Sunday, March 1, 2009

I can't begin to describe the overwhelming sadness that rushes over my existence when I flip the calendar to March.

March 1st.

7 years ago today, my grandmother died. She died scared, in a hospital, without her husband, with only one of her five children there. No one had time to hold her hand or tell her that she could let go when she wanted. No one could tell her one more time that they loved her. Instead, she died, quickly but painfully and almost alone.

I know some of you will roll your eyes. She wasn't my mother, she didn't raise me or anything, but we were close. I lived with her for a year at a point of great turmoil in my life. She was the core and the heart of our family. And she is gone.

One of the memories of her that I can't let go of was just a few years before her death, in Las Vegas (her favorite place on Earth). Our whole family had made the drive to Vegas for Spring Break and one night we were going to see the Excalibur show. The seats are all in a row and we had to file in in the correct seating order. When asked where I wanted to sit, I told my mom that I didn't want to sit next to my grandma because she smelled like cigarettes.

I didn't know right away, but she overheard me and was crushed. Eventually I found out that she heard and I too, was crushed that I had hurt her. I tracked her down and apologized, a tear-filled apology in the middle of a casino floor in sin city.

What my grandmother told me when I apologized was not what I anticipated and not something I will probably ever forget. She forgave me, but also told me that it wasn't my fault. She said that she had done it to herself and had long before realized that because of smoking she'd lost her family.

It's amazing looking back in retrospect at how correct that statement would be.

My grandmother began smoking when she was in her 20s. She had always been a very anxious person and at the time her doctor recommended it to calm her nerves. Obviously there was no way to know then what she was getting herself into, but in the end she smoked from her early 20s until the age of 75.

In those 50 years she smoked one to two packs of cigarettes every day. She tried to quit several times that I can remember, or at least talked about it, but was too afraid of the withdrawing process. Her fear managed her addiction.

And then, at age 75, after an unrelated surgery, she quit. Cold turkey, no going back. At age 75, using no drugs, or hypnosis, or patches, but rather her sheer force of will (she was nothing if not horribly stubborn), she gave up a nearly life-long habit.

Six months later, she came down with pneumonia and a chest x-ray showed spots on her lungs. On February 25, 2002, she had an invasive surgery where a lobe of one of her lungs was removed. On the morning of March 1st, we found out that the spots were cancerous and that it had already spread to the lymph nodes around her lungs. The doctors had a chemo/radiation plan and while no one was sure if they'd be able to kill it completely, they believed they could slow it down. The news was terrible, but we pushed on with a small ray of hope.

And then that afternoon I called my mom to arrange a trip to visit my step-dad who had, that very morning while the doctors were delivering my grandma's diagnosis, had his cancerous prostate removed. She didn't answer. So I called my sister, who told me to keep trying to call my mom. I did. No answer. So I called my aunt, who insisted I called my mom. After much demanding, she told me what was going on. While I was in class, a blood clot had formed and had gone into my grandma's lungs. She'd died.

That morning we had a game plan. A way to keep her with us.

That afternoon, she was gone.

The last time I saw my grandma was the night before her surgery. I told her how much I loved her and I would come back on the 2nd to visit. Instead I drove home on the night of the 1st. I was too late.

My grandma's doctor looked us straight in the eyes and told us that smoking caused the cancer. It wasn't a genetic anomaly. It wasn't misfortune. It wasn't a random happenstance. It was smoking. Anyone who doesn't believe that smoking kills is completely wrong. Smoking killed my grandma.

Each year I try and honor her in some way, and this year, this is how I'm doing it. I'm taking a public stand against smoking. Plenty of people I know and love smoke and I don't love them less for it, but I am saddened by it. Because someday, smoking will come between them and their family.

Because of smoking, my grandmother never met 2 of her grandchildren, nor her 2 great-grandchildren.

Because of smoking my grandma didn't see any of her grandchildren graduate from college or get married.

Because of smoking, my grandfather lives alone in the house that used to be filled with her boundless energy.

Because of smoking, my aunt had to watch her mother suffer a very painful death.

Because of smoking, our family suffers. Even now, 7 years later.

Smoking will get between you and your family. Maybe not today, maybe not in a year, maybe not even in a decade or two. But it will. Please let our family's suffering save you some. Stop smoking. And if someone you loves does, help them quit.

No one should have to have March 1sts the way my family does. Don't let yours.

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(My very favorite picture. Circa 1990)

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(With the last grandchild she got to meet. Thanksgiving 2001)

Rest in peace sweet lady. You are missed every single moment, but especially today.


Anonymous said...

Your post brought tears to my eyes. My father died 3 years ago from emphysema. It has been a little while since I cried for him but what you wrote is right on the mark. My dad stayed alive til he could meet his newest granddaughter, his 8th grandchild. He did not live to see the 9th. But none of his 5 children smoke; that is what he has given us. Everybody lives on in some way.
Thank you. (I stumbled on your site from your comment to The Queen.)

Lipstick Jungle said...

It makes me so sad to read this for many reasons.

Sad that she died alone and that is what you have as your last memory.

Sad that something so wrong and addicting was prescribed to her... Even though no one "knew" it could be harmful (am I naive to believe that knowing arsenic is in cigarettes would make them harmful without history to prove it?).

