Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I wish smoking only killed

My father went to a second appointment with an oral surgeon today.

He has a large abscess in his lower jaw. It has been there for a few weeks, changing in size from day to day. It is easy to see the changes in his shrunken face, since he's mostly skin and bone, the result of a cancer whose treatment took away his saliva and his sense of taste.

Under the abscess is an unidentified mass. He will be going to Fremantle Hospital this week to see some specialists. It is treatable, but the abscess must be drained, and any infected tissue and bone treated or removed.

There is another small abscess in his upper jaw.

I'm sick of people I've met who say, "Oh, I'll be fine. My grandfather smoked for years and he died at 100 with no side-effects or illness."


It is DANGEROUS bullshit, that gives people more weak excuses to keep using something that controls their bodies and minds.

My father started smoking in his teens. Cigarettes, like all the boys in the 1940's and 50's who saw movie stars and other grownups impressively and languidly puffing away.

In his thirties he started smoking cigars and a pipe.

When I was about 8 years old, I saw something on TV about smokers, and how their lungs were black and how bad smoking was for them. I threw my father's cigars in the bin, and he shouted at me and made me fish them out.

He kept smoking while I was in high school and university.

I remember the day he found the lump in his neck. I was back in Asia for the holidays, and Dad was getting ready to go out. He was combing his hair in the bathroom mirror, and then he called to Mum, "Love, come and look at this."

Mum and I went into the bathroom and Dad angled his neck to the side. A small round lump peeped out from the side of his neck like a large marble.

That week he went to the clinic at the hospital, and Mum and I watched as the doctor maneuvered a large needle into the lump, frequently moving it back and forth, trying to take a sample. It looked painful, but Dad didn't seem fazed.

He flew to and from Singapore to get the lump removed, and to see a specialist for treatment.

The doctors he saw in our home town (not Singapore), and oh God, how I wish he had come to Australia for his treatment instead, recommended chemotherapy AND radiotherapy, "just to make sure". Looking back, we now think this was overkill, considering that the radiotherapy, especially, has had such a large impact on his life.

You see, radiotherapy has a high chance of causing your glands to stop working. In short, everything dries up.

My father lost a third of his weight in two years. He got thinner. He walked slower.

Surprisingly he never lost any of his hair to the therapy. I suppose that's some small comfort.

His salivary glands atrophied and his mouth became constantly dry, making it hard to swallow, to taste, to talk for long periods of time: all the things we take for granted. He has to carry a small bottle of water with him wherever he goes; the kitchen and living room in my parents' house are full of bottles of water.

For a short time he lost his voice, until he had an operation which transplanted some fat into his throat to allow him to talk. But his booming voice, the one that preached the sermon every Sunday, that carried across half the compound when we were up to mischief,was gone forever.

Some years later his teeth began falling out. Without saliva to buffer them and recalcify them, they rotted. It is also likely that the therapy killed the roots anyway. Week after week, he went to the dentist and they were pulled out with very little effort. Now he has fewer than five teeth left, and dentures on the upper and lower jaw.

Dentures are never the same as your normal teeth. They rub on your gums and make them sore. Chewing any but the softest of food hurts them. In addition, without teeth, your gums shrink and your face ages by decades.

My father looks so much older than he really is.

I wish smoking only killed, quickly and painlessly, but it's not that merciful.

It humiliates, pains, degrades. It can make you and those around you suffer for a long, long time. It causes you to think terrible things, and wonder, perhaps blasphemously, if life is truly better than death.

If you know someone who smokes, and you care about them, for God's sake, for their sake, please help them to stop. The trouble is, they have to choose to do it. You can't make them stop, as I learnt when I was 8 years old.

To all those people who have conquered smoking, I am so proud and happy for you. I wish you the bright future you deserve. With all my heart I wish it.

Just please, don't tell me your success stories, because they're not something I can listen to right now. We've already thought through all the what-if's, and blamed ourselves and our younger selves, and really, such thinking is neither productive nor compassionate.

I don't want any sympathy, especially from people I know in Perth. Please do not ask me if I want to talk about it, or that you share my pain, or even look at me with pity.

My family already has a river of tears, both shed and unshed. We've lived with this for years. Sometimes we talk about it. And everyday, we deal with it. I also don't want any blame, or any jokes. It is a painful topic for me, and I deal with it the way I deal with other shadows, by turning my face away from the darkness and writing, drawing, working. Living.

1 Comment:

Piercey said...

I made my parents stop, with the help of my brother n sister, we turned our parents room upside down a few times, threw away their cigarette's, and repeated the process despite punishment for doing so.

We made them feel guilty too, and said their smoking contributed to the fact that all three of us have astma, or did at the time at least.

After about 2 years of all that, and them secretly smoking out by the shed, then us finding out and turning their room upside down again, and throwing away their cigarettes, they quit.

They were annoyed sometimes, but we knew it was bad, and they've stopped now, and benefit from it since they both lead fairly active lives, walking, bush walking, skiing, mum plays netball. It's difficult because you have to be persistant. At the time I was about 11, my brother 9, my sister 8, and we helped our parents quit and now they thank us :)