Family Struggled With Wife, Mom Dying to Be Thin

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
June 8, 1997, Sunday CITY EDITIONFamily Struggled With Wife, Mom Dying to Be Thin

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer


LENGTH: 3719 words

Snapshots of two women – one Steve Duty married and one he
buried – rest side by side on the living-room table.

One set of photos shows a beautiful prom date. A picture-perfect
bride. An all-American wife and mom.

The other depicts a frail, 45-pound figure in a wheelchair – a
living skeleton near death after a six-year battle with anorexia

Duty knew both women well.

They were one woman. But in his mind, they never will be.

“This was a woman who apparently had everything – beauty,
perfect shape, a great home, a great family,” Duty said of his
green-eyed high school sweetheart. “She was a sweet, kind, giving

“But as much as she loved her children, as much as she loved me,
she was sucked into this illness and let it control her.”

My mom, Tracey Duty, died at age 33 from anorexia nervosa. This
is a disease where a person starves and exercises themselves to
lose weight. Tracey thought she was fat and wanted to do
something about it. She was never fat. In fact, the most she
ever weighed was 112 pounds and she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall.

– Excerpt from an essay
by Josh Duty, 13

Memories of Tracey Duty fill her family’s thoughts – and their
Warr Acres home – 10 months after her death.

Steve Duty, a tan, fit carpet cleaner who lifts weights and
teaches Sunday school at Council Road Baptist Church, spreads an
inch-thick stack of medical records across the carpet.

The records – and the $ 330,000 in bills that forced the family
into bankruptcy – tell part of the story.

The essay son Josh wrote for his Cooper Middle School English
class tells another part.

At Tracey’s funeral, her husband, son and daughter, Stephanie,
11, pledged to tell her story – to help others.

That’s why they exposed their heartache to The Oklahoman.

“If it helps one person, it will be well worth it,” Steve said.
“Hopefully, it will make people ask questions because anorexia is
almost like a slow suicide.”

Josh, an avid golfer and football player who has shot hoops with
Vince Gill and has a Super Bowl cap autographed by Troy Aikman,
made an A on the essay, titled “The Death of My Mom.”

The small cedar chest that Stephanie holds on her lap tells more
of the story.

Unlocking the chest with a tiny key, the Tulakes Elementary
student pulls out her mother’s glasses and sunglasses, a cassette
tape labeled “Tracey’s Message to Her Children” and other memories.

I would like to tell you that she was the most beautiful mother
in the world, but I can only see her beauty through pictures. My
dad, Steve, realized what she was eating and doing was not
normal. Mom thought what she was doing was eating healthy and
exercising to feel better, and, at first, that was true.

Stephanie wears a necklace with a heart-shaped angel.

“You’re my little angel,” Tracey Duty told her daughter with a
smile when she gave her the necklace.

A year and a half later, Stephanie can recite every detail of
that moment at her mother’s bedside.

“She was just so happy,” said Stephanie, who has taken the
necklace off only once.

In the Dutys’ comfortable brick home, fond images form easily.

Tracey’s husband and children reminisce about the faithful
Christian who watched babies in the church nursery. The friendly
comforter who wiped scraped knees during playground duty at Tulakes
Elementary. The caring mother who made her family dinner and
dessert every night.

They remember the excited traveler who visited Disney World five
times, enjoyed Branson, Mo., and surprised the family with a cruise
to the Bahamas.

They recall a woman who loved her family so much that she risked
her life to give birth.

When she was six-months pregnant with Josh, doctors found she
had a severe heart condition. They encouraged her to abort the
fetus to save her own life. The doctors worried about the increased
weight and pressure on her heart.

“Instead, Tracey became bedfast the remainder of the pregnancy
and was determined that little Josh would one day rest safely in
her arms,” Council Road Baptist Church pastor Mark Hartman said in
Tracey’s eulogy.

It started off for my mom very innocently. She began by not
eating red meat and walking about four miles a day. After a
short time, people began saying how much better she looked,
which made her feel good about herself. She began thinking that
the more weight she lost, the more people would say how great
she looked, and she would feel even better.

