When I was ten years old, I spent several weeks going through magazines and cutting the Surgeon General’s Warning out of the cigarette ads and then leaving them anywhere in the house where I was sure my dad would find them.
I rolled them up into his socks one week. Every single pair he opened contained that little warning linking smoking to cancer and death. Another time I put them in his shirt pockets. The same pockets where he kept his Pall Mall’s, the unfiltered kind.
I left them on top of the beer bottles in the garage and under the seat of his car with his Brach chocolate star stash. He found them in his wallet, his toolbox and in both pockets of every pair of work pants he owned. I think I even placed one under his pillow.
I never saw him find a single one, and he never said a word to me about what I was doing, but eventually he decided that enough was enough. He told my mother to tell me to stop, which she did.
And he didn’t. Stop smoking that is.
About a month before my first husband went into hospice, Dad had a series of strokes that nearly killed him. He quit drinking and smoking in a single week. He followed his doctors’ orders to the letter and worked his physio-therapy like an Olympic athlete. By the time my husband had passed away four months later, Dad seemed to be well on his way to recovery with just a cane and a slight limp to show for it.
But sixty years of smoking was not as easily erased as he hoped and within a few months it became evident that he was in trouble again. This time the diagnosis was pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which the sacs in the lungs fill up with a gooey substance. It’s almost like they turn to mush and then congeal.
Despite being given only a few months to live, Dad beat the odds again and was soon in remission where he has remained for the last two years. Long enough to celebrate his 80th and then 81st birthdays, something no one really thought he would ever do.
I last saw him in June. We traveled down from Canada to Iowa because Mom was worried. She didn’t think Dad was well though he assured her he was fine. He didn’t look fine to me, and so I was hardly surprised when the pneumonia he was hospitalized with in late September was actually stage four lung cancer.
I have been here before. Terminal illness. Hospice. Waiting. But I was the wife that time and right in the thick of things. I didn’t have the luxury, if you can call it that, of reflection and appreciation.
My dad and I were not close. I am not his favorite. I was his number one son, the one he expected the most of, and I don’t think I ever really disappointed, but I spent much of my early life thinking I had and it didn’t foster a warm affectionate relationship between us. I resented him and chafed under the burden of his expectations. We were so far apart at one point in my twenties he remarked to my mother:
“You know, if you were to die, I don’t think I would ever see or hear from Ann again.”
And the sad thing was that he was right. He drank too much. He was hyper-critical, and his smoking habit had gone from two to four packs a day. The air in my childhood home was as blue as a nightclub’s on a Friday night. I didn’t like visiting, and I had no patience with him.
I am ashamed now that I made Dad believe that somehow I loved him less, or not at all, but I was twenty-ish which is not at all a forgiving era in a women’s life.
When my late husband reached a point in his illness where his dementia meant I could no longer trust him home alone while I taught school, it was my father who came to our rescue and in doing so turned the tide permanently in our relationship.
I had no options at that time. I had to work. I was the breadwinner, and our health insurance came via my job. Since I was still battling to get my husband disability, there was no money to put him in an adult daycare. Who puts aside money for that rainy day item? He was just thirty years old. He shouldn’t have been dying at all.
It was my father who volunteered to come and help us. Dad would begin the 210 mile drive from Eastern Iowa to Des Moines at 5 am on Monday morning, arriving shortly after I had packed up the baby for daycare and hustled us off for the day. He stayed until Wednesday afternoon as my mother-in-law covered the Thursday shift, and I simply called home every hour and prayed my way through Friday. This arrangement went from January to the end of March.
Week after week, during one of the darkest times of my life, it was my dad who was there for me. We didn’t speak much beyond the news of the day. As my mother points out these days:
“He doesn’t have much to say but he’s always there.”
And she’s right. Dad was always there. When it counted. When he was needed. Warts and all, he has been the silent sentinel keeping watch over us.
I talk to him nearly every day by phone. Living in another country, it’s all I can do. Though I frequently offer to come, I am told not to. When my late husband was in hospice, I was alone for the most part. I was there at the end without anyone to hold me or tell me that things would be all right.
Dad will not ask me to come. He might be dying, but he is still my dad, protecting me as much as his frail and failing body will allow him.
This was an original 50 Something Moms piece.