How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

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My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

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So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

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In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

Love Has a Lot to Do With It

You may think that the story I’m about to tell you has one lesson, but be careful what you conclude that lesson is.  It’s not what you may think.  You may, for example, assume from the photos and the story that you should panic.

The apocalypse is coming!  We’re all going to starve!  We’re all going to turn into cannibals!

You may assume, as well, that you run fast–don’t walk, don’t dawdle–to the nearest grocery store and fight for survival, grab toilet paper out of other customers’ hands, that you growl like a wolf and stockpile loads and loads of grocery items.  That, however, would be a stupid assumption.  Did I mention that it would be imbecilic?  Really, this is the closest thing you’re going to get in your adult life to a valid IQ test.

Let me emphasize, guys: There’s nothing wrong with our food supply.  Taliban bombers haven’t carpet-bombed our farms.  There’s no plague of locusts besetting the land.  No terrorists have blown up all the Vons trucks.  Tomorrow morning, you will still have a great choice of produce, packaged goods, canned goods, frozen dinners, and even all that disgusting junk food that you can stuff into your piehole.

What’s wrong, see, is the people.  Some of the simplest among us are panicking.  Without reason.  Without any reason at all.

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That said, I shopped for two today.  First, I was shopping for my live-in girlfriend and myself.  And secondly, I was shopping for my mother.

Mom, see, is at high risk for death if she contracts COVID-19.  She’s 89 years old, soon to turn 90, and she smoked for 40 years.  Even though she quit in the ’90s, her habit left her with a gift that keeps on giving: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impairs lung function.  Ever prudent, Mom started isolating herself hard two weeks ago.  She shopped for groceries at 7 am, when nobody was in the stores.  She avoided any other retail stores.  She stayed inside.

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Mom in 2014 admiring a 10th-century castle in Ireland

Then just a week ago, Mom saw the writing on the wall and started isolating even harder.  She decided she was going to stay inside her four-bedroom, two-story suburban house almost completely.  She and her little Shih Tzu Phoebe would shut the world out absolutely.  She wouldn’t even shop for herself.  She wouldn’t go to the bank.  She wouldn’t meet anybody for coffee.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have somebody to shop for you.  That’s me, thank you.  I volunteered to do it because I’m at fairly low risk.  After all, I have exercised about an hour a day for the past 40 years and have terrific lungs.  I’ve never smoked.  I’ve never had anything go even mildly wrong with my body.  I’m as healthy as a hose, even if I can’t always spell.  Plus, I’m doing it because–hello!–she’s my mother.

So this afternoon, I drove down to Albertsons Grocery Store in La Habra.  It’s the nice suburban community in Southern California where I live.  I walked in with three cloth grocery bags, because I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near any filthy, germ-laden grocery cart.  I would just pile all my groceries into the bags and carry them around the store.

Stepping into the store, I knew there would be shortages, but I had no idea how extensive the shortages would be.  First, I checked out the essentials that everybody is stockpiling: hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and water.  Predictably, those products were all cleaned out.

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They were out of rubbing alcohol, and even placed a limit on the number you could buy.

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Predictably, all toilet paper was gone.

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All water was gone, even though there’s no threat to the nation’s water supply.

But I was surprised to find that some related products were cleaned out, as well, including dish detergent, baby wipes, diapers, and various cleaning products.

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Baby wipes were out.

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Many cleaning products were sold out.

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All of the hand dish detergent was sold out.

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Napkins were sold out.

As I strolled around the store, I discovered other more offbeat shortages, as well.  For example, all the tortillas were sold out.  It makes sense, I guess, because the store is right on the edge of a Mexican-American community, but really, can’t you give a guy a break on his beloved tacos and burritos?

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All tortillas were sold out.

There were also no potatoes at all, only yams, and the only onions left were red onions.  Turns out tomatoes and carrots are pretty popular, too, because they were nowhere to be found.

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Albertsons placed a limit on the amount of potatoes you could buy, but by the time I got there, the limit had reached zero.

All the eggs were gone, too.  I love my omelettes!

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Eggs gone.  I guess it’s Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.

And rice, beans, and pasta sauce were gone, too.

