An Ode to the Loved Ones I’ve Lost to Smoking

I can vividly remember the first time I saw my dad smoke a cigarette. My parents had been divorced about a year and my brother and I flew from Virginia where we lived with my mom to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to visit my dad for the summer. On the way home from the airport he said, “There are a few changes I want to talk to you about.”

First, he told us that he had re-married, and that his new wife and her two kids were at the house excited to meet us. The news was surprising, but I was excited to meet them and happy for my dad. The next “change” though, hit me like a ton of bricks. “I’ve started smoking cigarettes. I only smoke a few a day and this brand is a very mild brand.” My little 9-year-old heart sank. As if to prove his point, he lit one up in the car, my brother and I trapped inside with just the driver’s side windows cracked.

Now, this was the early ’70s, when people were just starting to figure out how dangerous and addictive cigarettes actually were. Heck, on the airplane that took us to Albuquerque, my brother and I were in the “non-smoking” section of the airplane, while three rows in front of us, people were lighting up in the “smoking” section. Even as a little girl, I knew that didn’t make any sense. It turned out, his new wife smoked too. I loved her and her boys—but couldn’t ever get used to the smoking.

It always baffled me that my dad would take smoking up at the age of 33. He had spent his whole life as a non-smoker. Why take it up now? He had also taken up drinking. The two seemed to go hand-in-hand.

Over the years, his few cigarettes a day turned into two packs a day, same as my Grandad Peterson, who started smoking while serving in World War II and went through two packs of unfiltered Camels each day. He got emphysema and died a horrible death when I was a sophomore in college. He was 63. I sang at his funeral, and remember begging my dad afterward to stop smoking because I didn’t want him to suffer like my Grandad.

My Dad

I used to think of it in terms of the addiction being too strong for him to quit, but the truth is, he didn’t want to quit. Every time I talked to him I’d throw in, “Think about cutting out those cigarettes dad!” Over the years, he had a heart attack, and later, a difficult open-heart surgery. He was in the hospital for nearly two weeks without a cigarette. I said, “Dad, this is your chance to quit smoking; you already have two weeks under your belt!” He bought a pack of cigarettes on his way home from the hospital.

When I had my daughter Riley, my dad flew to Toledo a few times to visit us. He was so proud to be a Grandad! I could tell he was having some pretty serious health difficulties. He didn’t want to talk about it, and in fact, didn’t really want to go to the doctor. I think he was afraid of what the doctor would tell him. He had made an appointment he said and promised he would do better so he could have more time with his granddaughter. He didn’t keep that promise. Before his scheduled appointment, he was in the hospital ICU with his organs shutting down. A few days before Christmas 2002, my dad died in his sleep. He was 61.

Every November during Lung Cancer Awareness Month and the Great American Smokeout, I think about my dad. We had many conversations as he laid in that hospital bed. I know he wasn’t ready to die. I know he wished he could have the opportunity to go back in time and quit smoking. It’s too late for my dad and my Grandad, but if you’re reading this, it’s not too late for you. Even long-term smokers get health benefits and longer lives from quitting, and there’s help available! Talk to your doctor or click on one of the links below for assistance. I wish my dad had.

Guidance from the National Cancer Institute.
Facts from the American Cancer Society.
More from the American Lung Association.
ProMedica’s tobacco cessation classes and resources.