Jon Anne Willow
Up All Night


By - Oct 13th, 2009 08:12 pm
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Exhibit A: Mom, Charlie and the Sunday NY Times. Ah, memories.

My mother recently died from smoking cigarettes. Literally, in fact, but more on that a little further down. In broader terms, she was ill for many years, but it was definitely a cigarette that took her life in the end.

Judith Anne Ogden grew up when smoking was at its highest level in American history. She picked up the habit in 1958 at the tender age of 15, abetted by her heavy-smoker parents. By 21, she took in at least two packs of strong cigarettes a day, a habit which persisted through two pregnancies and, over time, numerous lengthy illnesses and hospitalizations.

In 1989, my mom was diagnosed with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), slamming to a halt her dynamic and fast-paced life and reducing her once-vibrant world to a few, small creature comforts in an existence suddenly defined by exhaustion, pain and increasing isolation. Cigarettes were chief among those comforts, followed closely by prescription pain killers. As her world shrank, her depression grew.

We all felt a burst of hope when my mom married Kenny in 1996. She seemed much better for a few years, but it didn’t last. In 2008, Judith Anne spent two months in the hospital, including 12 days of total sedation. Diagnosed now with advanced COPD (lung disease), she was finally willing to try to quit. But even though she was half-dead and had smashed countless thousands of dollars in the ashtray by this time, kicking the habit wasn’t so simple.

She and my stepdad gave it an earnest try. Initially motivated by my mom’s recent near-death brush and Kenny’s increasing wheezing and growing dependence on an inhaler (not to mention my mother’s new 24/7 companion, oxygen), they made it for about eight months before Kenny slipped. He sneaked his cigarettes out in the tool shed: my mom could smell them from the house. The game was on — accusations, denial and, ultimately, defeat. They smoked for several months before we daughters successfully pressured them to set a May 1 quit date. Then we all crossed our fingers and waited to see what would happen this time.

If you’ve never smoked, you might not truly grasp the power of this particular addiction. Ask any smoker: no matter how gray and lined their face in the mirror or how terrible they feel, they will tell you they smoke because they love to smoke. And up until the very moment of a serious or fatal diagnosis, every smoker secretly believes they will dodge the bullet, much as Powerball addicts believe on some level they will eventually win. The odds are slim, but hope is all-powerful.


Exhibit B: Like “Where’s Waldo,” but more deadly. Her pack was always at hand.

My parents honored their quit date, but it was too late for Judith Anne. Chained to an oxygen delivery system and physically broken from the prior year’s complex medical mess, she now also dealt with a growing bulge in her upper abdomen, which eventually reached the size of a basketball, but for which her frail condition prevented treatment. Her bones had turned to dust and she broke her feet and legs repeatedly by acts as simple as stubbing her toe. At 4’ 9”, she gained about 50 pounds (she typically weighed about 110 soaking wet).

I visited my mom in Iowa in late spring this year, meaning to go back over the summer but ultimately overwhelmed by work. She had very little energy and had forgotten how to play gin, at which she used to be deadly. But we had a nice time looking at old pictures, watching TV together and talking. I did a few projects around her house and pretended to like her dogs, which I think she especially appreciated.

She held together really well those five days, but I think she did it all for me. I can see now she had finally given up on ever being well, and therefore, on trying to quit. Behind closed doors, she fought my stepdad to a stalemate. Five packs of Winstons found their way into her vanity drawer, unbeknown to everyone but Kenny, who kept her secret.

In August, my sisters and I took a family camping trip that was originally supposed to include my parents (a goal which had slipped away by June, due to my mom’s obvious inability to travel). While we were in the Wisconsin woods, away from cell phone service, my mom back in Iowa lit a cigarette in the middle of the night. Groggy, she didn’t remove her oxygen first and literally burst into flames. My stepdad later told us girls the story of sobbing and flailing as he frantically tried to put her out — he didn’t turn off the oxygen tank in his scramble, so when he ripped the melting tubes from my mom’s face he set the kitchen floor on fire as well. Awful.

It’s likely that my mom contracted the staph infection that took her life five weeks later while in the burn unit at Iowa City. I do not blame the hospital; she was so weak by then. I will, however, be eternally haunted by Kenny’s last moments at home with Judith Anne.

They were watching afternoon TV — Jeopardy, most likely — when she called his name in a very odd voice. He stood up from his chair and took the two steps to the sofa, where he clasped her outstretched hands. She looked up at him, parts of her face still black with third-degree burns, said his name again and then lost consciousness. That was basically the end — she never woke up. Sixteen days later, faced with the certain prognosis of lifelong hospitalization, daily dialysis, a permanent tracheotomy tube and the strong possibility of serious brain damage, we removed the respirator. All of us gathered together in prayer and song in her hospital room, doing what we could to take the journey with her. She passed within an hour.

And in the end... 51 years of loyal patronage to Big Tobacco. But she's still beautiful to me.

And in the end… 51 years of loyal patronage to Big Tobacco. But still beautiful to me.

