Al Roker's aha! moment came a decade ago. He was closing in on 350 pounds when he promised his dying father that he wasn't going to keep living as he was. That led to his decision for a stomach bypass — and his life-changing drop to 190. But 50 of those pounds gradually crept back until he finally devised a plan, stuck to it, and got his life back.
Here is an excerpt from "Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle For Good," an inspiring and candid new book by TODAY's longtime weather and feature anchor.
My father had been at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York City for about a week, battling his final stages of lung cancer. Although he had been a smoker early in his life, he had given up cigarettes cold turkey some thirty-five years prior to his cancer diagnosis. So when he was told that he had stage four lung cancer, I wasn’t emotionally prepared. Our entire family was shaken up and took his diagnosis very hard.
Al Roker Sr. was the rock of our family. Even though he was a talented artist, in the mid-1950s, it was difficult for a young African-American male to get a job in the
commercial art industry. After a short stint at a low-paying apprentice job with no chance
for advancement, with a young wife and a new baby to feed, Dad got a job driving a New York City bus.
He would do that for almost twenty years, always looking for the next step up. Eventually he made dispatcher, then chief dispatcher, and then he was promoted up and into management with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, reaching the rank of Inspector.
We were all so proud of him. His drive and determination rubbed off on his children. We would strive to make him and our mother as proud of us as we were of them.
When he retired, he was excited and determined to enjoy life. My dad found pleasure in being with his wife and his grandchildren, and in his lifelong hobby of deep-sea fishing. He cultivated a newfound love of jazz, started a mentoring program for middle schoolers at a local public school and walked with a group of fellow retirees at the local mall.
But all of that was now behind him. His entire future had now collapsed into being measured by weeks, if not days.
Every day I made it a point to stop in, first thing in the morning, before heading to
the studio to do the TODAY show. We’d visit, and then about 6:20 a.m., I’d
head on to Studio 1-A in Rockefeller Plaza, where the show goes live at 7 a.m. On my way home in the afternoon, I’d head straight back to the hospital to spend more time with him — time, something I had all but taken for granted until my father got sick.
Why hadn’t I gone fishing with him more than a handful of times, and why didn’t I come by the house more often? I always thought I would have plenty of time.
My father was always healthy as a horse. Mom was the one who had beaten lung cancer and breast cancer and survived two heart valve replacements! Dad almost never got sick. Now he was dying and I had just about run out of time with the man I cherished most in life.
There was nowhere near enough time.
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“Son,” my dad said one day, “I’d do anything for more time. I wanted to make fifty years of marriage with your mom so, yeah, I’m pissed about that.”
It was kind of funny, actually. My father always liked things well-ordered and tidy. He was sixty-nine years old and had been married forty-nine years. To him, seventy and fifty felt neater — more complete.
I knew my dad was going to die. There was no hope that he could possibly recover. I did my best to hold myself together until one morning I simply couldn’t hide my grief about losing him. I started crying, and being the incredible father he was, he comforted me.
He said he was proud of the life he had lived — that he’d had a good run. He told me he was proud of his children and he loved his grandchildren more than life itself. Hearing my father speak that way was simply more than I could bear; it was all so final. My tears kept coming. I could tell that my father had something important he wanted to say.
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“Look, we both know that I’m not going to be here to help you raise my grandkids, so that means it is up to you to make sure you will be there for your kids.”
I could feel my heart begin beating faster with every word he uttered because I knew what he was driving at. My father and I had been around the horn too many times to count on the subject of my weight and overall health. For whatever reason, no matter how many times I said I’d lose the weight, I couldn’t — or wouldn’t, or did only to gain it back again.
“Promise me that you are going to lose the weight.”
I tried to play it off like it was no big deal. “Who, me? I’m fine! Don’t worry about me, Dad.”
I could tell he was really struggling to get the words out now. “No, not good enough. I want you to swear to God that you’re going to lose the weight.”
