I met Mary Brooks in 1965 when she enrolled in my high school our sophomore year. She was a quiet, petite 15-year-old who had studied in Mexico her freshman year. That made her seem exotic, and those of us struggling with tenses in Spanish II envied her jumping ahead into an elite conversational Spanish class.
After school and on weekends when the coeds from Marymount High School were liberated from our private girls’ school uniforms, Mary dressed in chic short dresses and trendy mini skirts. I remember she often wore white stockings which gave her that Mary Quant look at the exact moment in time when the “English invasion” was at the height of popularity.
In one yearbook photo, wearing a pout and long straight blonde bangs that covered her eyebrows, Mary resembles George Harrison’s first wife, fashion model Pattie Boyd.
In a class of just 42 women, we got to know each other pretty well, but that was 50 years ago and my recollection of specific interactions with Mary are sketchy for the first two or so years. But I have vivid memories from the spring of our senior year, when Mary, two other classmates and I volunteered for Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency.
The four of us — Denise, Shannon, Mary and I — were inseparable from March 1968 until Kennedy’s assassination in June. We worked side by side at Kennedy headquarters and participated in various rallies and events as “Kennedy Girls.” We graduated just a few days after the assassination, and later that summer I left for college in San Francisco.
The next time I saw Mary would be the last time for 30 years. Denise and I visited her and her infant daughter Monica during the summer of 1969 while Mary was living in a Torrance apartment. Motherhood agreed with Mary. She was beautiful and so was her baby.
I never meant to lose track of Mary, but that’s what happened. She was one of a handful from the class of ’68 we couldn’t locate for our 25th reunion. But, in the fall of 1998, another classmate, Roseann, spotted Mary at an art show in Los Angeles just a couple of weeks before a planned girlfriends’ weekend in Washington state. Roseann invited Mary to join us.
I expected to reunite with the Mary I knew in high school. But nothing stays the same. Mary had gained a lot of weight and was struggling with the onset of diabetes. She had the same gentle, caring persona I knew in high school, was still blonde and was a stylish dresser, but her clothes were now unstructured.
This reunion in 1998 laid the groundwork for our long-standing friendship. Originally our passion for politics in 1968 brought us together. Now, as mature women, we had more commonalities to share. Despite the fact that she lives in Los Angeles, Mary and I have gotten together almost every year for the past 14. We will see each other this summer.
During the course of our adult relationship Mary has been open and forthcoming about her health, specifically about her diabetes.
When I saw Mary the summer of 2008, she looked the trimmest I’d seen her since high school. No one at our 40th high school reunion that August would have guessed she’d been much heavier just a few months before. It took a lot of discipline and commitment to lose that weight. I was so proud of her.
But the weight came back and her diabetes just got worse. Three years later, in June 2011, Mary reached her high weight of 225 pounds. She was on maximum oral medication to control blood sugar. I think she would tell you she was depressed and feeling defeated.
Then she watched “Forks Over Knives” (the movie that suggests we can cure most of our ills by substituting a plant-based diet for an animal-based one and processed foods) and went vegan on the spot.
Not long after becoming a vegan, Mary was inspired by her aunt and uncle to return to Weight Watchers and began a steady weight loss program. She walked for exercise.
She began to feel better but it wasn’t until she adopted Stella, a high energy border collie puppy last September that her physical activity started to make a difference in her health. Walking Stella “increased my walking time tenfold,” she told me.
After eight months on Weight Watchers and daily walks with Stella, Mary lost 50 pounds. Mary says she “picked up new lifestyle habits in the process: more consistent exercise, more eating home-cooked food, more conscious food choices.”
Last November, Mary began talking about being “in training” for a half-marathon. Her daughter Monica is an Ironman triathlete and was training for the Surf City marathon in Huntington Beach. Mary asked Monica for an entry for the half-marathon as a Christmas present. Monica was quick to oblige and she commenced serious training.
In February, Mary posted some photos on her Facebook page. She looked slimmer, fit, happy and healthy as she crossed the Surf City half-marathon finish line. She and Monica held on to each other and kissed their medals, small surfboards commemorating their finishes.
Mary’s lab tests earlier this month were completely normal and her blood sugar meds have been reduced to a minimum dose. Mary says she should be off the meds with a loss of another 10 pounds. She is still walking Stella and still on Weight Watchers. She is happier, healthier and in training for her next race, the Palos Verdes half in May.
I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say to a person who might be suffering from obesity and diabetes and reading this column today. “Don’t despair, don’t give up, find what works for you, we can achieve good health and it’s so precious.”