As a Putnam City West High School sophomore, Tracey Wyman had
the kind of cover-girl looks that made boys stare and girls

She twirled the baton, cheered with the pep club and excelled on
the softball diamond. She later played infield for the national
champion Oklahoma City Jets.

She met Steve Duty, a Putnam City West junior, in spring 1979.

Love bloomed.

Steve never noticed anything extraordinary about her eating

“She would always just eat the right amount and then stop,” he
said. “It was never a problem. We’d go have steak, hamburgers,

They dated for three years until one day, while they strolled
the Central State University campus, Steve asked her to marry him.
That summer, they exchanged vows at Tulakes Baptist Church in

Steve’s sister Peggy Diefenderfer considered Tracey a close

“If I had to describe her, I would say that she was painfully
shy. She always had a ready smile, but you could never get her to
start a conversation.”

Tracey sat at the guest book at Bob and Peggy Diefenderfer’s

Later, she became the Diefenderfers’ sidekick when Peggy
delivered twin girls.

Peggy didn’t like taking the babies places by herself. But that
wasn’t a problem. Tracey was always there.

“She helped me a lot,” Peggy remembered years later.

After a year, my mother had completely changed her diet. She
then exercised about four to six hours a day. She still thought
she was fat, although she weighed only 95 pounds. At this point,
my family was very worried and concerned. She began seeing
doctors for help, but she was smarter than the doctors and
convinced them that she was fine.

Months after delivering her “miracle baby,” as she called Josh,
Tracey Duty underwent open-heart surgery.

While in the hospital, Tracey celebrated her birthday with a
piece of cake. A doctor scolded her.

Tracey did not develop anorexia until later. Still, her
therapist, Juli Marzuola, points to the cake incident as a critical

“Tracey’s case was very similar to many … in that the person
gets overwhelmed with a health fear and it is magnified
inappropriately,” said Marzuola, a counselor and dietitian whom
Tracey began seeing in 1992. (Steve Duty signed a release allowing
Marzuola to discuss Tracey’s case.)

Tracey’s anorexia was a complicated puzzle, Marzuola said.

Those factors included her upbringing, unresolved conflicts and
the 1993 cancer death of her father. A month after Russ Wyman died,
Stephanie told Steve, “I think Mommy wants to be with her daddy.”

Like many anorexics, Tracey was raised in a home where extreme
order was expected.

“Her room had to be straight,” Steve said. “She wasn’t allowed
to mess up anything. And that carried over here.

“The house was always perfect. … She would walk behind the
children and pick up something before they could learn to do it

Only days before her death did Tracey let Stephanie take out all
her Barbie dolls and play with them.

That perfectionism – combined with Tracey’s shyness and
insecurity – helps explain her anorexia, experts said. Anorexia is
about control, not food or weight, they stress.

“Anorexics have consistently been found to be compliant,
approval seeking, self-doubting, conflict avoidant, excessively
dependent, perfectionist and socially anxious,” said Craig Johnson,
who directs the eating-disorders program at Tulsa’s Laureate
Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital.

After three years, she weighed 73 pounds. We knew time was
running out, so we took her to a hospital called Laureate, which
specializes in eating disorders. They kept her 45 days and sent
her home. I wish they would have kept her longer, because she
was not well when they let her go. Shortly after getting home,
she was back to her old schedule of exercising and dieting.

On Nov. 19, 1995, we took her to the hospital because she was
not making sense. She was confused from lack of food and nutrition.
She weighed 65 pounds. They started her on IVs and feeding tubes
immediately. That was my first Thanksgiving without Mom home. That
scared me to death. I knew for the first time that my mommy could
die from this illness. She assured us that this would never happen
again and that she would start eating and never exercise again.
Unfortunately, this illness was destroying her heart and kidneys.

Tracey Duty believed she was fat and ate too much.

She lied about what she did eat.

