My mother smoked cigarettes. She started experimenting when she was about ten years old and was still pursuing the habit when she died at 85. Like many elderly people, the older she got, the more crotchety she became. It was amusing. After her health began to fail, I, her only child, had to take her for every doctor appointment. I once took her to her ophthalmologist for an exam. She had terrible eyesight; already having dealt with cataract surgery in both eyes, and still struggling with poor vision due to age related macular degeneration. The doctor became a little short of patience with her when he asked, “Have you quit smoking?” and she replied, “No, I haven’t.”
His speech went something like this: “I’ve told you over and over again, Mrs. Toney, you may be able to slow the progression of your macular degeneration if you stop smoking, but if you continue, you’re going to be blind!” Trying to look innocent, she said, “I think they gave me some pills the last time I was in the hospital that made it worse.”
“Oh no, they didn’t!” the doctor shouted emphatically. “It’s your smoking. You don’t listen to me and now, there is nothing more I can do for you!” With that, he turned and stomped out of the room, leaving us both with gaping mouths. I felt sorry for her and wanted to stop him and tell him he shouldn’t talk to an elderly lady like that – especially my mother! But part of me knew he was right. She needed someone to bring her to her senses so she’d dismount the self-destructive merry-go-round she was on.
She cried pitifully all the way home in the car. She said, “If I told a doctor my big toe was hurting, he’d say it’s because I smoke. They blame everything on smoking!” I had to chuckle. It must have seemed so to her. Every doctor wanted her to stop, but she refused.
When we reached her house, I helped her out of the car and into the house. She flung her coat off and plopped down in her favorite chair. Pulling a tissue out, she dried her tears – and quickly lit a cigarette.
What can I say? This woman who raised me from a baby had never done anything she didn’t want to do and she wasn’t about to start now. She was never health conscious, as people are today. She ate what she wanted. Drank what she wanted. And never bothered to exercise except for the work she did. That was plenty. I’ve seen her work like a man and get mad at my father because he didn’t do as much as she thought he should, even after he’d had a heart attack.
But working served her well until she was past eighty. It was only then her health began to fail and she had a heart attack. She fought it all the way, refusing to obey doctor’s orders. She was sure she knew best. Perhaps she did.
Just before she died, she was on the verge of a second heart attack, and needing another stent, but, according to doctors, she was too weak for the operation. She had a broken hip, a broken vertebra, COPD, which is a serious lung disease; she was deaf and legally blind. On top of all that, she contracted pneumonia, and it was over!
If ever there was a woman who lived life to suit herself, it was my mother. She did it “her way” throughout her life. And why not? She lived to be 85 years of age without giving up anything she enjoyed.
As I think of her tonight, I can’t help but wonder how many years she would have lived if she had made even the slightest effort to take care of herself?
I wish she had.
This story also appears in Bewildering Stories.