A Visit from Beyond the Pale


Twenty-Four years ago, give or take a day or two, my mother called me at six o’clock in the morning.  My mother never called me, so immediately I knew; she said, “Kenneth, you had better come over now.”  That was what we called “Granny Speak” – she was telling me that my stepfather had died in the night.  And it was about as close as she ever got to really saying the thing she was saying.  It was not unexpected, my stepfather had been sick for years.  For the last two he had been getting weaker;  and for two months he had been on hospice care.  I normally went over every morning before work – and two other times during the day – to change his bandages.  He had open sores on his legs that needed to be kept bandaged; the bandages need to be changed three times a day.  He had the sores for twenty years.  There had been dozens of doctors and he had been in the hospital many times during those twenty years, but no one could diagnose him properly, nor cure the sores.  But it was not the sores on his legs that killed him, it was cigarettes.  I still have his last cigarette. It is just a butt smoked most of way down.  He had been unable to finish it – although he had been trying off and on his entire last day.

He died like many of his generation from the lung cancer.  It had been a long slow and painful process, as it is for everyone who smokes long enough.   My father died from the smoking related causes, as did his wife and one of his brothers.  My mother’s sister and her husband also died of it and so did Maria, my ex-wife and her brother.  Maria was not of their generation.  But like many in my generation, Maria learned to smoke from them.  She could never quite give it up, although she tried.  Our generation is usually luckier than theirs.  We learned from from them to smoke, but we managed to quit – that is most of us managed to quit, not all.  Did you read that see the Marlboro Man just died of cigarette related causes?  He was my age, not of my father’s or stepfather’s generation.  Cigarette smoking was the scourge of the 20th century.

Back to my stepfather, over the course of our lives we had lots of arguments – really loud, shouting arguments.  It was his style and I learned it well, especially when I was an adolescent. We did battle daily and made everyone around us miserable in the process.   By the end of his life, we had  given up arguing seriously.  We still had our token arguments, but they were just for show and tame by comparison.  He was too sick and tired most of the time to have a really good argument.  Besides, as I matured, I wanted to avoid arguments. Somehow, they are not fun anymore.   However, two nights ago, my stepfather and I had a doozy and it was about cigarettes.   I was demanding he stop smoking, he of course refused.  My poor mother was caught in the middle, as she always was when we had one of those arguments.  They were sitting next to each other at a dinner table, rather like a Thanksgiving dinner.  He had his arm across the back of her chair, lightly touching her shoulder and her cheek.  It was a common position for them; I could see the tears in her eyes and the defiance in his.

We battled on and on, until the inevitable happened, I had to get up and go to the bathroom.  He will be a hundred and four on Titanic Day; he was proud to be born on the day the Titanic sank.  And of course it always made it easy to remember his birthday.  He did really try to quit smoking a few times, but couldn’t quit then and can’t quit now.  It was a sad dream.  He would have been dead by now anyway, but he did not have to die when he did; Maria did not have to die when she did or  with that much pain; nor did my uncles and aunts.   To paraphrase the bible, “the wages of cigarettes is death.” If you know anyone who smokes encourage them to stop.  But don’t yell and scream about it, that doesn’t work.  I know, I tried it with my stepfather in life and in death and I tried it with Maria.  I failed both of them with my anger.  Maybe that is why, once in awhile, we gather around my bedroom and argue about cigarettes yet one more time.  Talk about trying to get in the last word, but it is futile on my part.  The dead always get the last word, don’t they?


2 Responses to “A Visit from Beyond the Pale”

  1. 2 Ken Adams February 1, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    it was indeed a dream – and my dream world is filled with the long-dead; not everyone is dead, but somewhere there is always a dead person lurking in the shadows, waiting to continue an unfinished dialogue.

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