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

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

Dear Prudence,
I'm turning 30 this fall, and I have an incredibly wonderful boyfriend of seven years. The only problem is that at 31 he has never had a full-time job. He still lives at home. He earned a degree with honors from a prestigious university, so intellect is not the problem. I moved far away from home after graduating college and have been taking care of myself since. In the last decade I’ve established a good career and am earning over six figures. (I live in one of the most expensive areas in the country, so I would need two incomes to support a family.) I've given him an ultimatum that if he doesn't get a full-time job by the end of September, we are breaking up. But in reality I don't know if I can do it. I’m terrified of going back in the dating pool, and I also can't imagine another person so perfect for me. He wants to get married now and is ready to have kids yesterday, and I can see what a great father he’d be. But while he hasn't saved a penny I have amassed a little over $200,000. Should I call it quits, or just accept that I have no control over his earnings and marry for love alone, and possibly be the sole breadwinner?

—Confused in Love

Dear Confused,
Talk about the end of men. I know things are tough out there, but times are particularly hard for young people who collect their degrees and retreat to their old bedrooms, coaxed out only by the prospect of a free meal or sex. You look at your boyfriend and see a life partner and great father. I see a sponge. The whole time you have been together, you have been a shining example of working like a maniac and accumulating an impressive nest egg. Instead of being inspired, he’s spent his 20s playing computer games and staring at his Claudia Schiffer posters. Surely you have friends who have been trying to tell you that you can do better than this. If you love this guy, the kindest thing you can do for him is to tell him he needs to get his life together and make something of himself—without you. The deadline for this deadbeat has long passed. Make the break now, and spread the word that you’re on the market.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My elderly parents have moved down south, my father is in declining health, and I offered to help get their house in New England ready to sell. My mom is a bit of a pack rat, so I wasn't surprised to find valuable items like wedding photos mixed in with junk. What I wasn't prepared for was stumbling across, hidden in a drawer in her office, her personal sex toy. If I pack up this particular drawer full of stuff, my mother will know I found it. If I don’t pack it, maybe she’ll forget about it or think that it got thrown away with the other junk. So what should I do? Pack it up and play dumb, or toss it?

—Stumped

Dear Stumped,
I’ve had to deal with a variety of roving vibrators recently, from the potentially recycled Jopen to the errant Clone-a-Willy. When you’re cleaning out the home of a pack-rat mother, you expect to find balls of rubber bands and collections of shopping bags. You just aren’t prepared to pick up her battery-powered wand of pleasure. But you have to hand it to mom that at least she recognized her needs and made sure they were met. It’s possible the vibrator is vintage and long-forgotten and if you toss it with the other effluvia, she’ll never notice. But you say your father is ailing, so maybe she could use a little relief. You took on the task of packing up her valuables. This is one, so just shove it in the bottom of the box and let her decide whether it still is useful.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

The Story of Oh, No: My boss walked in on me touching myself, and now he won’t stop flirting. What do I do?” Posted May 24, 2012.
A Touch Too Long: My mom let me play with her breasts for years after I stopped breast-feeding, and now she’s doing it with my sister. How do I stop it?” Posted May 17, 2012.
A Dirty Debut: My 19-year-old niece just confessed to me she's made a porn film. Should I tell the family?” Posted May 3, 2012.
Honeymoon, Interrupted: My new wife postponed our tropical getaway to comfort her “best friend.” What gives?” Posted April 26, 2012.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Backup Plan: In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman who just found out her fiancé originally wanted to date her best friend.” Posted June 4, 2012.
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Don’t Feed the Baby: In a live chat, Dear Prudence offers advice on a vegan infant, a no-child prenup, and whether a brain tumor is a good excuse for adultery.” Posted May 21, 2012.
Guys and Dolls: In a live chat, Prudie offers advice regarding a boyfriend whose “other woman” is a mannequin.” Posted May 14, 2012.

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