A friend would invite her to lunch, and she would order only a
diet soda, claiming she ate beforehand. Her family would take her
to a restaurant, then find her chicken hidden in a napkin.

She hated hospital feeding tubes. When she weighed only 68
pounds, she’d pinch her arms. “What are they doing to me?”

Most often, Tracey munched fat-free, salt-free pretzels and
sucked sugar-free hard candy.

She kept journals of what she claimed she ate. Her entry from
two days before she died:

BREAKFAST – Instant breakfast. 2 lg. bananas. Fruit yogurt.
Coffee. Why so much? I gained weight! To live – yes. I want to, but
so much food!

SNACK – 1 apple. 1/2 banana.

LUNCH – Minestrone Soup (2 cans). Whole pkg. Saltines. Apple
(lg.) Still feel funny cause of gaining weight & yet I should be
proud because I WANT TO LIVE!

DINNER – Vegetable Soup – 2 cans. 1 & 1/2 pkg. crackers. String
cheese. Banana pudding. I should not feel guilty! The Will To Live!

SNACK – 1/2 banana. Midnight until 6 a.m. – 8 crackers, 7-Up.
Why? I hate this, but I still do it!

That day, Steve asked Tracey whether she still thought she was
fat. She hesitated. “Well, I know I’m not, but my stomach still
sticks out.”

Johnson, the Laureate director, said anorexics can reach a
certain lower weight where asking them to eat is like feeding them
rat poison.

“It’s kind of a starvation psychosis and … you’re in trouble
then,” he said. “They’re going to fight the treatment.

“They believe bad things are going to happen to them if their
weight is restored.”

During the early stages of Tracey’s anorexia, Dr. Mary Ann
Bauman prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft. Tracey stopped taking
it because it helped control her compulsion not to eat.

“It’s very frustrating and difficult,” Bauman said of patients
like Tracey. “Here was something that very much helped her, and she
refused to take it.”

In ways, anorexia is like alcoholism, Bauman said.

“People who are not alcoholics wonder how someone can give up
their jobs, their house, their family for that bottle,” she said.

“In the same way, Tracey had gorgeous children, a wonderful
husband – how could she give all this up to starve herself?”

On Feb. 17, 1996, Mom was asleep with her eyes open. We thought
she was dead. We called 911. The police got there, then the fire
department. They worked with her for about 15 minutes before the
ambulance finally arrived.

When the ambulance drove away with my mom, I didn’t know if I
would ever see her again. She stayed in ICU for eight days. She
told us it would never happen again. I had to talk to my mom. I sat
down with her and asked her if she wanted to see me graduate from
high school and if she wanted to see me get married. She started
crying and so did I. She told me she was going to get better. I
really believe that my mother wanted to get better, but her illness
was controlling her. She stayed in the hospital this time for 36

Even in her final days, Tracey Duty maintained a rigid routine.

She made dinner when she could barely stand.

On the night before she died, she fixed chicken, rice, salad, a
fruit bowl and oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. Then she washed the

“She just used the counters to get around the kitchen,” Steve

When she could rouse the energy, she still tried to exercise.
Weeks before she died, she fell and cut her head on the sidewalk
while walking. Earlier, she tripped on ice and cracked her tailbone.

Often, the family would come home and find Tracey stuck on the
toilet, too weak to move. Or she would stand for hours – it hurt
less than sitting – watching the Food Network.

However, Tracey resisted people who came to check on her. It was
as if they were invading her safe haven.

Josh, meanwhile, feared coming home from school alone.

“I was afraid she’d be laying there … and I wouldn’t know what
to do, if she was dead or in a coma or what.”

Josh didn’t know it, but his aunt often parked down the street,
afraid herself of what the children might find.

When Diefenderfer did call or knock, Tracey often greeted her

“I would leave there and think, Ouch.’ ”

I saw no difference in her eating habits. She always did good
for a while after getting out of the hospital, but would
eventually go back to her old ways. I could see her getting
weaker every day. In April, it all happened again. My hopes
would be so high that she would be all right, and then my hopes
would drop when she was hospitalized again. She always told me
she was going to be fine. But the doctors told us all along that
she was going to die. She went home after 32 days of feedings.

