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A heavy sigh

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Today is the 10th anniversary of my grandfather's death, a date I remember because it fell on Veteran's Day. He was a WWII Navy veteran, and he actually met my grandmother in the service (she was a nurse).

There were many beautiful and inspiring things about my grandfather, a legacy that I am only now coming to understand as people drop random tidbits into conversation. I didn't know until last year that he had his master's in art history. Just this past weekend my father reminisced about trips they used to take into Manhattan to see exhibits at the Met or the Museum of Natural History.

Part of why I know so little about my grandfather is that in many ways the facts of his life were vastly overshadowed by the reality of his final years and the way he died. When people remember him, they are quick to comment that he chain-smoked Chesterfield cigarettes all the time. They laugh about how the upholstery above his seat in the car was a dark greyish brown, they remember his coughing fits and sadly recall the jobs he had to leave when he could not maintain his composure in front of a classroom anymore.

For most of my childhood, I remember being a little afraid of my grandfather, maybe because I only saw him once or twice a year (my grandparents moved to Hawaii, in part for my grandfather's health, when I was less than 2 years old). Mostly, though, it was that he would always cough, and I worried for him. I still remember the rattle in his chest and his labored breathing with a vivid shudder. To this day, I get irrationally uncomfortable around people who are coughing.

As I grew a little older and more aware, I realized he would hold his breath around us or try to stave off coughing fits. Seeing his ill health made me so unspeakably sad that I didn't know how to be around him, much less get to talk to him and learn about him as a person. Of course I can't completely blame myself for being a child and not having the foresight to realize that this same faltering health which made me uncomfortable was also an urgent reminder to take advantage of the time we have with the people we love.

When he passed away, I beat myself up terribly that I didn't ever get to know him as well as I would have liked. In my uniquely self-centered teenage mind, I was devastated that he would not get to see me graduate high school or college, he wouldn't know my husband or children or any of the person I would become. I still cry thinking about that stuff, and I wish he could have stayed in my life longer - I like to think he and I would have a lot to talk about these days.

I also realized that I never got to have him as my grandfather because for most of the time I knew him, he wasn't really himself anymore. It's not really an overstatement to say he smoked himself to death. A premature death, with the years preceding at such a desolate quality of health that one could sometimes wonder if it was truly living. I think of how his life may have continued, what he would have seen in the world, and I desperately wish I could know what he thought about a whole lot of things.

The thing is, I have more friends who smoke than I can count. When I consider my generation and all the people I know in their 20s, I'd say it's more common to smoke than not, and considering the things we know now that my grandfather didn't, we should be sick with ourselves.

I lived in a coed arts house my junior and senior year of undergrad, where most of my house mates smoked, constantly. During parties, people would stand outside my bedroom door waiting for the bathroom and turn the air blue. Everything I owned stunk of cigarettes, and when I'd get out of the shower, I'd gag in the clouded air until I readjusted. I was constantly sick, with so many sinus and respiratory infections it was a little ridiculous, but it wasn't until I took my cat to the vet for chronic sniffling and eye irritation that I realized the effect that living in that house was having on my health. I moved out the second semester of my senior year into a dorm, and I tried to stay away from people smoking after that. Even still, my nasal passages had become so irritated that I couldn't breathe through my nose at all. The summer after I graduated, I had to get surgery to remove scar tissue that had developed from such constant irritation and swelling in my sinuses, and I still have trouble with nasal allergies today.

I think about the effect that six months of second-hand smoking had on my health, the irreparable damage that it did, and I'm just appalled that people willingly continue it as a habit. I think about the things my grandfather would cough up, the fits he would have, the way he suffered as he lay in a hospital bed dying of cancer, and the way we all suffered for him... and I just wonder how on earth anything could ever be worth that.

I know I sound like a PSA, but smoking is not just a sudden, violent death. It is decades of agony, slow and poisonous suffering, chronic ill health, and forfeiture of all of one's ultimate dreams and goals in life. As far as I'm concerned, my grandfather died a lot earlier than 10 years ago.

Already I know friends who struggle to breathe when they walk up stairs, and they naively think they're "out of shape" or "need to hit the gym more." I hear the changes in their voice which will reveal themselves to be polyps and cancers in time, and I wonder how they could possibly think there is such a thing as a "sexy smoker's voice." I see people with the beginning stages of illnesses they cannot fathom, and I want to punch them in the face. Sometimes I think it would be better if they died in car accidents than go the route my grandfather did.

I still try to remember my grandfather fondly and not to always tarnish his memory by dwelling on the way he died, but it's hard. I console myself knowing that he kept a little note I scrawled on a Post-It next to his breakfast every morning, and that he was reminded every day until the day he died that I love him.

I just wish that the people I know who do this to themselves would realize that one day their grandchildren will feel the conflict and hurt that I do, should they live long enough to know them.

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This page contains a single entry by Vicki published on November 11, 2006 8:19 AM.

Time of the season was the previous entry in this blog.

The Space Between is the next entry in this blog.

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