Sad that she is missing out on so many wonderful things and people.

Sad (for me) that my husband is leading himself down this same slippery slope and while he has tried, and promised and promised and tried, he does not make quitting a priority. Even though he watched his father die of cancer, and my mother die of cancer, and watched me battle cancer (and several other relatives and friends/parents), even though he helps me with Relay and with Susan G.Komen, and he see's cancer everywhere in our lives, he just doesn't think it will happen to him.

October 3rd is the day I hate every year (working on year 8).

I hope some day we can both find peace with our haunts.

Take care Katie! I will be thinking of you today!

Becs said...

I'm so sorry. I know how painful this is. My grandmother, my mother, and my favorite aunt died of lung cancer.

When my mother died, I went to each of my friends and begged them to please stop smoking.

None of them listened to me.

Sue G said...

Katie, I stop in at least once a day to see if you have written anything new, always expecting to find wisdom, joy, and laughter in your posts. Today, without the joy and laughter, your post is filled with wisdom and profound meaning.

I am so sorry for your loss. It is palpable in your writing.

Smoking is something I don't understand and never have. I grew up surrounded by smokers, including my mom and dad. So secondhand smoke was a way of life (even in utero). In fact, back in the 70's when my mom lie dying in a hospital bed from ovarian cancer, her last lucid request to me (lucid in delivery if not content) was to go to the gift shop and buy her a pack of cigarettes. I did as she requested, even though she was drowning in her own fluids, dying. I guess I did it because she was dying and it was a little late for another lecture. My mom died two weeks after her 56th birthday.

Smoking is an insidious habit (says the overeater), and as you so poignantly pointed out, it affects more than just the smoker.

Thank you for your blog today. It is a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, in addition to being a beacon of insight for people who smoke or who want to smoke.

Thanks for writing.

Suz said...

I'm so sorry. My dad died from lung cancer that had spread to his liver, in October 2007. He died 6 weeks after his diagnosis.

Jess said...

Your story made me very sad, not only because you lost your beloved grandmother, but also because I know what you are going through with regards to smoking.

My mom was a heavy smoker from the time she was 15 until she had to have bypass surgery to fix clots in her leg at the age of 37. She quit then, but a few years later, we noticed that she'd smell like cigarettes. We never knew if it was because her friends smoked or if she was sneaking out to do so. In 2005, we had proof that she was smoking again. To this day, she denies it, but we (my sister, my father, and I) know that she does so. She uses the excuse that she's "going to the store" or "going to get gas" or she will pick a fight with us (not so much me anymore, since I moved away) so she can leave to go smoke somewhere.

As of now, we are mum about it because she gets so bitchy if we mention smoking, but the day will come again when she has more medical problems because of it (her blood clots were caused by smoking, and the doctor her warned her that they'd return eventually if she smoked again) and will not be able to hide the fact any longer.

By the way, for people that thing smoking makes you look cool and mom was beautiful long ago. Now she looks older than her years, has a smoker's cough, and some of her teeth have fallen out because of her habit.

I feel your pain about losing your grandmother as well. My maternal grandmother died in December. I wasn't there, I didn't get to say goodbye, and I feel guilty as all hell about it.

joanne said...

Rest in peace sweet Grandma. you were/are much loved as evident by this lovely post. God Bless Katie.

The Floydster said...

The things we do to ourselves are often shrugged away by the thinking of "no one else is getting hurt". Your incredible post shows otherwise. Blessings to you on this sad day.

Daisy, Just Daisy said...

She sounds like an amazing person. *hugs*

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry, Katie. Smoking took my Dad and my mother-in-law. It's a horrible, horrible thing! And so many just can't see it or bury their head in the sand...keep fighting against it!
Praying right now!
Psalms 36:5-7 Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds. Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O LORD, thou preservest man and beast. How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.
Prayer Bears
My email address

Anonymous said...

Your post was beautiful. I never got to meet either of my grandfathers because both died before I was born. Both were smokers. My mom's dad died of lung cancer and my dad's dad died of a heart attack. Mom's dad never got to meet any of his grandchildren, and dad's dad only met three of them.

I do feel sympathy for people our grandparents' age who smoke, because the risks weren't known at the time. However, there is absolutely NO reason for younger people to smoke, and I hate it when they do. Smoking is a filthy, stupid habit.

Thank you for a great post.

Ness said...

I'm sorry for your loss. Major hugs to you and yours.

I understand completely about your feelings as I go through this every April 9th when I read my mother's death certificate of 04/09/1968 that says cause of death CVA due to collapsed circulatory system secondary to nicotine abuse. Who loses their mother at 13 without warning? I am bitter. I have never touched a cigarette because of that. I wouldn't want to cause the pain to anyone that was caused to me by ignorance in the 60's. If you smoke today, then you're aware of the risks and are signing your own death certificate. My mom didn't know as she, too, was told it would help with her nerves. We know that syndrome today as panic attacks and she did leave that legacy to me and my daughters.

PS I got the 3 page letter on Saturday from the 2nd opinion neurosurgeon and when I recover from what it said, I will email it to you since you've been so kind to help us out along the way with your information and knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I quit today.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers

Anonymous said...

Know that I'm continuing to pray!
1 Peter 5:7 Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.
Prayer Bears
My email address