150,000 Times

We were sitting around at the Magic Castle on January 2, at the 51st anniversary party.  From out of the blue, Siggie asked if any of us had any cigars.  She’s always been kind of a firebrand.

“My father died of smoking in 1989,” I shot back with a bite in my voice.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

Everybody at the table was silent for a long moment.  Finally, Adam chimed in cheerfully.

“How do you know he died of smoking?”

I shot him a look.  He was wearing a red suit and a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Because he was a pack-a-day smoker,” I said.  “He went into the hospital with one of the most advanced cases of undiagnosed COPD and emphysema the doctor had ever seen.  He died of a series of strokes and heart attacks.”

Family 260

Smoking at age 21 in Korea.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but how do you know it was the smoking?  Lots of people these days are dying of lung cancer who never smoked in their lives.”

“My father didn’t die of cancer.  It was COPD and emphysema.”

Clearly, Adam wasn’t understanding my tone, which was filled with venom and warning, or perhaps he was perversely choosing to ignore it, maybe to get under my skin.

“I know that,” Adam said, “but how did you know it was smoking that caused it?”

“Adam,” I said, “the Surgeon General issued a report as far back as 1964 showing a strong correlation between smoking and lung disease.  This is well established.”

“That was a long time ago,” Adam said.  “Our research has come a long way since then.  There are all sorts of reports these days finding different kinds of things.”

“What kinds of things?”

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58, looking quite a bit older and sicker.

Adam floundered for a while trying to answer that one, and I let him flounder.  He was proving himself wrong, although by that time, there was nobody else there to witness it.  Adam has a similar contrarian view on climate change, government regulations, the national debt, and other Fox News lies.

“You can’t tell me what kinds of things,” I finally said.  “But I can tell you that the tobacco companies are evil.  Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, said that smoking was as addictive as heroin.  And I can tell you that on his deathbed, my Dad said that he had tried to quit 150,000 times.  Those were his exact words, ‘150,000 times.’  And after he died, we went through his stuff and found all sorts of literature about smokers’ rights.  And you know who published it?  Organizations that were funded by Philip Morris and all the other tobacco companies.”

I never did convince him, but he convinced me of something: that he appropriately summed up the dictionary definition of ignorant.

To read my other posts about my father’s death from smoking, click here and here.

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The Hieroglyphic Heart

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

After college, I began to study dreams.  Finally, after ripping through all those thousands of pages of UCLA curriculum, I had time for leisurely self-exploration.  I read Man and His Symbols and started keeping a dream journal.  Around 9 am, I would wake up, immediately roll over, grab my spiral-bound journal, and write down whatever I could remember from that ethereal world.

Looking it over during the day, I began to see meanings.  It helped me see my life as something with shape, form, and mysterious depths.  But they were depths that could be plumbed, if I just tried hard enough.  Everything could be deciphered.  After all, I was an adult now.

Neurology face 1a

What I was trying to do, I suppose, was take control of my life.  Supposedly, every person had an unconscious self that made you do things.  It made you lazy or aggressive or mean, even if you didn’t want to be.  It wagged you like a tail, and yes, Hemingway was right, the iceberg of your needs and desires was almost entirely submerged.  All the action was underwater.

I so wanted to decipher those hieroglyphs.  I so wanted to make things better in my life.

One morning at dawn, I awoke from a particularly emotional dream.  I had been talking to my father in a parking lot.  It was in my hometown, and a department store loomed behind us.  But it was the anguish in our conversation that got to me.  Awake in bed, I cried for a bit.

I immediately knew what it meant.

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To understand the dream, you have to understand my father.  He had never been a terribly assertive man, and in fact, sometimes seemed to be so self-effacing that he harmed himself.  He wasn’t a coward by any means, but the thing was, he never asked for anything.  When his wife decided the family would go on a Caribbean cruise, he wanted to stay behind to save money.  And he never wanted to spend money on himself, and in fact, basked in his spartan ways.

Smoking seemed the embodiment of that self-effacement.  Taking a drag, he looked so solitary.  It was all he seemed to need, that cigarette, that smoke hovering around the eyes, that heat he breathed into his lungs.

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My father smoking in his favorite chair.

That November, I asked Dad what he wanted for Christmas.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“I am going to get you something,” I said.  “Tell me what you want.”

“Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”

“What, you want me to get you a Shakespeare play?”

“No.  Did you know I haven’t read a novel in 25 years?”

There was always more than a hint of pride in the statement, a sideways slap at the English major who thought he knew more than his father.

“The last novel I read was The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.  Did I tell you that?”

“Yes, many times.”

“You know he couldn’t write unless he was completely drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you ever tried that?”

“No.”

“All right.  So don’t ever buy me a book.”

“Then what should I get you?”

“A carton of cigarettes.”

