The dreaded question: Did he smoke?
Inquiry serves as a painful reminder of a father's death from throat cancer
By Elisabeth Egan
updated 9:39 a.m. ET, Wed., July. 23, 2008
I'm sitting between two of my friends on a bench at the neighborhood playground when one mentions her aunt recently died of lung cancer. I know what's coming next, as surely as I know my kids will boomerang back toward me from the monkey bars, begging for money, when they hear the jingle of the ice cream truck.
As if on cue, the other friend asks, "Did your aunt smoke?"
I don't stick around for the answer. The ice cream truck has arrived, and I've never been so eager to hook up my kids with an Astro Pop. Blue-lipped and sticky, they can't believe their luck. What happened to their real mother — the one who's always pushing baby carrots?
I simply can't stomach yet another conversation about smoking and cancer. I've been a reluctant witness to the tobacco inquisition ever since my father was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999. He died four years ago, a month shy of his 60th birthday and a week after he and my mother celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary.
He smoked a pipe every day for more than half his life; he also regularly enjoyed a stiff gin and tonic (or three) and a cannoli (or two), and he never exercised a day in his life until he found out that he had a heart condition at 55.
When somebody asks if my dad smoked, I say yes. (Nobody ever asks about his other bad habits, although excessive alcohol consumption is a prime culprit in the development of throat cancer.) Once I've answered, it's as if the questioner has ticked off a box in her head. As in, "Oh. He got what was coming to him." Or, perhaps more understandably, "I don't smoke, so I'm safe."
Smoker or nonsmoker?
These people aren't malicious; in fact, before my dad died, I remember asking the same question under similar circumstances. Now that I've been on the receiving end of it, though, I think responding this way to news of a cancer death is misguided — and slightly rude. When someone dies of a heart attack, do we ask if she was overweight? Do we ask if a victim of a car accident was a good driver?
I don't understand why it is that people who have tobacco-related cancers must be summarily classified as either smokers or not. Are we to believe that death by cancer would be less tragic — would be, in fact, deserved — if the dearly departed inhaled a pack a day?
Of course, it's human to crave an explanation when awful things happen, to grasp for a sense of control when in reality we have none. I still agonize over the absence of a man who clearly meant to be here for a good long time. After all, he left behind crates of unplanted tulip bulbs and enough frequent-flier miles for a trip around the world.
I'd like to tell people who ask the dreaded question exactly how painful it is to be reminded, over and over, of how my father's bad decision — to take up pipe smoking — robbed my family of one of its poles. I wish they knew exactly how much my dad suffered and what it was like to watch. He was a lawyer who retired early without fanfare because he'd had his vocal cords removed with only two days' notice and, really, what good is a lawyer who can't talk? Stop and think for a minute about what it would be like to live without your voice: You can't make a sound when you laugh or cry. You can't whisper or yell. For three years, my dad also couldn't swallow solid food, and for the last six months of his life, he was fed through a tube in his stomach because he couldn't swallow at all. He had his teeth pulled (a casualty of radiation) and his toe amputated (a casualty of chemotherapy and diabetes). There were countless smaller indignities, including the time we took my daughter to see Santa Claus and the other kids in line cried when they caught a glimpse of the hole in my father's neck.
Cheated out of a dad
Was my dad's five-year struggle with cancer penance enough for his choice to smoke? Absolutely. Do I still resent him for that choice? I do, and never so much as when I'm placing a birthday cake in front of one of his grandchildren and he's not there to take his signature out-of-focus photos. When my third baby was born last spring, one of my first thoughts in those early exhilarating minutes of her life was, Look what you missed — which surprised me. Hadn't I already cycled through the stages of grief? How did such a joyous moment land me smack-dab in the middle of mourning him once again?
There are other times when my feelings of being cheated out of a dad border on rage: when I coax a fire into burning without the help of a Duraflame log; both times the Red Sox won the World Series; and whenever Sue Grafton publishes a new book and I have nobody to give it to. Sure, I'm angry with my father. If he hadn't smoked, he'd still be here. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, I tell this father of three about my dad's positive experience at the same hospital where he's starting treatment.
Of course, he asks how my dad is doing. "Actually, he died," I say, wishing I hadn't gone down this road. "But he smoked," I add. "What did he expect?"
My father was the least judgmental person I've ever met — truly, ever — so when I think someone is judging him (especially when that person is me), I feel both ashamed and bereft. When my own children ask me why their grandfather died — always at some inopportune moment, such as when I'm placing a large order at Starbucks — I don't sugarcoat the answer: "Because he smoked." But then, impatient barista be damned, I remind my daughter, Louisa — at 7, the oldest of my brood and the family's inaugural grandchild — how she used to love following her grandfather around his garden, drenching the plants with her own little watering can until they were flat on the ground. I want all my children to understand that smoking is not the sum total of anyone's life, especially my dad's.
I recently moved to a new town, where I'm slowly making friends. When one of them comments on the riot of impatiens on my patio, I mention that all my flowers are planted in my dad's old potting soil. These bags of dirt, lugged from their semifinal resting place behind my old tricycle into the trunk of my new minivan, are an unlikely legacy from what we called the Garden of Egan.
"So your dad died?" my friend asks. I say he died of throat cancer. Then I launch into my spiel — anything to forestall the Question. "He was sick for a long time; he died at home in his favorite chair a few hours after the series finale of "Sex and the City"; my mom is doing well; she's the belle of her church choir, thanks for asking."
But smoking never comes up, which is how I know this friend is a keeper. Instead, she asks, "What was your dad like?" Why can't everyone ask this question? Answering it is a joy; it's the next best thing to having him back again.
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