Inspiring Her Man to Reclaim His Life

She dearly loved her husband, but how could she help him regain a healthy weight?

Posted in , Dec 27, 2013

Ranae Owens Knapp and her husband, Gilbert

I lay in bed next to my husband listening to his labored breathing. Gilbert’s body had to work so hard even when he wasn’t moving. It was terrifying, not knowing if he would wake up in the morning.

Why wouldn’t he just listen to me? I’d tried every way I could think of to help, to save him from himself, but my pleas had only pulled us further apart. I admit, I badgered him about eating too much, too fast, all those fatty foods.

But what was I supposed to do? Gilbert weighed 700 pounds. That wasn’t just overweight. That was obese...morbidly obese. It was all he could do to get out every morning to his part-time job as a school-bus driver.

At night, right after dinner, he would collapse in bed. I’d tuck the kids in and spend the evening alone on Facebook.

We couldn’t go on like this. He was killing himself. And honestly, it felt like I was dying too. I was listless, depressed and short-tempered–at school, where I’m a teacher, and at home. I was just about to turn 40. I was too young to be a widow!

I didn’t marry a 700-pound man. Twenty years earlier, Gilbert had been a lifeguard at our town pool, tall, muscular, confident. I was a camp counselor.

One day one of my campers slipped and broke her leg. Gilbert took charge. He grabbed a broom, snapped it like it was a toothpick and splinted the little girl’s leg with it. My hero.

We started dating a week later. His dream was to become a Marine. I could picture him in uniform, strong, determined, charging into action, like that day he’d come to my camper’s rescue. He asked me to marry him right before he left for boot camp. I didn’t even have to think about it.

I was so proud to go to his boot camp graduation. Just a few months later, he blew out his knee during a training exercise at Camp Lejeune. He had surgery and came home to recuperate. I wanted Gilbert to know I’d always be there for him. That summer, about a year after we’d met, we got married.

Then came the phone call. He’d been declared unfit for duty because of his knee. He was being discharged from the Marines. Gilbert’s dream was crushed. So was he.

I ached for him. Still, I had faith that the confidence and determination I fell in love with would kick in and he would find a new purpose.

But Gilbert just got more and more down. He lay around staring at the TV, polishing off supersize bags of chips, ice cream by the quart. He put on a lot of weight. Getting a job as a truck driver didn’t help. He sat behind the wheel all day, gorging on fast food.

It was emotional eating, an attempt to fill the emptiness he felt at losing his dream. I understand that now. Back then, it frustrated me no end.

To get him to change his eating habits, get back in shape, I tried positive motivation: “Remember how great you felt when you worked out every day?” Guilt: “Don’t you want to set a good example for the kids?” Scare tactics: “Morbid obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death.”

I went on diets–it wouldn’t hurt to lose some weight myself, I figured–hoping he would join me.

Nothing worked. We fell into a toxic cycle–I’d try to “fix” him, he’d resist, we’d fight, I’d give up, then we’d start all over again. Things got worse when Gilbert lost his trucking job and no one would hire him. The only work he could get was driving the school bus 25 hours a week.

Here I was with two kids and a husband I was scared wouldn’t live to see them grow up. I lay there next to him and listened to him draw another ragged breath. God, I prayed, you know how much I love Gilbert. Help me help him. Just show me what to do.

I’d asked my Facebook friends for ideas to make my fortieth a memorable year. “Run a half marathon,” someone suggested. That was crazy. I was totally out of shape. I couldn’t run to my parents’ house, just 100 yards down the road.

Yet now the idea echoed in my mind, like a drumbeat. I wasn’t going to change Gilbert. I’d tried. And tried. The only life I could change was my own.

I started the very next afternoon when I got home from school. I pulled on a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and my old tennis shoes.

Gilbert was sitting on the couch watching TV. He didn’t even look up as I headed out the door in my running gear.