“Yeah, right.  You know I’m not going to buy you cigarettes.”

We went on like this for ten minutes, round and round, until something perfect came to mind.

“You really like macadamia nuts, don’t you?” I said.

“Okay, if you absolutely have to, you can get me that.”

“A jar of macadamia nuts?”

“Yes.”

“Okay then.”

As an adult, I was starting to appreciate my father in a different way.  Once, he was my hero perched high on a pedestal.  Now, I was learning to hug him, even though it made him feel awkward.

“What does he expect me to do when he does that?” he used to privately ask my mother.

Sometimes I even kissed him on the cheek, which really threw him.  The fact is, I was realizing as an adult in how many different ways that I loved this man.  I so enjoyed wearing a pale green 1950s-style shirt I found in his closet.  I was fascinated about the details of his troubled youth.  I wanted to spend more time with him, although it was sometimes difficult to fit into our busy schedules.

Come Christmas Day, I arrived at my parents’ house early.  With the family sitting in the living room, we casually unwrapped presents, but as always, Dad held back.  He always lingered on the outskirts of the group, like a satellite orbiting a planet.  While we tore open gift after gift, Dad was leaning on a railing, smoking and watching.

“Dad, it’s your turn,” my sister finally said.Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

“Okay.”

Dad picked up my gift first, but looked at it a bit puzzled.  The package was larger than our agreed-upon jar of macadamia nuts.  He tore off the wrapping paper, and what he found inside seemed to disappoint him horribly.

“Oh no….”

“What?” I said, smiling.

“That’s too much, it’s too much.”

I smiled.  It was four jars of macadamia nuts.  In the store, one jar had seemed paltry and ungrateful.  This man had put me through college without requiring that I get a part-time job, as my friends’ parents had required.  He’d coached my Little League team during a year when I was a star.  At age 4, he’d taught me how to run as fast as the wind.  I figured I’d set him up with macadamias for a couple months.

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Later that day, we had a moment alone while the women in the kitchen were cooking.

“Dad, I want to tell you about a dream I had,” I said.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The author at age 25

“Okay.”

“It was about you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

I recounted the dream, but as I reached the end, my voice was cracking and there were tears in my eyes.

“You were…you were threatening to cut off your own thumbs,” I said.

It was the thumbs that had really gotten to me.  You see, I had discovered a new way of being in the world.  I wanted to tell him that you didn’t have to hide your emotions and kill your own desires, that in this day and age, you could spend money, you could wear colored shirts, you could tell your child that you loved him, you could give him advice, because he would listen.  I was telling him that he didn’t have to hurt himself all the time.

But while there were tears in my eyes, my father was having a whole different experience of the conversation: He was laughing.  In fact, he thought it was ludicrous.

“I was going to cut off my thumbs?!” he said with a grin.

“Yes.”

“David, I’m not going to cut off my own thumbs.”

“No, that’s not what I mean, I know you wouldn’t….”

“…I mean, why would I cut off my own thumbs?”

“I know that, it’s just that….”

But try as I might, I couldn’t quite explain it.  In the end, I had that sense of hopelessness you sometimes get when you try to enlighten a parent.

I changed your diapers, the parent always seems to say with just a slight grin.  I knew you when you didn’t even know how to go potty, so don’t try to tell me anything.

David Groves at Alan Karbelnigs house circa 1981Later that year, though, he did cut off his thumbs, in a manner of speaking.  He was in a dark mood all that autumn because of office politics.  Apparently, Dad’s supervisor had accused him being an alcoholic, which was absolutely ludicrous if you knew my Dad at all.  Perhaps what that supervisor had seen were the effects of a lifetime of smoking.  Or perhaps he was just trying to put his boot on my Dad’s neck, as power players sometimes do.  One day, Dad sauntered up to me with that ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“Don’t be surprised if someday, I just disappear,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Disappear.  Gone.”

There was a quiet anger in his voice.

“Why?”

He took a drag on his cig.

“Because I’m sick of it all.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d just become a hobo riding the rails.”

It sounded to me like someone hurting himself because others had hurt him.  I looked at him with as much love as I could muster.

“Dad, I would really miss you.”

v

It wasn’t long afterwards that I saw my father sitting on the stairs at home with his shirt off.  It was so alarming that I remember it as if it were yesterday.  My father had become frighteningly skinny.  The mesomorphic father who had always been my hero was so thin that I knew he was sick.

“Dad, you’re too skinny,” I said.  “There’s gotta be something wrong with you.  You’ve gotta see a doctor.”

He wouldn’t listen to me that time, either.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

My father at age 21

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58

Thumbs, lungs, cigarettes, hobos, death, it’s all mixed in together now.  He never went to the doctor.  And three years later, he was dead.

