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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

What's the Price of Messin' With Mom?
by Forrest Seymour

My mother is sick again.

After a long late phone call last week, in which I rattled on about all our plans, the coming baby, the coming wedding, grad school and business, I belatedly queried, "And how are you doing?"

"Well," came the atypically slow response, "you probably don't have time . . ." So of course I took the time.

Not that she has been a particularly ill woman; to the contrary, I'm sure she'd say. And she is getting on. As one approaches 40, it is to be expected that one's parents would experience illnesses associated with age, if one's parents still live. Nancy's parents, for instance, are both gone now. All the more reason my mother is important to our family, and her illness a threat.

But it is not so typical that the illnesses of one's parents would be the stuff of daily headlines. My Mom's got emphysema, or what is now often called, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. This is no doubt related to her 45 years as a smoker, and follows a bout of lung cancer just over four years ago. My mother has the illnesses that lawsuits are now made of. Potentially lucrative lawsuits. Lawsuits that are recently being won.

In addition, she lives in Minnesota, a state which has been particularly aggressive about suing tobacco companies, due I am sure to the political aspirations, gubinatorial and beyond, of its attorney general with the famous father, Hubert H. Humphrey II. (Recalling now that we live in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia, I will remind particularly our younger and/or more forgetful readers that HHH the first was LBJ's VP, and went on to lose the presidency to Nixon in '68, a fateful defeat. So maybe HHH II has some Dad issues, who knows.) A couple of years ago, I floated the idea of joining in the class action suit HHH II was then forming against the tobacco giants, but Mom would have nothing of it.

"I knew what I was doing," she selflessly claimed. So I dropped it. She had recovered well from the lung surgery, had reorganized her life around her most vital interests, (family, friends and birds), and seemed to be doing well.

But now, two years later, armed with another tobacco related illness, and reinforced by recent precedent setting liability wins against tobacco, I'm tempted to say it again. "Maybe we should sue? If not for me, then for my disabled brother. If not for him, then for some good cause. But maybe we should sue the bastards!"

And where, one might ask, does this sudden anger come from, in one such as myself, usually given as I am to peace and non-violence? Good question. Who is responsible for my mother's illness? She chose to smoke. But the cigarettes were addictive. Does a heroin addict choose to shoot up? Maybe. She read the labels. "The Surgeon General has belatedly and reluctantly decided . . ." For twenty years she was sold cigarettes by friendly actors dressed as doctors smiling athletically in ads everywhere. That all changed in the 70's, but it was too late for her by then, the "habit" was firmly in place and probably the illnesses, too.

I remember she smoked Camels, no filter, then later switched to Larks, like my Father, with "Charcoal Filters." I used to unroll the little speckled filters to look at the tiny black rocks in the cavity inside. These small stones, pin-prick black holes, from which we distill gasoline, were supposed to save her from what will probably now kill her. What was she thinking? What were the purveyors of this stuff doing?

So I am not only angry with the mega-corporations, legal structures specifically designed to evade personal liability for both owners and officers, but with my mother, too. Why did she do this self-destructive thing? Wasn't it obvious? Didn't you want to be around for all you could? To see the new century, to meet more grandchildren?

I know it was a different era, that everyone smoked. My mother became an adult, a wife and a mother in the '50s; we ate white bread, iceberg lettuce, and picked our fruit out of a can. The received wisdom was rarely questioned, not then, not in those suburb days. And it did seem like everyone smoked. Hell, I smoked for a while. But we also knew it killed people. "Coffin nails, cancer sticks." As a teen, these are what I bummed from my friends. How could our culture be so crazy, support this kind of group cognitive dissonance? For money, of course. Taxes, campaign donations, stock growth and corporate salaries. And who's to blame them, trying to make a living, to get ahead? It's a rough world!

Well, me, I guess. Corporate indemnity or not, from stock holders to tobacco farmers, we all are at least partly liable for our actions. Each time I drive my car I think of the fossil fuel, the ozone, the asbestos in my brake shoes, and I try to drive less. This is OK. Not easy, but OK. But for decade after decade tobacco companies, specifically the people who run them, have lived in immunity from these worries. They have lied, and profited. Well, time is up.

I could take out my anger on my mother, and no doubt to some extent will. But, and here is the crucial bit, she it sick. She needs care and sympathy now; she made a mistake and is paying the price. While these gigantic, multi-national, highly diversified corporate organizations of individual sentient people with rights and responsibilities, which fed her addiction for almost a half century, are not sick. They are very healthy; hell, they're rolling in it.

Today, all I can say is, "time's up, guys. You've messed with too many people's mothers. Time to pay the price."

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