Halfway to my parents’ I bent over, gasping. My feet, my legs ached. I limped back home and snuck past Gilbert, glad for once that he ignored me. I can’t do this, I thought. I’m not a runner.

The next afternoon there was Gilbert plopped on the couch again, chowing down on a barbecue sandwich and fries. I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there. This time I ran a little farther before I had to stop to catch my breath. At this rate, it’d be years before I could run one mile, let alone 13.1.

But I stuck with it. I found a book that combined a training plan for a half marathon with a Bible study. I even adopted a verse for motivation, Hebrews 12:1: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

Over and over I repeated that verse, going a little farther every time. It took me a month before I could run an entire mile. The second mile came easier, though. The third, easier still. But how was any of this helping Gilbert? He barely seemed to notice that I was gone longer and longer on my runs.

In December 2011, six months after I began training, I ran my first half marathon. Everyone, my parents, the kids, even Gilbert, came to cheer me on. I started off well enough, but around mile 9 my legs started feeling like Jell-O. By mile 11, I could hardly put one foot in front of the other.

Runners blew past me. A young woman with a bouncy ponytail went by, not even breathing hard.

I felt so discouraged I almost stopped right there.

Then my eyes caught the words on the back of her T-shirt: You’re not finished with this race. Hebrews 12:1.

If that wasn’t a message meant for me, I don’t know what was.

I took a deep breath. Run. I willed myself to keep going, step after step. Run with endurance.

I surged across the finish line. My kids jumped up and down, cheering. Mom flung her arms around me. My moment of triumph. Except for...

“Where’s Daddy?” I asked my daughter.

She pointed to a parking lot at the top of a hill. I could just make out our car, parked in the front row. “It was too far for him to walk,” she explained. I waved. I saw Gilbert lift his arm with great effort and wave back.

I set a new goal: run a full marathon. My training went great. My marriage, not so much. Gilbert was killing himself and it was too painful to watch. For spring break I took the kids and spent a week at my parents’ house. I needed to get away and think.

I confided in my mom. “I love Gilbert. I don’t want a divorce. But I can’t live with him like this.”

“Love is patient,” Mom reminded me. “Marriage is a long haul, kind of like a marathon.”

That made me think of the race I’d run. How I was about to quit until that young woman with the Bible verse on her shirt passed me, the very same verse I’d claimed for myself.

I’d thought God sent me a message to help me with that race. But it went way beyond that. It was a message about my marriage. You’re not finished. Run with endurance.

The kids and I went home. Okay, God. I’ll be here for Gilbert whenever he’s ready.

Not long after, I got a text from Gilbert while I was at school: “Pls call.” I did. “I need you to get all the food out of the house,” he said. “I’m going on a three-day fast. I don’t want to get into it right now, I just need you to help me.”

The kids and I threw out all the junk food. The rest, we loaded in the car and took over to my parents’. That night, instead of collapsing in bed, Gilbert sat up with me and we talked.

“That week you and the kids were away, I did a lot of soul-searching,” he said. “I’m not the husband or the dad God wants me to be. That I want to be. I have to lose weight.”

I grabbed his hand, almost giddy with relief. “I’ll help you any way I can.”

“You already have,” he said. “You didn’t give up on me or our marriage. I see how you’ve changed. I want to change now, and with God’s help and your support I will.”

The next day he walked from our house to our mailbox at the end of the driveway, about a tenth of a mile. It was torture for him. But he stuck with it. Just as he stuck with smaller portions and healthier foods. “It took me years to gain this weight,” he told me. “It’ll take me a long time to lose it. But I will.” I loved his confidence and determination.

That December, I ran my first marathon. There at the finish line was Gilbert, helping out as a race volunteer, giving out medals to all the runners. He draped my medal around my neck and I wrapped my arms tightly around him.

Today, a year later, Gilbert has lost more than 300 pounds. He walks four miles every day and volunteers as an equipment manager for the high school football team. And he’s training to be a volunteer firefighter. My hero.


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