In ways, though, I lost my mom long ago. Two decades of prescription pain medication addiction and poor flow of oxygen to her brain had taken their toll, and in the last five years of her life, my mom was frequently confused and sometimes even frightening. I used to avoid her constant calls, ever-apprehensive about which person would be on the other end of the line if I picked up. I have no idea if I’ll ever sort out the guilt of all the time lost to our mutual selfishness.

But in the last year of my mom’s life, we made our peace. I was able to accept and forgive her for her suicidal choices (as I saw them), though not myself for my own hypocrisy. I struggled with smoking off and on for more than 20 years, probably addicted in the womb, though my sister did dodge the bullet — she should play Powerball. I’m not as lucky, or as strong. I snuck one after my mother’s funeral. My sister and niece saw me. It was terrible.

This is not a morality tale. If anything, it is one of a battle lost. My mother was a brilliant, mercurial, funny and beautiful woman who raised two daughters on her own in the 1970s, pulled herself out of poverty, excelled academically and professionally and touched the lives of many people. She was headstrong, to put it mildly, and this strength, I believe, was ultimately her Achilles’ heel. She believed with all her heart and soul that she was too powerful to die at the hand of mere cigarettes, and she played the gamble to the end —fatally so.

My mother is a statistic, just one of the 400,000 people in the U.S. who die of lung disease annually, the cause listed on her death certificate. I think about the other 1,095 families who lost a loved one the day we lost my mom and know that I am not alone.

This doesn’t soothe me. My mom is still gone. The battle is now mine to win or lose, and I will win. I have only one advantage, but it is a crucial one: acknowledgment of the wily strength of my adversary. It’s not much, but it will be enough.

The stakes are too high to allow defeat.

Categories: Up All Night

0 thoughts on “Up All Night: Tragic”

  1. Anonymous says:

    this is from another Judith (Ann) who quit smoking six months ago. it was hell, but as I read your masterful piece about your mom’s demise, I said to myself, “yes, I started smoking in the late 50s.” Now and then I’m gripped by an urge to run out for a pack of American Spirit cigs, but I don’t. Thirty pounds weight gain is ridiculous and I look like a blimp. There’s no one to blame but myself for eating Hagen Daz instead of lighting up.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Cigs killed both of my parents. Probably out of some twisted act of
    defiance, I continue to smoke and tell myself I love it. I don’t. Not anymore. Having written my own mother’s epitaph, I know what a toll writing this piece extracted. If it’s any consolation, it’s brilliant.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jon Anne. I’m sorry about your mom, I didn’t know. Erin and I quit smoking in June. You can do it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    If you’re on a pack a day or more, it’s insane, and this is indeed the morality tale for you. However, it is possible to smoke only on occasion or at a moderate level (like a pack a week) on a consistent basis. That does not make it healthy, but it does not put you in the significant health risk probability tables.

    The common assumption is that nicotine (or the junk added by big tobacco) is so addictive, every smoker ends up a chain smoker. Not true. If you keep to a quality (and expensive) product, if you never buy cartons, if you never ever smoke indoors (unless it’s a smoking room not located in your house), then your personal discipline will be helpfully steeled against excess.

    That said, there is a special danger in the “light smoker” position: you end up with nothing as simple as a mere chemical dependency; instead you gain a wholehearted love of a dangerous good. E.g., coffee, scotch and/or beer are fantastic–especially on a dreary fall day–with a good smoke as you walk down the street after a good dinner. It becomes like afternoon tea to the English–not an addiction but a much more binding ritual and tradition wedded to your very being.

    Such very shareable loves can get into your relationships, and they can get in deep enough that you realize you’ve lost control along with the ability to stop–or have you? And that is just a troubling place to be with anything. If that lack of control spreads, then you may be best giving up smoking altogether.

    Quitting is tough to do when the chemical aspect is relatively meaningless to you. You get a headache and are cranky, but it’s gone in a day–much like the coffee addict’s experience. Then you will face a couple of weeks of much tougher psychological reorientation. You find yourself looking forward to stepping out for a smoke while you walk, and then you remember. You find yourself thinking, it’s time for a smoke, and oh no it’s not.

    You might also realize your mind suggests smoking as a response to particular stressors. You have to work through that, and the devil of it is you have no real motivation, unless it’s the cost savings. You’re not saving your health, you’re not kicking a big dirty habit. So it’s easy to rationalize falling off the wagon.

    For anyone in that situation, I recommend finding self-motivation in a mildly perverse version of the anorexic’s desire for control. You are not going to smoke, because to do so would be to lose control. Try to imagine people you know shaking their heads and regarding you as weak-willed or predictable because you couldn’t quit for good.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My dad had cancer surgery in 2000 for throat and mouth cancer resulting from 25 years of smoking. Parts of his tongue, jaw, and the roof of his mouth were cut out, and as a result of the radiation therapy he lost all his teeth. I barely remember what it was like back when he talked and i could understand what he was saying without him purposely slowing down and enunciating.

