Sometimes, I will be sitting in Dad’s chair and I will glance out the window and think I see Dad standing there on the front porch, smoking a cigarette.
Of course, in reality, there’s nothing out there but a gently swaying tree.
For most of his years at home, Dad’s smoking routine was a comforting habit, and a chance for some quiet time and reflection. He would pace back and forth, maybe spotting a few deer wandering around and waving to a neighbor driving by the house. There would be the obligatory hoarse smoker’s cough, along with what sounded like Dad was clearing gravel out of his throat.
As the dementia took hold, I wonder if his vice gave him as much satisfaction, or if he began to look around at a world that did not seem familiar to him. I remember my last few visits home when Dad still lived there, I would listen closely when the front door opened and Dad let out his smoker’s cough. I would peek from my bedroom window to make sure he was still there and had not wandered away.
I think I will forever see his ghost pacing back and forth out there, a trail of smoke lingering behind him.
So it will be awhile before I learn of Mom’s official diagnosis. I predict colon cancer. I hope I’m wrong about that.
But if it does turn out to be cancer, there will be such irony.
For years, before Dad got dementia, I worried about every time his cough worsened, or he had some vague pain somewhere. A smoker since he was 16, I was certain cancer would get him in the end. He was diagnosed with COPD and emphysema, a result of that smoking habit. But somehow, he dodged the cancer bullet. Of course, one could argue that dementia is the worse fate.
Yet my mom, who’s practically a vegetarian, who doesn’t drink and who smoked rarely for only a very brief period when it was trendy for women to do so, she may be the one who cancer nabs. Life truly is a crapshoot. I still believe that it’s better to play the odds and try to live a reasonably healthy lifestyle, but there are no guarantees that clean living will spare you from terrible diseases.
And if my Mom is diagnosed with a benign condition that can be corrected, it’s still a good wake-up call. Make good use of the time you have. We’re all borrowers when it comes to time left on this earth.
I’ve written plenty about Dad’s longtime smoking habit. But this morning on the subway I heard an older gentleman with a smoker’s cough that sounded so much like my dad’s. It was eerie. One might think that all smoker’s coughs are the same, but they are not. Dad’s raspy, hoarse cough was as much a part of him as his five-o’-clock shadow and his green eyes which could spark with humor or anger.
As a child, I don’t remember having an opinion on Dad’s smoking habit. It was just something he did on a regular basis and still quite common in the 1970’s. (Even my mom was known to take a puff or two on an Eve or Carlton cigarette from time to time!) As I got older, and the smoking habit fell out of public favor, I began to despise Dad’s habit as dirty and disgusting. Sometimes, hating your parents’ actions can be a good thing; I’ve never had an interest in smoking. I’m sure my lungs love me for that.
But it’s funny that I could probably pick out my dad’s distinctive smoker’s cough from a crowd before I could pick out his voice. It also makes me think about the last months of his life, long after he smoked his last cigarette, when he would try to cough up the phlegm that was strangling him but he was too weak to do so. It seems like such a simple thing, coughing. Yet there was nothing we could do to help him be more comfortable. My mom kept asking the doctors if there was some type of machine that could just remove all of that junk from his mouth, throat and lungs. The doctors and nurses would just smile sadly and shake their heads.
There were no quick-and-easy fixes for my dad by that point. Just that cough that lingered, haunting him and us to his death.