Walking a different path

Change: When her mother had a massive stroke, it took seven people to carry the 500 pound-plus woman downstairs. Now Cyritta Goode is taking steps to avoid that same fate - and she wants to live at least to her 60s.

June 16, 2000|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Cyritta Goode loved her mother as much as she feared becoming her, which appeared likelier than ever when her dress size topped 18. Eating a whole tin of taffy on vacation, snatching food from the catered trays she carried at parties, she knew her eating habits were out of control.

A TV commercial urging African American women to join a benefit walk in Druid Hill Park and save their hearts triggered memories of her mother's obesity. Cyritta was among the first to arrive. She had to change. Break the family pattern. Give up the Wesson oil, the fried chicken, the biscuits, the tradition of baking pineapple upsidedown cake or lemon meringue pie on Sundays.

The journey Cyritta Goode has taken since last year's walk for wellness by the American Heart Association is only partly about health. Molded by her mother's problems, she has always taken care of others, and now at 35 she is giving up her caretaker role to take care of herself. In a month, she'll be on her own for the first time - her son is raised and she is leaving her partner. Her search for the mother behind the problems is just beginning.

One thing she knows for sure is that she doesn't want to die as her parents did, in their 50s, of heart attacks, within one week of each other.

Alethia Mae Johnson Morris was a great cook, her daughter remembers. You would love to eat her food, Cyritta says. Everybody did. But everything her mother cooked was all wrong for keeping hearts healthy. Fried catfish. Biscuits. A can of lard and a shake of seasoning salt. Pork at every meal. She knew nothing of smoked turkey. She baked cakes and sold them all through the 1970s in her West Baltimore neighborhood. Her cooking was renowned. People would come running at the smell.

At 350 pounds, Alethia Mae was a beautiful big woman, and men still loved her. Food wasn't her only addiction. In her bust, she carried a bottle of Gordon's gin. Cyritta spent most of her childhood in foster homes in the projects, abused and molested, while her mother was in and out of the rowhouse she owned on Brune Street. The child was torn between finding alcohol for her mother and being left alone - sometimes for months - while her mother was on a binge. Young Cyritta did the best she could to care for her two younger brothers when her mother disappeared, but inevitably a neighbor called social services and they wound up back in foster care.

While Cyritta grew up, her mother grew heavier. Alethia Mae's arms were so huge a doctor estimated her blood pressure by putting a strap around her ankle. The 14-year-old combed her mother's long hair, bathed her, clothed her in dresses with large yellow-and-purple prints and tried to cook healthy things - until her mother got so angry she threw the pot at Cyritta.

Trying to control her mother's eating and drinking was futile, Cyritta learned. With Mom's temper, you didn't get in her way. At 16, Cyritta got pregnant to avoid being forced back into foster care.

When a stroke felled Alethia Mae and doctors told her she couldn't drink alcohol with her medicines, Cyritta taught her to crochet to keep her busy. Alethia Mae made blankets for everybody in the neighborhood.

But she didn't stop eating, even when she reached the scale's limit of 560 pounds. By then she couldn't go out. Mostly she stayed in her second-floor bedroom; she could use stairs only once a day because of the stress on her heart. Cyritta was 17. Her mother always begged her to go to the store and buy a Mr. Goodbar , and Cyritta always refused.

One day walking home from school, Cyritta spotted her mother's hand dangling out the painted screen of her window and hoisting up a Mr. Goodbar on a crocheted string. Her mother had put a dollar on the string and let it down to a neighbor boy, who bought the candy for her. Now he was waiting for his $2 reward.

Her mother knew she would die, and the most painful sound to Cyritta's ears was her mother's philosophy:

"Why not die happy?"

Earthshaking

The sound Goode will never forget is that of her mother falling in an upstairs bedroom as she sat on the living room couch below. The thunderous boom sent the heavy metal chandelier in the living room crashing down. It missed Cyritta's head by half an inch. She raced upstairs to find her mother convulsing. When massage to her mother's heart proved futile, Cyritta ran next door to phone an ambulance.

The rescue team was stunned by the large woman lying on the floor. When they couldn't get her vitals, the medics called the fire department. Cyritta alternated between crying because no one could get her mother out of the house to medical attention and dying of embarrassment at what had to be done. Seven people carried her mother downstairs where the door was removed from its hinges and she was shoved through the opening.

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