    Today, my youngest sister and by brother both smoke like chimneys, and it makes me want to tear my hair out when i see them do it. It’s like they don’t even care that they have proof in their own bloodline that they’re likely to share our dad’s fate.

    I often wonder which is harder–trying to convince them to see the light, or to just let go and let them make their own mistakes. Guh, i can’t wait to be a parent.

  6. Anonymous says:

    After my father’s heart gave out on him in a hospital room at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for advanced lung cancer 32 years ago, my mother continued to smoke. I some way, I understood that. But I was happy beyond belief when she told me some ten years ago that she had quit. She hasn’t smoked since and is in her mid-80s now.
    A few years ago, my son bought some fake cigarettes from Art Smart’s on Brady Street and showed up puffing on one as a joke. I think my tears stunned him.
    The toll we all pay from smoking is at once both painfully obvious and so huge as to be hard to fathom.
    I’m hoping you stop.

  7. Anonymous says:

    After reading your story, I was confirmed in my recent decision I made 2 weeks ago to quit smoking. Being a bartender and being in the service industry has only promoted me to smoke as much as I have – it is difficult to be the only one in the group not smoking. I know I will get the cravings at a stressful time such as a deadline, exam, break-up, or death (As you previously mentioned), trust me, I understand. And those urges will be difficult to deny. Your story was incredibly captivating and really illustrates the reality of smoking’s destructiveness. However, I am a hypocrite as well, because I have smoked off and on since I was 16. I, of course initially started, because I was curious, my older friends were doing it and as my Dad put it (Who has been a non-smoker now for over 10 years): “It makes you feel invincible” When on the contrary, smoking only takes from you. I never really gave it much thought since I was always off an on with it, but I came to the result that I needed to make a definite decision on it. I’ll be right there with you to resist the urges. Your story is definitely one that needed to be told, you did it extremely well and it will speak to people on so many different levels. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I sent my condolences to you when you lost your mom. I had no idea that lung disease was the cause. My husband has been trying to quit smoking for the last 6 years now. Initially, he wanted to do it for our eldest son. The problem he has is that he just likes smoking too much. He doesn’t want to quit. My own mother, whom I begged for years to quit, said recently at my son’s birthday party that if it came down to it, she would rather smoke than eat. My heart broke a little when she said that. I am proud of the fact I have never once picked up a cigarette in my life. I WILL be forwarding this article to my husband, and my mother.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Jon Anne, this is a powerful piece. I lost my mom to another vice, alcohol, and your description of life with your mom mirrors mine. I know how hard it is to stand by and watch someone slowing kill themselves, and my heart goes out to you. Stay strong and keep writing, it will help your heart and mental being. Love ya!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Cigarettes took my mother, Jon Anne, in 1982. Though it was a fair trade: she took cigarettes, too, every day, from the time her mother taught her to smoke as a teenager, so that her mother would have somebody to share a cigarette and a chat with at the kitchen table. Maybe a cuppa coffee.
    I’m sorry. There’s nothing you can do with the hurt and the anger. If you’re like me, some day you’ll come to terms with it, but it will never go away. Your mother didn’t die comfortably, in her sleep (John Prine wrote, “The best you can hope for is to die in your sleep”) in a clean nightgown. Instead, a bunch of awful men made a little bit of money off your mother’s addiction, and they weren’t around to help when things went so very badly. What a terrible shame.
    My sincerest sympathy. You both deserved much, much better.

  11. Anonymous says:

    My best friend in the world lost his lung to cigarettes. He continues to smoke with the lung he has left. While chewing Nicorette. To complicate the matter, he’s had a series of mini-strokes, and these have damaged him mentally and physically. Nicotine clots the blood, but he won’t quit. He’ll be gone eventually, and I won’t have my friend anymore. He can’t be replaced.

    I’m sorry about your Mom. It’s sad.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Well written Jon Anne, and deeply personal. Thanks for sharing & thanks to everybody else for all the great comments too.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Jon Anne, your story is powerful, and I know that you will gain some power over both smoking and your grief having written it. Thanks for yet another inspirational work of art and life. My wish for you and your family is that this pain will fade steadily. You have done so much by sharing this tragedy to all of us out here. Thank you.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Kathy SmithWow, Jon Anne! That took alot of courage to write and you have quite a skill with the use of words. Please accept my deepest sympathies to you and your family for the loss you all experianced. I have been smoking for 40 yrs and was very moved by your story. I’ve failed at quiting numerous times….last year I quit for five months. I am unable … Read Moreto take the RX that has helped many, so I have currently turned to working out in the gym to help me develop an alternative stress reducer. I plan on starting Martial Arts training soon with the same objective. I definately know how hard it is to quit but also realize that my body will not last as long as I would like if I continue. Stories such as yours, help people like myself to keep things in perspective and continue to work towards a solution rather then giving in and hanging our hope on the spin of a roulette wheel! Thank you for the courage to share your truth…I believe your Mothers sacrifice could definately prove to be a very powerful teaching tool!

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