My father’s father was killed when my dad was not quite six years old. In 1929. My dad started smoking cigarettes when he was stationed in Texas during the war. By the time I was born in 1956 my dad was up to three packs a day. My dad would place 60 cigarettes on his desk every morning and smoke every one.
Don’t let anybody tell you that the significant health dangers directly attributable to cigarettes were unknown in the 1950s. Folks might not have been specifically aware of the increased risk for tuberculosis, eye diseases, and immune system issues including rheumatoid arthritis, but they were clear about the association of cigarettes with cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Ever see a smoker on the medal stand after winning a marathon? Neither has anyone else.
My dad called cigarettes “cancer sticks.” He and every one of his generation were well aware of the dangers and the well-financed, despicable work of the folks pushing the addictive chemical nicotine on a naïve public. “Cigarettes don’t cause cancer” the lackeys argued. “The people who smoke cigarettes are also the people who were more likely to get cancer in the first place. Just because two things go together doesn’t mean that one thing caused the other.” Right. And the Earth is flat, the moon landing was staged, vaccines cause autism, and gravity is a hoax. It would be difficult to exaggerate the duplicity of the apologists for those who profited from the brutal deaths and disfiguring diseases of folks who didn’t give up cigarettes.
In 1959 when I was three and my little sister was one year old, my dad quit cigarettes cold turkey. He went from 60 cigarettes every 24 hours–21,900 cigarettes a year–to zero cigarettes. He never smoked another. Our family commemorated the day my dad stopped smoking. Even more than the wedding anniversary of my parents. “Don’t you think we should celebrate your 60th year of marriage?” I asked. “Why do we make a bigger deal about the day you quit cigarettes?” My dad’s response: “Anybody can stay married.”
My dad died in 2018. At the age of 94.
This essay isn’t just about my dad, it’s about sacrifice. My dad loved cigarettes. But he loved me and my sister more. My dad lost his father when my dad was just a child. He wasn’t going to shorten the length of time that he had to be a father.
I never knew my grandfather. There are no stories of my grandfather throwing a ball with my dad or reading Winnie the Pooh (Milne published in 1924 the year my dad was born, so the dates line up) or being around to say congratulations when my dad was the first person in our family to go to college. My dad didn’t have any memories of his father.
So I was in my early 60s rather than in kindergarten when I lost my father. We had some times. Parcheesi games, Dolphin games, family dinner, family stories, the Karate Monkey Joke. My dad was there when I needed a down payment on my first house and when I needed advice about starting my consulting practice. I’m grateful for that extra half century with her father. My dad did get to attend my graduations. And he was in the audience when his grandchildren walked across the stage as well.
When we were both adults, some 40 years after the day my dad went from 60 cigarettes to zero, I asked my dad if he still missed cigarettes. “As much as the day I quit” he said. “I appreciate that,” I replied. Double meaning intended.
Speaking of sacrifice, the questions in the following paragraph are not about judging you. I’m not telling you what to do. I am certainly not suggesting that you quit your job and start training to run a 5K when the weather gets a little cooler. I know you have to work. I’m just reminding you—in a gentle and supportive way, I hope—that once you have kids, it’s no longer all about you. Your health and well-being are important to you, sure. But your longevity affects your kids as well. Are you getting 20 minutes of healthful exercise three times each week? Are you seeing your doctor for regular check ups? Are you doing what you can to ensure that you will be there (again, double meaning intended) for your kids?
There’s enough bad stuff that can happen ever with the best of planning. Buses, meteors, infectious diseases are out there. My grandfather was murdered driving a beer truck during Prohibition. That killing was as unexpected as it was devastating. No number of push-ups and sit-ups or toe-touches and doctor visits would have saved him from leaving his widow to raise two little kids. But you can do better–although nothing is one hundred percent. You can make choices in favor of moderation. You can get a little healthful exercise. You can make the necessary sacrifices to increase the odds that you stay healthy so your kids are less likely to have to take care of you when you are infirm.
It is often said that the best time to plant an oak tree was 50 years ago, but that the second-best time to plant an oak tree is today. Yeah we all should have started exercising decades ago. But if my dad can give up those cigarettes he loved so that he could hang around and toss a ball and play Parcheesi with me, you can take a step in the direction of sacrificing for your kids as well.
Today would be the best day to start.