Now that I’m older, I realize that it didn’t have to happen that way.  He could have stopped smoking.  He could have reached out to us.  He could have accepted our love.  It could have been easier for him.  The problem was, the person who was telling him to change was his own son.  And who listens to his own son?

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Hitting My Father in the Arm

When I was six, my father would flex his upper arm and ask me to punch it.  I punched.  It made a pleasing smacking noise.

“Harder,” he would say.

So I would punch harder.

Harder,” he would say.

And I would hit him with all my might.  It didn’t faze him.  He was my big, strong father.  At that time, I didn’t know that he had been brought up by a mother who was mentally ill, and had an innate inability to display affection.  I cringe, thinking about the chaos he grew up in.  Hitting each other in the arms was what we did to feel close.

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father was a mesomorph, although his smoking tended to change that over the years.  They were a family habit.  My mother, who was a skinny young woman, smoked throughout her pregnancy.  The doctors recommended it for calming nerves.

When I was five, I liked the odor of tobacco.  I had grown up with it.  It was inextricably intermingled with the idea of father.  But my parents knew it was bad for them, so they promised me a prize of $1,000 if I made it to age 18 and didn’t smoke.  He was still a mesomorph and I still hit him in the arm.  I took half a puff on a stolen cig at age 13.  I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to look cool.  But there was always an impenetrable barrier between me and cool, so I never continued.  At 18, I put the $1,000 in the bank.

When I went off to college and mingled with people of other cultures, I learned to hug people upon greeting them.  Sometimes I even did something unthinkable: Kiss them on the cheek.  I started doing that to Dad, and it threw him for a loop.

“When David hugs me,” he once told my mother in private, “I don’t know what to do.”

“Hug him back,” she said.

But something within him made him unable to return the hug.  I just kept doing it, though.  Hugs never hurt nobody.  I figured I was converting him to a new way of being in the world.  After a while, he came to expect it, although he never got really comfortable with it.

Later, I learned that he had served in the bloodiest battle of the Korean War, Chosin Reservoir, and had seen hundreds of his buddies slaughtered.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking.  His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking. His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

“I learned pretty quickly,” he told my mother when they first got married, “that you don’t make close friends, because as soon as you make a friend, he gets shot dead.”

Maybe that’s what taught him not to hug people, the way he’s doing in the photograph above.

At 29, I would come home occasionally to visit my parents.  I was a freelance journalist writing for the likes of American Health, Psychology Today, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like.  Good health was my beat, and I followed all the best health advice.  I was so healthy that my sweat smelled like lilacs marinated in noni juice.

One day, I visited my parents and saw my Dad sitting on the carpeted stairs with his shirt off.  The sight shocked me.  That wasn’t my father, not the athletic, muscular hero I used to punch in the arm when I was 11.

“Dad, you’ve lost a lot of weight,” I said, trying to quell my rising alarm.  “You need to see a doctor.”

His smile suddenly left his face.

“I can take care of it myself.”

“Dad, it’s not normal to lose so much weight.  There’s something wrong with you.”

And with that, he got up and walked into his room and closed the door.

I talked with my mother and sister, and we all agreed that he should see a doctor.  He had smoked for over 40 years, after all.  So my mother promised to “work on him.”

“Leave it to me,” she said.

For four years, my father ignored our impassioned pleas to see a doctor.  When we got onto the subject, he would walk out of the room.  He would snap at us.  He would lock himself in his bedroom.

“I’m taking care of my own health,” he once angrily told us.  “I’m listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio.”

My father approximately age 58

My father at age 58

But I didn’t dare hit my father in the arm anymore.  I tried once and he cried out, not playfully, but in real pain.

“Hey!”

He had become too frail.

Then one day, he was dead.  In the months that followed, I would suddenly cry at odd moments.  In line at the grocery store.  Dead at 59.  While driving, hearing a lyric on the radio.  When you comin’ home dad?/I don’t know when,/But we’ll get together then, son/You know we’ll have a good time then.

“I tried to quit 150,000 times,” he told me on his deathbed.

A few days later, I saw my father walking from the bathroom to the bed, and his paper robe was open in the back.  I was shocked.  There were no traces of the mesomorph left, nor of basic health.  Smoking had withered him down to something I may have seen in news reports about famine.

One image of my father remains from my early childhood, and I’m not sure why.  I was four years old.  We were in the front yard.  I was convinced that I had figured out the secret to running fast: All you have to do is move your legs faster than the other boy.  Armed with this brilliant insight, I challenged my father to a race.  To my astonishment, he creamed me.  In my mind’s eye, I see myself running fast, moving my legs like a cartoon.  They all told me that young people were our future; that meant me.  I was growing stronger every day, and very soon, I would overtake the older generation, I would be dominant, I would be strong.  But on that day in my youth, my father was the strong one.  Muscular, handsome, swift of foot.  I lost that race and he was a god.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b