I’m about nine years older than my youngest brother Tony, so I didn’t really grow up with him. He was 8 when I went to college. He was 12 when I moved out of the house for good. My memories of him as a child are mostly when he was very young, like when we would send him into the neighbor’s yard to get the ball that had crushed their flower bed.
I also remember him running for school office. He was heavy then, very heavy, but he was a good-hearted kid, full of life and spirit and he radiated with self confidence — I remember his room being decorated with a Jerry Seinfeld autograph we had gotten him and all the political posters he made when running for (I think) class vice president. In one, I believe, he was dunking a basketball and calling himself “Air Poz.” He acted in school plays, I clearly remember his star turn as Charlie Brown. Point is, I remember him projecting strength and self-confidence. I admired him for that. Sure, I sometimes wondered how the other kids treated him. He was small and chunky and a target. But he seemed bigger than all that. Anyway, he did to me from a distance.
You probably know Tony’s story, it has been in the news quite a lot lately. He battled his weight throughout school — sometimes winning, sometimes losing — and he found his way, and he was married to the wonderful Rebecca, but then everything came crashing down. He worked long hours in a restaurant, and he lost his way. At his low point, he weighed more than 420 pounds. I remember going to see him at the restaurant one time, and I barely recognizing him. My oldest daughter tried to hug him; he physically could not hug her back. He so clearly did not want to be seen. Later, we would hear that the doctors told him he would die if he did not change his life. Later, we would hear about just what depths he had plunged into. But that was later.
And how did it turn? I remember this clearly. He got onto a treadmill. He turned it on. He lasted 48 seconds. At that point, he thought his heart would explode. And this was his break point, that pivotal time in a life when a person decides exactly who they are. Will they be extraordinary? Will they be ordinary? Will they be less than that? Many people, most people, would look at those 48 seconds and see nothing but hopelessness, a pointlessly impossible task ahead. Tony looked at it as a beginning.
He went back to the treadmill the next day. And back again. And back again. He changed his eating habits. When he lost 50 pounds — FIFTY POUNDS — you could hardly see the difference. He was still 370 pounds, for crying out loud. But he could see it. He could feel it. He was on his way. The next 50 pounds came off even easier. He broke 300 and kept going down. He lost more than 200 pounds in a year. People ask him how he did it, expecting a diet or exercise advice. He will offer that, but I can tell you, it wasn’t the variety of diet, and it wasn’t the type of exercising either: He did it through sheer, unadulterated, obsessive will.
In all he has lost about 230 pounds. He is, as the expression goes, half the man he used to be and twice the man he used to be. Obviously, I could not be prouder of him.
But I have thought about the scars left behind … and the road ahead. About two weeks ago, a woman named Karen Suffern sent Tony a message. She is a single mother in North Carolina, she was familiar with Tony through his weight-loss page on Facebook. She had asked her 8-year-old twins — Ryan and Amber — to write down a list of things they would want from Santa Claus. Karen included Ryan’s letter in her message. That letter can’t really be summarized or spell-checked. It’s perfect as written.
My mom said to send you are Christmas list. I wanted a remot contor car and helieopter but I dont want that anymor. Kid at school are still picking on Amber and its not fair because she doesnt do anything to them and it makes me mad. I prayed that they will stop but god is bisy and needs your help. Is it against the rules to give gift early? Can you ask Big Time Rush to come to Amber’s B-day party? It will make her so happy. If you can’t get them to come fine but just get her everything she ask for.
PS — my mom throw the best B-day partys. You can come if you want.
I would like to think any anyone who reads that beautiful letter would be moved by it. But it connected with something deep inside Tony. He has told me more than once, above my dissent, that he doubts himself as a writer. But the letter jarred something in him. He has usually kept the writing on his blog to weight-loss stuff, but he felt like he needed to tell this story. He wrote something about Ryan’s letter to Santa. It was posted on CNN’s iReport, where it was read and shared by a few thousand people. Soon, it spread. Viral. More people read it. More. Stories about Karen and Ryan and Amber started to appear everywhere. Then it was on television. The Today Show. Good Morning America. One of the kids in Big Time Rush (a boy band that my own eight-year-old daughter loves) reached out to Amber. In many of these stories — like this one in the New York Daily News — Tony was mentioned and quoted. He talked about being bullied himself.
I think about my friend Steve Palermo. You know his story: Palermo was a Major League umpire, an excellent one, and one day in a Dallas restaurant his group heard that two waitresses were being mugged in the parking lot. Instinctively, they raced out to help. In the blur that followed, Palermo was shot in the back. The bullet crashed into his spinal cord. Had it hit in a slightly different place, he would be dead. Had it hit in a slightly different place, he would have had a short hospital stay and returned more or less to normal. Where the bullet hit, Stevie was paralyzed.
Doctors told him he would never walk again. He did walk. He still walks. It’s deeply painful but he still walks. Doctors also told him he would never umpire again. He has not umpired again.
What I think about with Steve is what it means to be a hero. And it seems to me that the moment he went to help save people in trouble, yes, absolutely, that was heroic. But I think his real heroism comes now, day by day, as he lives with the paralysis that he did not deserve, as he works as a supervisor of umpires when he cannot umpire himself, as he tries to help people who are paralyzed and have lost hope.
Tony lost those 230 pounds. They’re gone, and I suspect, knowing Tony’s discipline, that they will never be back. His 48-second workout session is now three hours. He’s strong and thin and can bench press small houses. But I don’t think the resolve needed to lose those 230 pounds — the self-confidence and optimism and good humor and, sure, the anger too — goes away after the weight is lost. All of it parks and waits to be refocused. When Karen Suffern sent Tony that message, she stirred in him many emotions — some which he shares and some, I suspect, which he does not.
In the story he wrote about Ryan and Amber, he wrote something I had not known. Tony wrote that when he was 9, he had told our Mom that he wished he had a terminal disease — that way he could lose weight. He never told me that. She never told me that either. It was something that I never would have expected from the confident and self-assured kid he portrayed. But we all have memories. They can stir us. They can motivate us. They can haunt us. They can inspire us. Tony chose the last.