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Rice, beans, and pasta were mostly sold out.

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In all, I bought $37 worth of groceries for Claire and I, and $95 worth of groceries for Mom.  By the time I got to the end of our grocery lists, I was lugging around three heavy bags.  I considered going through a regular checkstand, but decided against it because I didn’t want anybody filthy checker’s hands touching my products.  So I decided to do self-checkout.  That was a little dicey, though.  There was a lot of tapping the touchscreen and putting products on scales.  And then whenever I made a mistake, a grocery employee jumped over my shoulder and pushed the right buttons, uncomfortably close.

By the time I got to the car, I immediately jumped into the driver’s seat and slathered gobs of sanitizer onto my hands.  I couldn’t believe I had gotten through that ordeal.  It took me over an hour.

I drove a half-hour to Mom’s house and called her from her driveway.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll open the garage door,” she said.

Within moments, the garage door started opening.  I took her two grocery bags out of the trunk and left the bags inside the garage.  Then I walked outside of the garage.  She grabbed the two bags and headed for her kitchen.

“Make sure to wash the bags!” I said.  “Don’t forget to wash the handles of the bags!”

“I won’t,” she said.

“And wash all of the products!”

“I know!”

Within a couple minutes, Mom was back in the garage, washing the cloth grocery bags in a sink.  She used bleach, just to make sure.  Then she dried them.  All the while, I kept a respectful 25 feet away from her.  Finally, she left the bags in the middle of the garage for me.  Once she had moved back a safe distance, I stepped up and grabbed the bags.

“Love you!” I said, and left.

And, in fact, that’s quite true: Love has a lot to do with it.

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.”

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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.

What They’re Selling

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father had been a smoker since he was a teenager, and had never been able to stop. For the previous five years, he had been losing weight, so we knew something was wrong. We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he refused. He eventually died a horrible death from emphysema and lung disease.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My mother sometimes wondered if she was responsible.  Of course my father held the ultimate responsibility, but she painfully asked herself whether she might have done something that would have allowed him to survive.  Three  years before his death, he lost so much weight that we knew something was wrong.  When we brought up going to the doctor, Dad walked away from us.

“Leave it to me,” my mother said.  “I know the right moment to bring it up.”

She tried.  But Dad’s ability to stonewall unexpectedly exceeded my mother’s ability to manipulate him.  We even tried to trick him into going to the doctor a couple times.  My sister asked him to drive her to the doctor, and then go into the examination room with her, and when the doctor came in, he start talking to Dad about his own health.  He just stood up and walked out.

There were many people on Dad’s side.  Mom, sis, and I.  The Surgeon General when he released his report.  Those commercials on television.  And 49% of my father.

On the other side, working against him, were many people, as well.  Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.  All those Carolina farmers.  All those Carolina senators and congressmen.  All those 1950s ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that recommended cigarettes “for your health.”  And 51% of my father.

I sometimes wonder what could have convinced that 1% to defect.

Going through my father’s effects after he died, we discovered lots of literature he had received from the tobacco industry. These expensive four-color booklets talked about smoking as a matter of civil rights. You have a right to enjoy a cigarette, the literature said. Fight for your rights, it said. You have the right to smoke next to people, or in restaurants, or at your job, or wherever the hell you want. Don’t let the politically correct liberals take your rights away from you.  (To see some recent versions of this argument, go here.)

The authors of this literature were co-conspirators with the tobacco industry in killing my father.  In the months after he died, I sometimes unexpectedly began to cry.  Once, while standing in line at the grocery store and seeing a headline that reminded me of him.  Once, while driving down Ohio Avenue under the 405 and hearing a song that reminded me of him.  My thoughts were forever bumping into memories of him.  They still are.

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Recently, I saw a news item on one of the companies that used to put together that literature, The Center for Individual Freedom. It’s an organization, you understand, that manufactures lies and sells them to an unsuspecting public. And during that election cycle, they were selling lies in nine congressional districts attacking nine different Democrats:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hidden-donors-20101024,0,5753488.story

These days, they’re attacking the ACA and global warming.  See for yourself.

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They killed my father.  They’re the 1% in more ways than one.  Don’t fall for what they’re selling now.