for the course of a life to run, and not all of them are within our power. The end of my mother’s life looked very different from my father’s. But even that was not what you might think. Strangely enough, caring for her in her profoundly vulnerable and inert state was a huge part of what transformed my father’s final years, which makes me almost quake with fear when I think of my mysterious mother and her strange, quiet power to change people, for good and for ill. A power that continues to burn and insist, like the light from a star that is already dead. 

As I said, I am reluctant to tell you what someone else’s life means. So I’m not going to tell you that the last two years of my father’s life were his most significant. I’m just telling you that there was a time when he thought he could have done without them, and he was wrong.

Take care of yourself. Take care of your poor, dumb, needy body. Your body’s time will run out eventually, because it isn’t meant to last forever; but it isn’t meant only for pleasures and satisfaction, either. Most people are joking when they say life isn’t really worth living if you’re just eating salad, but most people also halfway believe it. Don’t you believe it. Your time on earth is your time on earth. If you’re still here, it’s for a reason.



A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on May 5, 2023.

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22 thoughts on “All of life is worth living”

  1. My dad has Alzheimer’s, and I’m watching this forceful man, who never second-guessed himself (for, as you say, both good and ill), dwindle and get lost in confusion and uncertainty. My parents live with us, and the other day I watched him walk across the yard and realized that those frail, stooped shoulders were the same ones I sat on decades ago.
    It’s surreal, but you’re right. It all matters.

  2. This was a beautiful piece, but I have to wonder…do you feel like what you feed your family is in line with your personal commitment to health? Beer brats with french fries, burgers, potato chips, and Oreo pie, quesadillas, spaghetti and red sauce, and nachos are all absolutely delicious. However, these meals are also heavy (like, very heavy) on simple carbs and red meat and light (like, VERY light) on lean proteins and vegetables. I appreciate that you’re making changes to your diet, but will those changes extend to dinnertime? Or are the kids on their own?

      1. The writer connects her father’s poor health to “heavy foods, sugary, fatty foods, noodles and greasy briskets and things filled with cream.” The writer writes weekly posts about feeding her children heavy foods, sugary, fatty foods, noodles and greasy briskets and things filled with cream. She’s now urging us to take care of our “poor, dumb, needy [bodies].” This dissonance is difficult for me to reconcile.

        1. Hey J, I have so much to say on this topic. I’ve written and edited my response a hundred times. Here’s my bottom line. In my mind, fights between parents and children over food are counterproductive. And each child needs to discover the healthiest way of eating for their own individual body. And so I’d let my kids eat Reeses Cups or peanut butter M&M’s until they vomited. In my mind, emotional health trumps just about everything but immediate physical safety. Some of our kids are adopted, and food insecurity is a real thing and so the best, healthiest thing I could do for my kids is for them to see and understand that there will always be enough food for them. I knew what was best for my kids, even if that meant Reese’s ’til they vomited. You and I can have no idea what’s best for Simcha’s kids.

          Today, all my adult kids eat primarily chicken (and some beef) with vegetables and low sugar fruit. Almost zero processed foods, if you don’t count beer and White Claws. 😉 Even though they grew up in a house where most nights they ate dino nuggets or frozen meatballs in Ragu. Meanwhile, our youngest, who is in high school, still eats a fair amount of frozen chicken nuggets. I don’t sweat it.

          I grew up poor and remember often eating spaghetti with a little ketchup for dinner and if we ate dessert, it was probably toasted white bread with cinnamon sugar (or maybe just sugar if the cinnamon was gone). I don’t eat that way anymore. Simcha’s kids are loved and cared for (just as I was with my spaghetti and ketchup) and they don’t need your judgment or anyone else’s on what they’re eating.

          1. I may have edited the above a hundred times but in the end I threw it up there because I had things to do. I fear it may look like I’m equating eating BJ’s-sized bags of peanut butter M&M’s with what Simcha feeds her kids. Not at all. I’m always amazed at the variety of foods Simcha’s kids eat (or don’t – maybe they go get a bowl of Cheerios when Mom whips up some bibimbap or shawarma. I don’t know). Several of my kids, on the other hand, really did have many months in their childhoods where they ate dino nuggets every single day, but I assure you that bears no resemblance to what they eat as adults.

