By Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter 8/2001
It was a hot July Sunday— a very hot day. I was at the gas station when a kid came in and asked for cigarettes. He didn’t have an ID, so the clerk refused him.
Such a good law.
A hot July Sunday. Just like the day Dad died. He died from smoking.
Even after all the warnings about cigarette smoking, he continued to smoke.
It’s hard, 17 years after his death, to not be mad at Dad because of how he died. It’s hard to forgive a slow suicide.
I suppose every man looks at his father at some point and tried to understand the man, not the “Dad.” As I get older I’m starting to look at Dad and his legacy again.
From the time I was a little boy Dad was never in good health. A lifetime of smoking a pack a day and a disregard for his own health caused him to have an extremely raspy voice by the time I was 10. He always had a sore throat
But he did his best. He worked as long as he could. He supported the family. His work was nerve-racking; his boss was a relentless dictator. The environment was very stressful. Dad didn’t handle stress very well.
So he continued to smoke.
He never took care of himself. He wouldn’t go to the hospital. He wouldn’t go to the doctor. It wasn’t his way.
Despite all the warning signs and the pleas from others, he continued to smoke. We’d walk to the store and he had to repeatedly stop to catch his breath. Despite the ulcers and pleurisy, he continued to smoke.
By the late 1970s, his health had deteriorated and he couldn’t work anymore. By 1983 he was sleeping a lot and eating little. Then the tumor started to grow. He quit smoking. But it was too late.
He wouldn’t go to the hospital. He wouldn’t go to the doctor. It wasn’t his way. Or maybe he was just afraid they would confirm it.
Then, very quickly, the tumor on his neck had grown to the size of a grapefruit. We begged. We pleaded. He wouldn’t go.
Then one night, he windpipe closed. He panicked as he caught his breath. He asked Mom to take him to the hospital.
The diagnosis was cancer of the neck and head. The tumor had crushed his windpipe. His vocal cords had been destroyed. He had surgery and had a tracheotomy— the doctor cut a hole in his throat and put in a plastic tube so he could breathe. They put a tube into his nose to his stomach so he could be fed cans of “sustical,” liquid food.
He started radiation therapy a few days later, which shrunk the tumor for a little while.
If he wanted to talk he had to place his finger over the trach hole so we could hear him.
The bedroom looked like a hospital room. Mom did such a good job taking care of Dad.
But he was too far-gone, and there was little we could do to ease the pain. He suffered terribly. He lost so much weight that he faded away.
Out house became a dark and gloomy place. Dad slept more and more. We were grateful for when he slept, because the morphine wasn’t helping anymore. At least when he slept, he was out of pain.
On a hot Sunday in July, just like that one a few days ago, the tumor burst through a blood vessel in his neck. Mom and I took him to the hospital, but he died an hour later.
He never lived to see his kids grow up, marry and become parents. He never met his grandchildren. Never saw how well Mom did. He missed a lifetime.
He was 47 when he died. I turn 37 in a few months. Dad doesn’t seem so old anymore.
17 years later and I’m still angry. I’m angry because he knew better. He should have gone to the hospital. So many of his health problems could have been avoided. So many years of pain, for nothing. A death that never had to happen. A son without his father.
I will never understand why he was so afraid to go to a hospital, so against taking care of his own health.
But Dad’s story is hardly unique, and despite his steadfast refusal to see doctors, it was cigarettes that caused his death. Cigarettes that gave him cancer. Cigarettes that took away his quality of life and took him away from me.
I keep thinking of that kid at the gas station who was denied the cigarettes. Maybe he found smokes somewhere else, but at least they made it hard for him. Such a good law.
I wish so much they had the law when Dad was a kid. Because you see, Dad started smoking when he was nine years old.