Today is my sister Nancy’s birthday. Growing up, we shared a bedroom and she would wait until she thought Mom and Dad were asleep then light up a cigarette. When our mother found out she was livid but nothing our parents said or did would stop her. She continued smoking for about forty years and rarely mentioned quitting. In 1990, she was working at GMAC in Jacksonville FL when a man with a gun entered and killed eight people. Nancy survived because she was standing behind the building having a cigarette break. She joked that she was probably the only person who could say that smoking saved her life.
In May 2012 at the age of 54, Nancy was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain where there was a large tumor and to her pancreas and liver. Ironically, the doctors also found a treatable form of breast cancer that responded well to treatment. Following surgery to remove the brain tumor and a second hospitalization to stop spinal fluid drainage, she had 15 radiation treatments, and 3 courses of chemotherapy each more aggressive and brutal than the last. Finally, at the end of August she decided to end treatment and entered hospice. The doctors hoped that she would have six months to be with her family but that was not to be. On Sept. 8, 2012, I wore a ridiculous hat to my sister’s funeral. She had requested it of all those who came, along with show tunes instead of hymns, and an Irish toast with a shot of whiskey at the reception that followed. (And, no, we’re not Irish.)
Everyone who knew Nancy remembered her for her love of cooking, her continuing search for knowledge, her laughter, her compassion, and especially the love she had for her family. She was passionate in her beliefs and her causes. I still remember her taking me out for Trick or Treat in 1972. She wore her CPO jacket with her reflective “Vote McGovern” bumper sticker across the shoulders so that when she stood in the center of the street to stop traffic and help children cross, the drivers got her not so subtle message.
Unlike me, she was an extrovert who never met a stranger, only newfound friends. It was impossible to go anywhere with her without someone telling us his life story and her telling a few of her own. There were few “quick trips” when Nancy came along. We always said it was like being around a never aging puppy. She was happy to meet anyone and everyone.
My memories are of both a champion and tormentor who always challenged me to do my best and expected nothing less from me. However, in the last four months of her life, courtesy of the brain surgery, chemo, steroids, and assorted pain medications she was unrecognizable at times. Her demeanor changed with vicious mood swings. She attacked family and strangers verbally and occasionally physically. Her appearance was that of a woman 30 years older than her 54 years.
If Nancy could speak today, she would say that she had the freedom of choice to smoke and no one should deny her that. She would be right. I don’t want to dictate to another what he/she can or cannot do with his/her own body. However, I don’t think she ever considered the many consequences of her decision.
• Did she consider the very real possibility that she would have such an agonizing death with only a morphine drip to comfort her body?
• Did she consider the pain her husband and family would have watching her going through the final months of her life knowing there was little they could do?
• Did she consider the horror her mother would have at being at her daughter’s funeral?
• Did she consider the possible financial disaster that could await her husband as he faced the reality of the enormous medical bills?
If these questions or others entered her thoughts, they did so too late to matter.
The choice to smoke is individual but the consequences are not. Nothing I or anyone else says will ever stop someone from smoking unless he/ she wants to stop. Therefore, my friends and colleagues, you will not see me talk, lecture, or nag a smoker to stop. It will not work. Instead, I simply hope and pray that you will think about the consequences of lighting up before it’s too late.
I first wrote this on her first birthday after she passed away. Every few years, I re-post it not to nag but as a gentle reminder and remembrance.