          2. Well said! Leave Simcha alone! She makes lovely food for her family and it looks to me like she cooks all most every day! And she puts a lot of effort into her family. Everybody can’t just eat kale and almonds all day, especially kids. They need fats for brain development.

            1. I agree that she puts in a lot of effort and makes lovely food. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy food. I never suggested that anyone “eat kale and almonds all day,” least of all children. They do indeed need healthy fats (emphasis on “healthy”) as well as proteins and complex carbohydrates. These are all things Simcha seems to be prioritizing in her own diet these days, as per this piece. My question was whether the entire family will be benefiting from her dietary changes, given that the dinners she serves are often not in line with the values professed in this piece.

              The bottom line is that Simcha has the resources to make healthy choices for herself, but her children, like all children, are dependent upon the choices made for them by the parent in charge of feeding them (in this case, Simcha herself). If mom is eating nutritious salads while serving her kids veggie-free meals of processed meat and potato chips…well, that just doesn’t seem fair to me. Or kind. Or healthy.

          3. “In my mind, fights between parents and children over food are counterproductive. And each child needs to discover the healthiest way of eating for their own individual body.”

            I completely agree, but, respectfully, this has nothing whatsoever to do with my comment. Neither does your defense of impoverished parents feeding their kids whatever they can afford. Simcha’s family is not impoverished, and this is not a question of her forcing her children to eat foods they don’t want to eat. This is a question of what foods are made available to them at dinners planned and prepared by a mother who both recognizes the dangers of “heavy foods, sugary, fatty foods, noodles and greasy briskets and things filled with cream” and yet continues to serve them to her family, even while making changes in her own diet to address her (food-related, she implies?) weight and health issues.

            1. It has everything to do with your comment. Kids eat what kids will eat. In my experience, kids who are forced to eat or not eat certain foods are much more likely to end up with an eating disorder. So, what’s the point of serving variations of grilled chicken and kale every night if kids won’t eat it? That’s a waste of money and I don’t know anybody who can afford to waste food these days.

              1. To reiterate from my previous comment: This is a question of what foods are made available to Simcha’s kids, *by Simcha*, at dinner. It is not about force-feeding anyone chicken and kale and giving them an eating disorder. I do not know where that came from.

                1. And I say again: you have no idea why Simcha feeds her children what she does just like you have no idea why I feed my children what I do. I know nutrition reaches almost religious levels with some people. I border on low carb zealotry myself. But it’s never appropriate to mom shame the mother of children who are loved and well cared for.

            2. I am going to be charitable and pretend your question was sincere.

              Multiple studies (a quick search online will bring them up) show that families who eat home cooked meals generally have much better health than those who do not, and also eat fewer calories, and have psychological benefits that extend beyond the nutrition factor. And the kicker is, this outcome was discovered to hold true even if the family is cooking foods someone like you might consider unhealthy!

              So you can rest easy, and feel good that what Simcha is doing for her family is, in fact, better than what the vast majority of children in this country are getting to eat each day.

    1. “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
      Matthew 15:11
      Someone here should be worried and it’s not Simcha.

    2. What did you suppose that all of this judgey-ness might accomplish? Did you think it would cause Simcha to think, OHMYGOODNESS, J is absolutely 100% right, I am a massive hypocrite who feeds herself “healthy” foods while feeding her kids “junk.” I MUST do better than that, thank YOU J, for bringing this to my attention!!

  3. Simcha, this brought me to tears. “For the sake of the family” is an outstanding reason to love yourself as God loves you in your body. A kick in the pants but in the most gentle way. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  4. This is a beautiful essay. My Dad was fond of saying he wouldn’t live any longer, it’d just feel that way. He died at 68, but not before he developed allergies to all sorts of foods, including beer.

  5. This was so lovely—and a timely reminder for me. I often chide myself for being sensitive to many things (allll the fun foods! alcohol! too much sun!) instead of accepting and treating my body with the love it deserves.

    Lifting you and your family in a little prayer per your previous post. <3

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