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True Stories

A tribute to mom...

My mom was beautiful when I was young... lively, energetic, very bright, and everybody loved her.

When I was about 11, she developed polyps or growths in her throat. One night the polyps swelled up and cut off her breathing. She was gasping for air and we were all terrified. My little brother and I stood forlorn in the doorway as the ambulance rushed her off to the hospital. They did an emergency tracheotomy,...cut a hole in the base of her neck so that she could breathe. Then they sliced open the front of her throat to remove the polyps.

For the next month or so, she was covered in bandages from the top of her head to the bottom of her rib cage, with only a little of her face exposed, and an opening for the tube in her neck, through which she breathed. Not how you want to remember your mom.

She wasn't allowed to talk because that would have disturbed the healing of her vocal cords and the 6" wound in her neck. She dared not cough, but being a smoker, she had a lot of congestion in her lungs that had to come out, so they used a suction machine and a long plastic tube that they put down the tube in her throat. There would be a huge sucking sound and large greenish-grayish gobs of phlegm from her lungs would plop into a clear glass jar next to her bed. Every few hours the jar would fill up with the floating globs and the nurse would come and empty the jar.

Mom couldn't smoke during that time, of course, unless she smoked through the tube in her neck. Many jokes were made about how ridiculous that would look, but nobody ever suggested that maybe these polyps might have been caused by her smoking.

Finally she came home. But for many more months she wasn't allowed to speak. It was hard. She was home alone all day and many friends wanted to call and see how she was doing and wish her well. My dad made what was probably the first answering machine. He put a tape player next to the phone along with the kind of dome-shaped bell that you ring for service. When someone called, Mom would turn on the tape and the caller would hear that Mom couldn't talk but she could listen. They could ask her questions and 1 ring meant Yes, two rings meant No, and 3 rings meant Maybe or I Don't Know. It worked, but there must have been so many things that she would have like to expressed, having gone through such a terrifying ordeal...but her communication was confined to rings on a bell or writing on a note pad.

Little by little the bandages came off, the scar "healed" (it was really awful, but we tried not to notice), and little by little Mom was allowed to begin talking...and smoking again.

That was about in 1956.

She was sick off and on for a good share of her life with one thing after another. She was always puffy from one drug or another. We all urged her to quit smoking, but she couldn't do it.

She finally died of breast cancer that metastasized to bone cancer, but she smoked until she could no longer lift the cigarette.

It was a slow, agonizing death and she prayed daily for almost two years that God would let her go. Dad said that when she died, her skin hung on her bones like wet dish towels on a towel rack. But she died feeling victorious that her smoking never got her because she never got lung cancer.

Of course we know today that smoking was, in fact, at the root of all of her physical anguish and indeed was responsible for her demise. What a waste of a beautiful life...

The Saga continues.

Long after the breathing tube came out and the stitches healed, Mom continued to cough up those grayish green blobs of phlegm. Without the assistance of the suction hose, coughing them up was difficult, painful and frightening.

One day our family doctor, who was also a close friend, happened to be at the house when Mom had one of these coughing episodes. When she finally regained her breath and her composure, she looked at him helplessly. "What can I do when this happens?" she pleaded.

'Just try to relax," he said. "You're getting all tensed up and that's making matters worse.'

"But how can I relax? It's terrifying. I feel like I'm choking to death, like I'm going to die," she pleaded.

'Just have a good stiff drink," he joked, trying to lighten up the situation, to help her (and all of us) relax. We all laughed and relaxed and the conversation moved on.

Now I should explain that at that time, smoking and drinking were the norm.not only socially acceptable, but almost expected. My folks always had a big pitcher of martinis before dinner, as did many families. They purchased alcoholic beverages by the case.

I'm sure the doctor didn't really mean it, but he was never gave her a better answer.

Time went on and we all forgot about it...except Mom, who clung to his joke. It was all she had. And one drink led to another. At first she would take a drink to help her calm down after a choking spell. Then she would have a little nip if she felt a choking spell coming on. Pretty soon she would take a drink if she even thought maybe there might be a small possibility of a choking spell coming on.

We didn't know. She was home alone all day and hiding her booze. She would get up after we left home in the morning and she would be napping when we got home in the afternoon. We wouldn't really see her again until 'martini time". Then everything was "fine" but she looked pretty awful. Soon it became clear to Dad what was happening.

After years of AA meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous), emergency trips to the hospital for "drying-out" (but they always called it something else, like liver problems, to save the embarrassment of having an alcohol problem), and months at various rehabilitation centers, Mom triumphed! She quit drinking.

But she was never able to quit smoking. She was terrified that the stress of quitting smoking would drive her back to drinking. This is how an addict thinks; they have their own justification for why they need to perpetuate their addiction. She felt justified and she died an agonizingly painful death from her smoking.

Will we learn from her experience?

More alcoholics die from smoking than from alcoholism because they simply substitute one addiction for another..


During the times when Mom was well, life was good. We laughed alot.

As I write, I reflect upon my childhood and I recall the hours I spent in the hospital visiting her; the anxiety I felt trying to concentrate on my homework, taking care of my brother, doing the household chores, and waiting for my Dad to come home from the hospital with the latest report. Not how you want to remember your childhood.

As I write, I wonder what happy things we might have done with all those hours, those days, those months if Mom had been healthy; if she hadn't smoked.

Maybe next lifetime we'll get it right... I love you, Mom!







He Wanted You to Know | Gruen's Missing Jaw | Charlie
Brandon's Missing Leg | Remembering Mom | More Stories

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