When Tracey Duty’s pastor suggested she make a goodbye tape as a
gift her children could treasure, her friend and neighbor
Stephanie Clark found a tape recorder.

Clark, mother of Josh’s best friend, “Goose” Clark, took the
recorder into Tracey’s hospital room and told her she loved her.

“If something doesn’t happen here, if there aren’t some changes
made, you might not have a chance to tell your children what you
want to tell them,” Clark told her friend.

At first, Tracey became angry .

“Tracey, I can see your teeth through your upper lip,” Clark

The tape Tracey made includes messages for “my two wonderful

Tracey first talks to Josh, telling her “miracle baby” she has
many sweet memories of him. She urges him to be a “godly young man”
and not to put so much pressure on himself to make perfect grades.

“And I just want you to have the most wonderfulest life you can
have. That’s my biggest prayer for you.

“Think how goofy your dad is. See, you’re just like that and you
can have a happy life. Remember some of those vacations we’ve had.
Those are so fun.”

She remembers taking Josh to Six Flags while pregnant with
Stephanie. They watched Bugs Bunny on stage, and Tracey noticed
that her little boy walked just like his father.

“It’s so cute,” she says. “There’s so many wonderful memories.”

Then Tracey talks to Stephanie.

“I love you very, very, very, very much. And I know I refer to
Joshua as a miracle child. And you were too because you weren’t
supposed to happen, but you did. And I’ve told you over and over
how He (God) has blessed you, and He has given you to us.”

She encourages Stephanie to pursue her dream of being a
schoolteacher or a hairdresser. “That’s so cute because that’s the
kinds of things I wanted to do. Kind of neat, huh?”

Tracey recalls Josh playing in the back yard while Stephanie sat
in her high chair “kicking and grinning.”

We thought it would be fun to go somewhere when she got home, so
we went to Branson, Mo. We pushed her around in a wheelchair the
whole time. It was our last vacation together.

On the way home from Branson, my mom started to get confused
again, and she was passing out. I had to give my mom a real Coke
(instead of the Diet Coke she usually drank) to get some sugar into
her body. After about 30 minutes she woke up. We told her later
what had happened, and she was upset with us for giving her the
real Coke. We knew for sure now that she was in bad shape.

Throughout the ordeal, Steve Duty stuck by his wife.

“One thing everyone said about Steve was he always had a smile
on his face,” Diefenderfer said. “You wouldn’t have known he was
dying inside.”

She recalls one time when Steve broke down crying at the kitchen
table. “He said, She hasn’t said a kind word to me in a year and a
half,’ ” Diefenderfer said.

Because of her heart, Tracey could not get health insurance. So
along with the physical and emotional pain of anorexia, her family
dealt with financial stress – and later, bankruptcy.

“The kids were scared we’d lose the house and they wouldn’t have
their neighbors anymore,” Steve said. “Eventually, we found out the
house would be OK.”

When Tracey died, the family sold her car to pay for the funeral.

Before her death, some people urged Steve to divorce his wife,
if only to relieve the financial strain. That way, they said, she
would be single and unemployed, and state or federal agencies might
send help instead of rejection letters.

“He just could not and did not want to leave her when she was so
sick,” Diefenderfer said.

“He amazed and surprised a lot of other people, but I knew what
he was made of.”

Josh and Stephanie, meanwhile, cared for their mother as if they
were the parents. “They had to grow up so much faster than any kids
should have to,” their aunt said.

The family’s faith inspired many.

“Throughout this whole thing, Steve has never lost faith in the
Lord,” said Chris Wall, Council Road Baptist’s youth minister. “He
has always said, God is faithful.’ ”

When we got home from the trip, she had to be hospitalized
again. This time was the worst. Mom was on a respirator for four
days. They told us again she would die. God kept giving her more
time with us. They got Hospice involved at our home to help take
care of her.

