Since my father died in December, I’ve called upon him on many occasions at the gym. While Dad was active throughout his life, but more importantly, he was determined. On those mornings that I’ve faced a challenge I don’t think I can handle, I think of Dad and push forward. And now, as I continue on the road to health, I have another angel on my side, my Uncle Ray.
I first met Uncle Ray and his wife, Nan, when I was around ten. Out of Dad’s 11 brothers and sisters, they were the first who had ventured to this side of the Mason-Dixon line when they moved to Pittsboro, North Carolina. Because they lived close to Grandma and Grandpa, and perhaps because he and Dad were closest in age of all of the siblings, Ray is one of the few of Dad’s siblings that I really knew growing up.
Ray and Nan were pioneers in the healthy eating movement, and they ate things like tofu and whole wheat pasta some thirty-something years before they became mainstream. My first memory of Ray and Nan involved food; we were traveling together and struggling to find a place where we could all eat. I think we ended up at Wendy’s, one of the few fast food places that had a salad bar that long ago.
I also remember spending some time with Nan and Ray in my early teens at their fabulous house in Pittsboro. Ray was in construction, and he and Nan built their house from the ground up. On a beautiful wooded lot, it was – and still is – like a magical retreat. I don’t remember much of what I ate while I was there – chances are that Nan bought some junk just for me – but I did try whole wheat pasta for the first time during that visit.
Back then, I remember thinking that tofu and whole wheat pasta were quite odd, and while I loved Ray and Nan, I couldn’t quite understand the food they ate. When we visited, I made sure that I ate before we got there, and I always made sure to bring a soda with me.
Fast forward thirty-something years, and time has a funny way of changing things. After working with Traci at Doctors Wellness Center, I know why Ray and Nan ate the way they did, and while I still struggle with the veggies, I eat that way, too. Now when we travel, I’m the one struggling to find a healthy option amongst the sea of fast food. When I eat pasta, it’s always whole wheat, and I love tofu. The thing that continues to amaze me is how they were able to eat like they did “back then.” Now, there are places like Whole Foods, and even the “regular” grocery stores have organic sections. Tofu and whole wheat pasta are almost mainstream, and there are even healthier dining options, even in Columbia. But 35 years ago, not so much.
Last week, Ray passed away after a ten year fight with prostate cancer. Despite his cancer being advanced when diagnosed, he lived with it for quite some time. And until the last few years, he lived quite normally with it. I’m convinced his longtime healthy lifestyle — plant-based eating and lots of physical activity — helped him in his valiant fight with cancer.
When Dad was dying in December, Ray, too, was nearing the end of his days. For a while, we thought that Ray and Dad would pass within days of each other, but Ray lived on another four months. In that time, we made several visits to see Ray, and I was pleased that he was able to see how I had turned my eating habits around. I was able to thank him for his early influence, which took me quite a while to embrace. I was even able to share some of my recipes with him, and he and Nan loved my Taco Soup, modified to exclude MSG, of course.
At his memorial service yesterday, there was a time for personal tributes. I waited for his friends to finish, and while I felt called to speak about Ray’s influence, it still seemed like it was just too much about me. So I’ll make the tribute here. I’ll probably never eat as well as Ray did. I still indulge in ice cream and pizza, and I don’t think I’ll ever get enough greens. But as I continue to incorporate more plant-based selections into my menus, I now have a new angel to call upon, Uncle Ray. Just as I call upon Dad to help me get through morning sled pulls or leg presses, I’m counting on Ray to give me the extra motivation to pack a side salad for lunch or try a new vegetable here and there. And like Dad, Ray will not only be happy to give me that extra nudge, I’m certain that he’ll get a big kick out of doing so.