Help! My Father Is Dying of Lung Cancer From Smoking. Didn’t He Get What He Deserves?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 22 2013 6:15 AM

Dying Light

Lung cancer is killing my father, but I’ll never forgive him for smoking.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My father is 77 years old. After over 50 years of enthusiastic smoking, he has finally been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. I’m 37 years old and since I can remember I have worried that this day would come. He loves to talk about himself, so he calls me and goes on and on with the latest updates, and how he is sure the next round of treatments will cure him. (The five-year survival rate for people with his diagnosis is 1 percent.) Beginning when I was a small child, I tried to get him to quit by using persuasion, anger, heartfelt letters, throwing out his cigarettes, even family therapy a few years ago, all to no avail. He would often get angry and defensive and even called me "selfish" for describing how his smoking affected me. I'm fed up and having a hard time mustering sympathy for his self-inflicted disease. And he is still smoking! Part of me feels that I should be a loving and supportive daughter to my ill father. But my feelings are so clouded by anger that he has chosen cigarettes over his health and more years with his family that I don't feel like responding with concern and good wishes. Is there anything to do but swallow my feelings and feign polite concern?

—Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide

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Dear Slow,
According to figures from the CDC, today the American male’s life expectancy at birth is just over 76 years. So while I understand you feel your father’s inability to face down his addiction robbed you of more time with him, you should recognize he has lived a full lifespan. Since you are approaching middle age yourself, if you take a mental survey of your friends, I’m sure you’ll note there are already some who didn’t get as many years with their fathers as you have had with yours. As time goes on, you will see many more of your friends caring for parents whose final years are an agonizing slide into dementia. I despise smoking, and thank goodness the rates continue to go down, to less than 20 percent of adults today. But your father came of age in an era when almost half of adults smoked, and that infernal habit has racked up a huge death toll. The statistics make clear that your father will be added to this list soon. But it’s up to you to decide how to spend what time you have left with him. Imagine it’s five years from now and your father is gone. I doubt you will look back on those last days and be glad you spent them seething with resentment that he couldn’t quit smoking. Angry as you are, try to find a way to open your heart and have some sweet, loving times with your dad, even if they take place outside the hospital while he has a cigarette. There’s no point in his trying to quit now. You know he’ll extinguish his last one soon enough.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Uneven Sexual Ledger

Dear Prudence,
Several years ago I started a good job at a fairly large company in a new city. During work orientation, I met another new employee in a different division, also new to the city. We had a lot in common and we soon arranged to meet for coffee. I was recently out of a painful relationship, and was only looking for friendship. After a couple more coffees and lunches, I got the vibe that he wanted more. I told him I really liked him and hoped to work together, but just to be clear, I wasn't interested in dating. He just said "OK." It was awkward, because he hadn't even asked, and I wish now I'd said nothing until he clarified his intentions. He avoided me from then on. Now both of us have been promoted up the ladder. He's not really my superior, but my career trajectory is veering toward a collaborative collision with his. We're both now married and have kids. If I pass him in a hall, he smiles and nods, but he hasn’t ever answered the handful of work emails I’ve sent him, and I’ve let that go. I don't want to get him into trouble by complaining to superiors, especially when I'm not even sure my complaint is reasonable. I'm beginning to fear he wasn't embarrassed by my rejection, but thought I was accusing him of sexual harassment. How can I fix this?

—It’s Getting Weird

Dear Getting,
It would be weird for you to take this problem to your superiors. Think about how you might phrase such a complaint. You want to gripe that a fellow employee apparently has lousy email management skills (not that you ever bothered to follow up with him). For back story, you’ll have to explain that long ago you had lunch with him a few times, then requested he not ask you out on a date even though he hadn’t. By the time you wrap up this tale, you’re going to be getting some odd looks. However, that doesn’t mean that your colleague is not being strange. I disagree with your speculation he thinks you were making a sexual harassment accusation because nothing ever happened. My assumption is that he was interested, you deterred him, and he takes rejection badly. Very badly. But it’s long past time you two, who never dated and are married to others, were able to act like cordial professionals. You should take the initiative and go talk to him. Drop by his office and ask if he has a minute—if he says he’s busy, then insist on an appointment. Be friendly and low-key and say it’s been so long since you two talked that you wanted to establish a dialogue because it looks like your work paths are going to cross. Do not bring up your history, just give him the opportunity to act normal. If after that there’s no thaw, then do your best to work around him. Only if his behavior becomes an actual obstruction to you, should you bring this bizarreness to anyone else’s attention.

—Prudie

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