My sister, dad and I were the ones who mainly took care of her.
I was going to camp on Aug. 5, 1996. I really didn’t want to leave
Mom, but she wanted me to get away and have some fun before school
started, so I went on to camp. Finally, Friday came, and I was
going home to see Mom.

Tracey Duty nudged her sleeping husband and whispered, “Steve
… Steve.”

Deep in his dreams, Steve Duty still could envision the high
school sweetheart he wed 14 years before. Now, though, Steve felt
Tracey’s bony forefinger poking him.

He wiped his eyes and looked across the bed at what his true
love had become.

She lay awake in socks and a pink sweat suit and occupied just a
sliver of the king-size mattress. The sweat suit hid her sheer
skin, her brittle bones.

Her eyeglasses protruded from her shriveled, sunken face.

“Steve, I’m sorry, I’ve got to go again,” Tracey said softly,
dawn still two hours away, the bathroom farther than her legs would
carry her.

He reached under her knees with one arm and lightly squeezed the
back of her neck with his other hand. He rested her head carefully
against his chest, balancing her like a fragile vase, afraid he
might break her if he grasped her too tightly.

He carried her to the bathroom and sat her down.

When she finished, he leaned over and picked her up again. As he
lifted her, she kissed him three times.

“I love you and I’m sorry,” she told him.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Steve
said, unaware Tracey had just spoken her final words.

The bus stopped suddenly on the highway on Friday, Aug. 9, 1996
– the day I’ll never forget. Chris, my youth minister, called me
up to the front. My heart stopped. I knew it was bad news. He
told me my mom was dying fast. He said, “We’re putting you in a
car and racing you home to be with her.”

Finally we arrived. I ran to my mom’s room. I looked at her,
then grabbed my dad and cried. He told me Mom was hanging on just
to hear my voice. My mom couldn’t talk to me, but she could hear
me, so I told her all about camp. I was able to spend about two
hours with her before she died. When she died, she weighed only 45

On the Duty family’s back porch, on a brisk spring evening,
life seems so simple.

Steve drops steaks and chicken breasts on the grill.

Stephanie grabs the spatula and helps Dad turn the meat. Josh
shakes seasoning salt on his hand and tastes it, while Angel, the
Dutys’ blue heeler, runs through the flowers.

It’s 7 p.m. when they finally sit down to eat. And when they
do, it’s a relaxing time, a chance to talk, joke and share feelings.

Steve has started dating again. He hopes someday to find a
“substitute mother” for Stephanie and Josh.

He knows how to handle Josh – he was a boy once. They enjoy
Oklahoma Sooner football and basketball games and talking sports.

But Steve realized the challenge in raising a daughter alone a
week after the funeral. Lying in bed, Stephanie informed her
father, “Mom told me I could start shaving my legs when I got in
the fifth grade.”

“I told her it would be OK, and I don’t think I’ve told her no
since,” Steve said. “You feel like they’ve been deprived in so many
ways, you don’t want to say no to anything.”

Tracey Duty died 10 months ago Monday. For her widower and
children, an emptiness remains.

The telephone rings, and for an instant, Josh thinks it might be
Mom. Steve hugs a date, and Stephanie asks whether Dad still loves
Mom. Steve awakens and stares at the family photograph in his

Each day, though, the pain seems somehow easier to bear.

“I kind of feel like I did all I could do,” Steve said. “I kind
of have a peace about it.”

The tears flow, but not as long or hard.

“I want you all to go on living and to have everything you ever
wanted,” Tracey Duty told her family. “OK? That would make me so

“And I will always, always, always watch over you.”

The illness was so frustrating to me. It never should have
happened. It started out so innocently. She just wanted to be
healthy. Then it got out of control. Anorexia nervosa is a very
serious illness. I hope no one else has to go through what my
family and I went through.

A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of my mom. I will always
miss her, but I know she is in a better place now – heaven.

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