HEART ATTACKS, SMOKING AND OTHER THINGS
A few months ago my younger brother had a heart attack. (It’s creepy and more than a little scary to say, my younger brother had a heart attack.) Before he went to bed for the night, he had a dull pain in his arm. Later that night a pain in his chest woke him out of a sound sleep. He got up, smoked a couple cigarettes and when that didn’t help, he drove himself to the hospital emergency room. When he got to the emergency room he called his son, a doctor doing his residency a couple hundred miles away, and told him he thought he’d had a mild heart attack. His son told him that he would throw some clothes together and head right up there. He also said that as soon as they took a chest x-ray to call him back with the results. After he didn’t hear from him for an hour, he called his dad back. The guy that answered the phone was part of the air ambulance crew that was flying my brother to a cardiac care unit because my brother’s heart had stopped. My nephew, the doctor, says his dad has an interesting definition of a mild heart attack. In his defense, my brother explained that there are two kinds of heart attacks: the ones that kill you and mild ones. He’s still alive so he had a mild one. Anyway, he’s fine with only minor permanent damage, and he’s quit smoking which is what this post is actually about.
My father was a very heavy smoker. He smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day, Pall Mall non-filter. You have heard of people with yellow nicotine stained fingers? He had yellow hands, and that’s not even mentioning the nicotine stains in his underwear. (Okay, it’s an old joke, but every now and then you have to dust them off and bring them out.) I always wondered how he could smoke that many cigarettes in one day, until I started working nights in the summer when I was in high school. I would come home at three in the morning and find him sitting in the living room in his underwear smoking a cigarette. He once told me that he couldn’t sleep more than three hours at a time without the nicotine urge waking him up. One day he thought he had a heart attack and quit smoking cold turkey. A brick wall doesn’t have to fall on my family to get us to do something. The possibility of a sudden death is more than adequate.
I have five sisters and two brothers—my parents were big on baby booming. I smoked for about a year when I was eighteen. Other than my one brother, none of the rest of my family has ever smoked. I think we all remember family trips in a car filled with a blue cloud of cigarette smoke. Everything smelled of tobacco and smoke. Dad couldn’t go anywhere, including school events, without having to step outside and have a smoke. Mornings at our house were highlighted by him trying to cough up a lung in the bathroom. He could barely walk around the block without huffing and puffing. I do believe if he had not quit when he did, he would have contracted emphysema or lung cancer. I just don’t think any of us wanted to put ourselves or our families through that.
When I was young I had a friend whose father was a hard-core alcoholic. He didn’t have a driver’s license because he had been picked up for drink driving so many times, he quit driving completely. When we were in high school sometimes at night when we were driving around, we would see him staggering home from the bar. My friend would just look the other way and drive on. Once when he was in particularly bad shape and had trouble even standing up, I suggested that we should give him a ride home. My friend just shook his head and said, “He’ll make it.” My friend and his brother don’t drink at all. He told me once, “I’m not going to end up like my dad.” I have other friends who had alcoholic fathers who became alcoholics just like them.
Statistics show that people who were abused by their parents are much more likely to abuse their own children than people who were not abused. My father was not physically abusive. He did have a quick temper and when he got upset he screamed and said things I’m sure now he didn’t mean. When my kids were growing up sometimes I would lose my temper and find anger-driven words wanting to come out of my mouth. I always did my best to swallow them down. It wasn’t right when my dad did it and it wouldn’t be right for me to do it.
There are many things we learn from watching our parents that we should emulate. There are just as many that we should not. I guess being able to tell the difference is the hard part.
(Sorry about getting so serious. I’ll lighten things up next time.)