A Battle to the Death Fought in the Glow of a Cigarette

I remember my father, a 102-pound figure propped up on pillows in his hospital bed, asking me to do him a favor.

"Sure, Daddy." The words cartwheeled from my mouth in their eagerness to get out. When your father is in the final stages of emphysema, anything you can do to ease the suffering, even momentarily, is a rare gift.

He leaned forward, a fierce, hawklike look in his eyes. "Please go downstairs and get me a pack of cigarettes. Your mother has my wallet, or I'd ask one of the nurses."

He tossed off the last sentence with studied nonchalance, as if lack of money was all that kept the nurses from doing his bidding. He watched me carefully now, his words hanging in the air like stale smoke. As different voices battled in my head, my filial devotion morphed into something more complicated.

If you're a dutiful daughter, you'll do as he says.

But it's the cigarettes that are killing him.

True, but one more pack won't make any difference now. And he craves it so.

But you can't smoke in a hospital room. All those oxygen tanks; they could explode.

It was the last thought that won out. I pictured the nurses running in, sniffing the air, checking his IV machine and asking whether something was on fire.

"I love you, Daddy, but I can't," I said, with a weak smile that begged his forgiveness. "You can't smoke here."

"Oh, for God's sake." He reared up in anger, then he turned his head away and stared out the window. Outside, it was a warm fall day. Inside, where no breezes blew, where the heat of the sun couldn't warm him anymore, my father lay dying. It was one of many hospital stays for him, each growing progressively longer as his disease grew worse until, finally, he was discharged to a long-term care facility to await his final days. He had to quit then, cold turkey, and I'll never know the torture he went through, parted from the 55-year-old habit by force. By then he was fighting with each breath for his very life and had no energy left to demand cigarettes. Or even talk. The battle was over.

But on that day a year earlier, I stood in his hospital room uncertainly for a moment more, then left the room. He was angry with me. I had failed him. Out in the hallway, I sniffled to myself and waited for my mother to arrive. I didn't want to face his wrath alone.

*

My father grew up in Santa Monica during the Great Depression. Food was scarce for him and his six siblings, and he often told us how he and his brothers fished off the pier, selling their catch to local residents and bringing home the leftovers for their mother to fry for dinner.

He started smoking at 13 because he wanted to know how it felt, he told my mother many years later. At the time, the full-page ads for cigarettes stopped barely short of extolling smoking as a health benefit.

My dad smoked all through World War II, where he served in the Air Force as a glider pilot instructor, and into his postwar job as a roofing contractor in the booming suburbs of Los Angeles. He smoked throughout his marriage to my mother, whom he met through mutual friends, and he smoked in our small house in the San Fernando Valley, which my mother kept well aired so the fumes didn't linger. Still, we must have inhaled a lot of secondhand smoke, sitting all evening in our living room with him, watching "The Brady Bunch" and "I Love Lucy."

He tried to quit numerous times. But sooner or later, he always went back to the filterless Pall Malls. Two packs a day. He often had a cough during my childhood, an alarming rumble deep in his chest. But his outdoor work, the sheer physical labor of it and the fresh air, kept him healthy for a long time. In later years when I'd visit, he was always sitting in his burgundy easy chair in the corner of the living room, wreathed in a haze of cigarette smoke.

As we spoke, he'd tap his pack of red Pall Malls to dislodge a cigarette. Several would shoot forward. He would regard this bounty for a moment, rustle the cellophane wrapper as he selected, then pull one out and insert it between thin lips. Then he'd strike a match, thrusting out his scrawny bird neck until the flame enveloped the wisps of tobacco and they crackled in greeting. Something would catch in his throat and he'd give a gargling whoop and collapse into a raw, rasping cough. I would watch it explode across his hunched body in repeated tremors that left him twitching spasmodically and gasping for breath. The earthquake ravaged his body countless times each day but failed to dislodge the craving.

At 72, the year before he died, his beard was coming in gray. His eyes were watery, although still bright with humor and cantankerous will. One weekend as we sat in the living room, I waited until he recovered from a coughing spell, then asked if he thought it was time to stop smoking.

His smile turned to annoyance. "What?" he harrumphed in anger, then waved his hand at me with a snort of dismissal. "Don't be a nut."

"Oh, stop bickering," my mom said. She had heard our raised voices and come out of the kitchen, holding a dish towel. "Move on, Denise. What interesting stories are you working on?"

My Dad settled back in his chair and blew smoke into the air. It wafted up, clinging to the white plastic ceiling lamp that had hung in his corner since I could remember and was now streaked with such symmetric brown nicotine stains that you'd think they had bought it that way.

But I noted a glint in his eye and realized that by making such a fuss I had only increased the odds that my father would never quit.

The next time I came over, I made a point of not commenting on his smoking. But sitting in his corner chair sipping his watered-down Maxwell House coffee in a clear glass mug, my Dad seemed listless. My mother whispered that he wouldn't eat. He was often cold and couldn't get warm, no matter how high he turned the heater up. Now he reached for a cigarette, peeking at me from under bushy eyebrows, like a child who has done something naughty and is about to be chastised. But I didn't have the fight in me to say anything. Somehow my father always won and left me feeling peevish in the bargain.

After taking a drag, he collapsed into another coughing fit. Then he pulled out a crumpled linen handkerchief and held it to his mouth, as if to still the beast within, and from the liver-colored lips spewed glassine strings of greenish spittle.

I sprinted into the kitchen for a glass of water, knowing full well he would refuse it and gulp his cold coffee instead. Still, it made me feel useful. When I returned, he was hunched over, panting to catch his breath, his eyes flashing with the terror of a wild animal that has been cornered and is about to meet its end. Slowly, his eyes dulled, and he seemed to sleep.

But when I reached over him to stub out the cigarette that still burned, untouched in his ashtray, I heard a hoarse command.

"Leave it."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Daddy, I can't sit here and watch you kill yourself." "Then don't," he muttered.

We sat there glowering at each other, and it was back to the primal battle of wills it had always been between us, two headstrong, stubborn people who just happened to be related to each other and would never leave well enough alone.

I made a sound of disgust and rose to leave, but as I did so, he grabbed my arm. For as old and sick and thin as he was, he still had a steely grip.

"Don't feel sorry for me," my father said gruffly. "I've lived a long time and done what I wanted. I've watched my children grow up. What does the Bible say, three score and 10? I've passed that."

And then he was my Daddy again, trying to make it better, although this time it was a lot more devastating than a skinned knee.

Daddy, please stop before it kills you. For your own sake, if not for ours, I wanted to say.

What came out was more pedestrian. "Fine," I said stiffly, not trusting my own voice, "but leave the eulogy-writing to someone else, who will do it a long time from now, OK?"

My father nodded solemnly, as though he had got the better of the argument. Four months later, he was gone.

*

Denise Hamilton is a Los Angeles-based writer whose first novel, "The Jasmine Trade," will be published by Scribner on July 17.

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