As a small child James would occasionally eat raw onions. But what he loved most was to eat pickles and olives, and especially pickled sweet baby beets. He’d eat them as snacks. His uncle, a DJ, nicknamed his nephew “Briny” – Briny Stewart. When his mother would scold him she would say, “Briny Stew, cut that out!”
Briny’s eating pickles and such was not a problem. His real problem was that he ate a lot of everything else. So much so such that at twenty-four he found himself weighing 240 pounds on a five foot six inch frame, the same height as Tom Cruise.
Briny and his older brother, Bobby, were slightly estranged but yet caring of each other. They lived with their mother in a rented home in East Biloxi. She was unwittingly matriarchal and worked in housekeeping at a local hotel and got to work by bus. They had no car. Bobby rode to his two part-time jobs by riding to work on a modified bike with front and rear baskets.
Though something of a Mama’s boy, Briny earned his keep by cutting grass and doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. When he wasn’t working outdoors, he would do a few house chores but he mainly watched television and ate. His mother infrequently cajoled and urged him to “get a decent job” but Briny had it made in the shade or so he shared with a friend.
Their mother was not a big woman but she was a pack a day smoker and eventually developed congestive heart failure in her mid 50s. Towards the end she was in and out of the hospital to the great consternation of the boys. During her final stay she was in the hospital for three weeks, two in the ICU, where Briny and Bobby visited quite often. Both wept harshly upon her death.
And so it was three months after she died that I walked in to an exam room one day to see Briny sitting in the chair. I almost didn’t recognize him and probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for his left cauliflower ear, a defect from a childhood injury. He’d lost so much weight. My first impression was that it was the result of malignant grieving in which he lost his appetite and quit eating.
But he was upbeat, and his demeanor was inviting. Even cheery. He looked healthy and had good color.
I asked him, “Briny you look great! My gosh! You’ve lost so much weight! What happened?”
“Well, I’ve got a little more weight to lose but shortly after Mama passed I went to sign up with the Navy and they told me I had to lose some weight to get in.”
“The Navy? Where’d that come from?”
“Well, you know, Daddy was in the Navy for four years before he married Mama and we had all them pictures of him around. So I figured why not.”
When the boys were young their father died in a dirt track drag racing accident.
“But what moved you to go the military route?”
“When Mama was in the ICU, before she got real bad, we’d have some long conversations, me and her. The nurses let us stay longer. And one day she told me she knew she wasn’t going to make it and she hoped that one day I would make something of myself. She told me that. To make something of myself. So a couple of weeks after she passed I got to thinking and decided the Navy would be a good way to do it.”
Several months later Briny the “Limey” made it in the Navy and I lost track of him. Bobby also moved away but finally got his driver’s license and, according to Briny, was now driving a ‘hoopty’.
I often think about Briny’s success in losing weight and redirecting his life from one of no future and no ambition to one of the noble pursuit of serving in the military. It was a stark turnaround for someone who had it “made in the shade”. I sometimes lament over not being able to harness or retrieve whatever it was inside Briny’s mind that grabbed out to the future, fixing his outlook, and motoring his ambition to not only lose weight but to make something of himself.
I’ve accepted that for many, for those who are unable to muster their will, that beyond counseling, informing, and educating, that for most people who are at risk for ill health, it frequently takes a life-changing event, even a death, to jolt someone out of their static ways and into a different world of living. A world in which they’ve chosen to become something rather than nothing.