Dad reverts to pre-coronary eating habits

Question: Three years ago, my father had a heart attack and needed triple-bypass surgery. He almost died.

Until that point, he never paid any attention to what he ate. There were a few years after the surgery when he consistently exercised and ate right. I guess it was a wake-up call for him.

Ever since he lost that weight, though, he has slowly started going back to his old ways. He is now full-blown back to his old diet. He sneaks out of the house and tells us he is running "errands" but gets angry when we ask him where he is going. We all know he is sneaking out for food - we have found wrappers in his car - and he still denies it was him. Sometimes, he doesn't even hide it. Last night, I went out to dinner with him, and he had a huge chicken cheesesteak.

My mother tries to talk to him, but he ends up yelling at her and tells her it's not her job to tell him what to eat. I am the oldest of his four children (22, 20, 18, 17). He has been a fantastic father and helped me become the person I am today.

I feel if I let this go on and he dies, I will blame myself for never stepping up to confront him to change his ways. I know it is ultimately up to him to change, but after all he has done for me, I will regret not trying to help him if he ends up having another heart attack. Considering how defensive he is, do I try to talk to him, or should I respect that he would like to make his own life decisions?

Answer: Judging father by son, he has indeed done a wonderful job. Your letter breaks my heart.

The good news I have for you is that you can do both - you can respect his right to make his own life decisions and try to talk to him.

What makes this possible is to talk about yourself and your feelings, as opposed to talking about your father and his food.

Meaning you don't say, "Hey, where are you going on this so-called 'errand'?" You've been a kid more recently than I, so I'm sure you're even better able to recall how suffocating it is to have a bunch of self-appointed life monitors standing by with their opinions of your behavior fueled up and ready to fly.

If you're skeptical that even benevolent concern can create such an oppressive environment, then please note, your father "sneaks out of the house" - a reversion to adolescence in response to supervision typically reserved for adolescents.

So treat his food as his business and stick to how you feel, which is your business. "I know it is ultimately up to you to change, but after all you have done for me, I will regret not trying to help you if you have another heart attack." Your words, and good ones. "You're a fantastic father, and I want you to live to be a grandfather."

Or: "How you live is your business. I watch you revert to the habits that almost killed you, though, and I'm scared." Or some other version of: "When you [action], I [feeling]." Whenever you're not sure how to phrase a concern about someone, use that as your cheat sheet.

Speaking of which - you also say, "If I let this go on and he dies, I will blame myself for never stepping up to confront him." Please know that you and your family don't "let" him do anything because, again, it's simply not your permission to give. Your place is to love him, and let him know what you stand to lose.

Question: My brother-in-law is a commercial pilot who gets a number of free passes a year. He and my sister find it too hard to fly as a family on standby, so the passes go unused.

I like to travel solo, and I have two direct-flight trips I would like to take. My sister, however, has told the family not to ask for a pass because it's stressful for her husband to monitor the flight loads, etc. He does tend to "over-involve" himself in anything that's going on, but he has never told me himself I can't ask for a pass.

Personally, I think he likes to feel important and useful. It seems a waste to let these free flights go unused when I would like to fly to research a project I'm working on. Is there a way I could approach this with him - and risk annoying my sister - or should I leave it alone?

Answer: No means no. Therefore, it does not mean to cook up rationales for asking someone else you suspect is more likely to say yes.

If you're sure your appeal has merit, ask your sister yourself.

tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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