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.
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.
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.
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.