I Watched My Mother Die
I watched my mother die. Slowly. My mother died from lung cancer. My mother died from smoking.
It’s ten years ago now yet those last six months are as clear, as fresh in my mind, as if it was only ten months or ten days ago. I only bring it up because a friend of mine is a smoker and I want to do an intervention…of sorts. I won’t use her real name so let’s call her Elsie. Good, old-fashioned name. Rock solid name. Rock solid like my friend.
I was a bit shocked when I found out she smoked. When together at functions and she’d duck out from time to time I didn’t think much of it. A tiny bladder I figured, no big deal, I have a tiny bladder. Once in a while I’d catch a hint of cigarette smoke wafting off her, but it never set off the alarms. It should have. How many nights did my mother have to bribe me with the promise of a lamb dinner to get me to stop by for a visit? After dinner and a hand or two of cards, I’d leave and, as soon as I walked into my apartment, strip down, putting every stitch of clothing into plastic bags left by the door for this purpose, then I’d climb into the shower and scrub. And scrub.
The amazing thing is that both of my parents were heavy smokers and yet neither my sister or I ever smoked. You’d think after nearly 20 years of growing up in a smoke-filled house that I wouldn’t mind it. The opposite was true. Once I was out of the house the smell became repulsive. My sister was even more rabid about it than I.
As I grew up I watched as the tide turned. In the fifties and sixties you’d see people smoking everywhere. I watched an early James Bond movie the other night. Sean Connery so young, so lean, so debonair, so…smoking. Everyone in the movie’s smoking. I remember my parents going on bus trips with my father’s business colleagues and every one smoking. The few non-smokers were the distinct minority. Years later, in the eighties, after my parents retired, they began to travel for pleasure. It was a struggle for them. It wasn’t their age, nor was it the fact that they hadn’t travelled much when they were younger and this was all new to them–no, it was that they had suddenly become “the distinct minority”.
I always stood up for their rights as smokers. Though I was personally glad when restrictions on smoking made it easier for me to breath clean air, I never thought it was right that my parents, people who had been smoking since they were kids, who when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary probably had been smoking for nearly a decade more than that, were suddenly pariahs. I don’t like tyranny of any stripe. Even the tyranny of the greater good.
My mother was as tough as nails. When I was old enough that I didn’t need constant adult supervision she went back to work. I don’t remember making a fuss about it but I must have said something because in the back of my mind, to this very day, I know I learned how to cook, sew, wash my clothes–how to become self-reliant–because somewhere along the line she told me: If you’re hungry, learn how to cook; if you need your clothes clean before I can do a wash, learn how to wash them. Sewing was just something I picked up. I still thank her for that lesson. So it was particularly hard to watch as her toughness, her personality, her life slowly drained away during those last months. Hard to watch the chemo rip into her. To watch pain make her draw inward. To watch her, when heavily dosed with pain killers, do bizarre things that, after the drugs thinned, she denied, wondering why would make up such stories. It was hard to watch her deteriorate. To watch her die.
I wasn’t there for the final minutes. My father had all but pushed me out the door that night. There was an opening I needed to attend. I left my father the number of where I would be. “Call me…for any reason,” I’d said. As soon as I got to the gallery, forty minutes later, I stopped at the reception desk; “Oh, yes, Mr. Buschel, there was a call from your father. Let’s see…where did I put that note…?” By then I had turned and was heading toward the door, “Yes! …Mr. Buschel?”, he called after me, “Ah, it says…’It’s time to come home’.”
By the time I got back she was gone. I walked into my parent’s room and found her on her bed, curled nearly into the fetal position. There was nothing grand here. Nothing glorious. She was shriveled. Her body diminished. She was…dead.
I know smoking is harder to stop than quitting heroin. I know this. But Elsie now you know this. It is time to stop.