I realized there was really only one respectable thing to do — promise him I would lose the weight.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to make a deathbed promise to someone you love, but if you have, you know the kind of guilt and massive responsibility I felt in that moment. And if you haven’t, let me assure you, it was heavy — heavier than me, and I was damn big. I couldn’t say a word. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, because I did, but I was hesitant. Nothing I could say would mean all that; I had said it all before, without ever doing the work to permanently change my mind-set and lose the weight for good.
So, I promised him I would lose the weight. Still, that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted me to swear to God that I was going to lose the weight — and so I did.
“Dad, I swear to God I am going to lose this weight.”
“I am going to hold you to that son. You don’t want to make me angry.”
Trust me, I didn’t want to get him angry.Story: Meet the new kids in Al’s Book Club
I remember when I was twelve years old and my folks had gotten me a brand-new Sting-Ray bicycle for my birthday. It had a banana seat and a metallic blue paint job. I loved that bike!
Well, one Saturday afternoon, some young thugs from outside our neighborhood came cruising through. They surrounded me, punched me a few times, knocked me off the bike and took it. My pride was hurt more than anything else, but when I got home and told my dad what happened, I saw a look come over him that I had never seen. “Get in the car. Let’s go look for your bike,” he said through clenched teeth. He got behind the wheel and I got in on the passenger’s side and we went looking for these guys and my bike.
After around fifteen minutes of driving around, I noticed a dishtowel wrapped around something sitting on the seat between the two of us. I unwrapped an edge of the towel and saw a steak knife! Dad was going to find that bike and was prepared to fight anyone who got in his way. That’s who my dad was. We never actually found the bike but I discovered I loved my father that day even more than I knew because of his willingness to protect who and what he loved.
He was also the same man who cried when he deposited his firstborn son at the dorm on my first day of college. Everything he was made me who I am.
And now that was all about to go away.
So on the morning I made that promise to my dad, I left the hospital thinking about what he had said — a lot. I don’t usually get distracted when I am on the air, but his words echoed in my mind the entire show. I was so upset about my promise to lose weight, in fact, that I had two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for lunch. My mantra at the time was “When in doubt, eat.”
When I returned to the hospital that afternoon, Dad was out of his bed, sitting up in a chair.
“Hey, old man, how you doing?” I said, but there was no response. He was just looking off into space. One of the nurses came in and told me he’d suddenly stopped talking earlier that day.
“Why?” I asked. The nurse said she would get one of his doctors to explain what was going on. You know it’s always bad news when someone says they want to get someone else to explain things to you. In other words: “Here comes bad news and they don’t pay me enough to put up with the grief you will probably give me!”
When the doctor arrived, he said that my dad’s cancer had spread to his brain. It was affecting his ability to speak and would likely impair his motor functions very soon.
As I helped the doctor and the nurse transfer my father back into bed, he lost control
of his bowels. He couldn’t say anything, but the look on his face was heartbreaking. My
father, the strongest man I knew, both physically and emotionally, was leaving. And there
was nothing I could do about it.
A couple of weeks earlier, planning for this moment, my family had made the decision to move dad, when the time came, to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. It is the world leader in palliative care, run by the Archdiocese of New York.
Two days later we transferred him to Calvary, where angels do heaven’s work on earth and where he would spend his final days. My brother and sisters all came to say good-bye to their father. Our spouses sat by his bed. His grandchildren were there. And we all hugged and held my mother as she watched her husband slip away.
That week was a blur, but I can tell you just about the entire menu at the Calvary
cafeteria. I was aware that I was using food to ease the pain, but I didn’t care. As we
all kept vigil by my dad’s side, I kept thinking about the promise I had made to him and
wondering, “How the hell am I going to do this?”
Reprinted from Al Roker's “Never Goin' Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle For Good” with permission of NAL Hardcover. Copyright © 2012 by Al Roker and Laura Morton.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive