Do you watch what you say?
There are two words that are not allowed in my house.
They seem innocuous enough, and on their own, seen there floating between their open and end quotes, they’re harmless. But I dare you to look at those two words without something either stereotypical, mean, or derogatory running through your mind. You can’t do it.
Never, even when I wasn’t a single parent, do I allow my children to call each other “stupid.” Nor are they allowed to say “that was stupid, Hannah!” or “You’re being stupid, Sam!” in any fashion. I raised all four of these kids. I saw them born, watched them each, in their own separate and unique ways, explore the world. Not a one of them sees the world in the same way. I read to them, even as babies; I talked to them, even when they were infants and making babbling noises. To me, they are little people. Just because they didn’t understand wasn’t a reason to stop talking to them and acting like they’re a part of the family.
Never once, not in all my time as a father, did I want them to feel like they were stupid or lacking intelligence. Even the most uneducated of people has worth, value, and intelligence in their own way. To say the word, to use it in a sentence, to call someone stupid puts them down. My kids aren’t stupid, neither are anyone else’s. Strange, bizarre, ignorant, uncouth, however you want to put it, but it’s a horrible thing to tell someone that they’re stupid or dumb. It’s not that I haven’t caught my kids saying it. The word floats around at school and blares out of the television. It’s not a kind thing to say and just because someone else says it doesn’t mean you should!
It’s not from some deep-seated loathing or horrific bullying I encountered as a child. I was never told (even when I thought I wasn’t smart and no matter how much I objected) that I wasn’t smart, even by my older brother who is a mathematical genius! Whenever I said I wasn’t, he would get frustrated, then tell my mother (I found out years later) “he’s smarter than he gives himself credit for, why does he do that?!” If my brother, a man certified in his brilliance, can find reason to see worth in me and those who don’t see the world as he does, my children can avoid using the word with their siblings.
Most importantly, I feel it’s important that all four of my children understand that, at their worst, when the world is collapsing around them, when all is going dark, the only people you can truly count on when it counts are there in this house with them. There are those who love us, we’re surrounded by good people, but they should know that no matter how bad things get, we have each others’ back. “We’re stronger together than we ever are apart,” has been my mantra to them since their Mom passed away in March of last year. It’s no less true today. For that reason, I’ve banished “stupid” to the consideration of other four-letter words in the world.
“Fat” is a word that bothers me for other reasons. It’s not like I won’t say “go drain the fat from the hamburger” or “there’s too much fat in this meat” or “there are too many fat grams in that meal.” It’s the use of the word to describe another person, particularly one who you know is fighting a real problem with their weight and cannot break the cycle.
This is a very personal thing for me – something I debated long and hard before writing here. But I promised Rene I wouldn’t shy from the personal and painful subjects in my life. This is one of them that hits home in a number of hard ways for me.
My wife Andrea, who you see up there, has only those pictures. The beautiful, sparkling smile, the television anchor looks and the breathtaking personality. But the last five years were some of the hardest of her life and our marriage, and that’s saying a lot. As a result, she refused pictures and we have none of those years.
We had a lot of very hard, very difficult times. Early in our time together we struggled with the fact that she’d been date raped in college. She was no less a person and no less a human being for finding herself in that situation. It wasn’t her fault, but some days no amount of counseling or help or love could fix that self-loathing. Some days, weeks, months, there were no problems at all. Some . . . years . . . we had problems with intimacy and she would shy away from me.
In the last five years, the demons she ran from as a child – fighting her weight, listening to her father and her perception that he was berating her for eating more than a little bit here and there. Having a piece of birthday caked only to be asked “do you really need that?” Yet she was 5’ 10”, a tall, leggy blonde with gorgeous curves and a brilliant smile. No matter what anyone said, you couldn’t say she wasn’t amazing.
We moved to California to get help from family, but she walked back into the world that she hadn’t realized contributed to many problems she’d already confronted. When she got sick, had problems with her liver, took medications for depression, anxiety and her health problems, she faced the problem of gaining a tremendous amount of weight. And she hated the way people looked at her.
She hated the fact she was this way. She hated that not only was she overweight, but she heard others call her “fat” and look at her like she’d made a conscious choice, a decision to be this way. I am also ashamed of how I behaved at times. We saw specialists once we’d dealt with her health problems. But when we tried to fix things she’d get frustrated with the amount of work and dedication it took. I would look at her and wonder – and I’m so very ashamed of feeling this way – why she couldn’t do the work, just a little – for me. Was I not worth losing the weight for? I missed the woman I’d met and the fun we had and sometimes I was so tired and depressed I wanted to beg her to try and bring her back. I closed down and I realized she thought I was embarrassed of her. I know because on several occasions she asked why I stayed with her and didn’t go find someone who treated me better.
But that’s exactly why I didn’t. She made me a better person and I was in this because I loved her. She wasn’t the person she saw on the outside, she was the woman who met me in college. She made me laugh and smile and pushed me to make smart decisions. None of that was different. She still danced in the living room with the kids and laughed so hard with us we wanted to pass out. By the end, she’d started doing the work. We had changed our diet, we were all eating better. Just when we thought we had crested the hill came the infection, the horribly resistant strain of pneumonia, the difficulty with her circulation . . . and she was gone.
She so hated how she looked we have no pictures of her from there, only a few snaps here and there where you can’t really see her how she was. But she was tremendous. You may think it was brave to stay with her, but it wasn’t. I treated her with respect, but I hurt her, too. I was angry, I was disappointed, and some days I didn’t hide it well. It is my biggest regret.
So when my middle daughter struggles with the hormonal changes making her a little bigger I punish her brothers if they even jokingly call her “fat.” If they see someone who might need to lose a few pounds, we never, ever, make fun or joke or make comments. It’s too easy to say “it’s their own fault.” It’s too easy to say someone’s “stupid.” I find my kids using the words still but I still tell them to stop.
When you look at someone, when you talk with someone, what are your thoughts? Do you see the best or the worst in someone? It’s not an easy path to walk, this one. But if you’d met me when I was at my least confident, as a kid unsure of his life next his genius brother, would you take me as who I was or who I was compared to? If you met Andrea on the street a year ago, would you have treated her the same as if you’d met the woman in the picture up above there?
Being the better person isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would do it. But do you have the strength to hold back? What would you say?
More From GEM:
Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife, Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.