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I make my home in upstate New York, but right now I’m in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m here visiting my parents, who moved down here from upstate New York two years ago. There are several reasons for their move, not the least of which is that ice doesn’t fall from the sky here (property taxes also played a role).
My father got a job before moving down here (my mother never did), but he retired at the end of last year. Their plans were to travel the country. My father brags that he’s seen all 50 states, and he wanted my mother to see them too. I’m fairly sure their plans included a road trip to Alaska. There’s a great big country out there, and the plan was, unshackled from jobs and kids, to take in as much as they could.
Those plans had a big wrench thrown into them a couple of weeks ago. My mother had been suffering from bronchitis, and, after a few days of it not responding to antibiotics, she went to the emergency room. That bronchitis had progressed to pneumonia but, in the process of discovering that, they found something the size of a golf ball in my mother’s lung.
That “something” turns out to be cancer. It’s a specific form of lung cancer called small-cell carcinoma. If you’ve never heard of it (it’s okay, I never had either), it’s very aggressive, and the three-year survival rate is only 10 to 15 percent. It’s metastasized and spread to her lymph nodes and her spine. She’s hoarse when she speaks because the cancer in her lungs is pressing on her vocal cords.
They’ve already given her radiation, and now she’s on her second round of chemotherapy—where they pump poison into your body with the hopes that the poison kills the cancer before it kills the patient.
So, I’m down here visiting my parents. The reason is obvious, right? Do I really need to say why? I’m down here because if this is my mother’s last Mother’s Day I’m damn sure going to be here for it.
If you’re curious how I’m taking this all, I’m rather stoic about the whole thing. I planned ahead. The most reliable predictor of lifespan is your parents’ lifespan and so, based on family history and the fact that both my parents are smokers, I began preparing myself mentally and emotionally about 15 years ago for the fact that my parents weren’t going to live a long time.
But … this is so quick. My mother will turn 62 in July. My parents have only just retired. They’re just getting started — 62 isn’t even that old. A woman born in 1953 has a life expectancy north of 70. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This is happening too soon…
At this point, you may want to extend to me your sympathies. I appreciate it, but I don’t need them, and that’s not why I’m writing this. I’ll ask for something else instead.
I am the last person on Earth to tell a person how to live their life. I don’t believe in doing that, and I don’t believe in punishing people for doing something that I disagree with, no matter how strongly I oppose it.
Small-cell carcinoma doesn’t just happen. It isn’t getting struck by lightning. You don’t get it because you’re unlucky. Small-cell carcinoma is a smoker’s disease. You get it from smoking. My parents have been smokers for 40 years. They’re still smokers.
There isn’t a fatalism involved here. If you’re a smoker, you can prevent this by quitting. Again, I don’t want to tell anybody how to live their life. When I see my parents light up, I have the strong inclination to slap the cigarettes out of their mouths. But I don’t, because it’s their choice, not mine. And, for them, the die is already cast.
Instead of your sympathies about the plight of my family, I just ask this: If you smoke, think about the damage you’re doing to yourself. But if that doesn’t move you, think about how you’re setting yourself up to check out early. Think about how much shorter your retirement will be. Think about the Mother’s Days you’re going to miss and the impact that’ll have on your children. And maybe consider hanging around for awhile.