My dad was an amazing man. He was a high school drop out but extremely well read (he would always win at Trivia Pursuit.) He worked his way up in his company to become an award-winning sales executive. He made the most amazing egg sandwiches, and he baked cakes so delicious we called him Billy Crocker. And he could stomp you at ping pong, miniature golf or horse shoes without playing for years.
He was the type of dad that bought a pin ball machine on a whim and would go out of his way to visit McDonald’s just to collect a set of Star Wars glasses. He would write inspirational quotes on my lunch bags each day, some of which I still remember verbatim. He never said this, but I think he put in a 1-800 number at the business he started — at age 60 — just so his kids could call him whenever we wanted. He loaned money to those in need, and if they didn’t pay it back he would say, “They needed it more than I did.” He loved his family with all his heart and drove my mom crazy. He was just special.
He was also a smoker. And loved greasy, cholesterol-laden foods. He would only look at a salad if it came with a gallon of blue cheese dressing on it and thought chicken wings with a sauce called Napalm slathered on it was eating light. He never exercised and stopped drinking only because he had a bleeding ulcer.
He died January 1, 2004 from emphysema and lung cancer. And by lung cancer I mean a tumor the size of a grapefruit. And I’m still a little mad at him.
It’s been ten years and I still pick up the phone to call him to share a joke or ask about what kind of auto insurance we should purchase. It’s been ten years and he is still the first person I think of when I look at my daughter’s baby pictures or watch a football game or play cards. It’s been ten years and I am still a little angry that he couldn’t give up those cigarettes that he tried to quit at 40, 45, 50, when he had an ulcer and they told him to stop, when he started getting emphysema and they told him to quit, when they put him on oxygen and we were scared he was going to blow up the house.
Although I try to reflect on the good memories — as there are so very many — it is hard not to remember how difficult it was for my dad to have self-control. It’s hard not to feel that he loved his cigarettes more than us. It’s hard not to be a little angry.
When I think about my dad, it’s easy to see why I don’t let myself get addicted to anything. Not coffee or television or chocolate or even my beloved wine. If I ever feel like I am getting too reliant on anything, I make sure I can quit, and I normally do it cold turkey. I was never very interested in drugs — mainly because I don’t like feeling out of control (poetic irony, wouldn’t you say?) and certainly not cigarettes.
And while writing this, it dawned on me why I even chose to spend my life with a man like my husband. A man who is so driven and has so much self-control, but also reminds me so much of my dad, from the way he teases my daughters and never lets them win to the way he proudly displays their artwork and gifts in his office.
It’s hard not to get angry thinking of what he missed. The birth of three more grandchildren that he would have loved playing crazy eights with or trivia games or chess. Three little girls that would have showered him with kisses and love and adoration. Three amazing reasons to quit smoking.
But I know I also was lucky. Although my dad was told he had three months to live, he ended up living another three years. And although it was painful to watch him deteriorate — struggling to breathe like a fish out of water, coughing so hard he passed out, and edema to the point we feared he would lose his limbs — it also gave me a chance to say my good byes. I visited often and called nearly every day regardless of where I was. We talked about sports, my career and my marriage. We discussed politics, world events and religion. I told him what a great dad he was and how much I loved him.
And somehow, I never told him how hurt I was, or that I was angry. I’m a little surprised that I still am ten years later.
Loving someone who you know is hurting themselves is one of the most difficult things to endure. Watching by silently as years of self-abuse takes its toll is gut wrenching. And when I’m angry I think of all the things I’d like to say or change or do differently, but I know that the time I had with my dad was an incredible gift. Even a second you shared with him would make you smile.
So it’s taken ten years, but I’m finally letting my anger, my resentment, my bitterness go. I no longer want to think if only my dad had stopped smoking, he would still be here with us today, because I am starting to understand that I was given more than I realized, more than maybe I even deserved. And his death, like his life, made me who I am today.
Yes, I finally understand that my dad did not do this to me, my mom or anyone else. He unfortunately did this to himself.
And in letting go, I choose to remember his greatness, and promise to learn from his mistakes. I want to continue sharing his memory with my kids and teach them how to love life as he did. I want to remember all the good — the kindness, the humor the generosity — because that far outweighed what we endured. And I want to encourage and empower other people to quit smoking — if not for their families, than certainly for themselves.
Because it’s been ten years since the most amazing man I’ve ever known has been gone. And I’m still missing him.