Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Mother Through the Smoke


Our family pictured here in 1985 celebrating Mom's first Christmas at Cedar Lane Rehabilitation Center in Waterbury CT.  At the time, we were still optimistic the therapists could wean her from the respirator.  That was not to be.  She spent 4 years, 3 months and 2 days as an appendage to a ventilator.  

I vividly remember my mother's dreadful, raucous cough that seemed to walk into a room before her.  That was part of who she was in my mind, not an ominous sign of Emphysema lurking in her lungs.  I still see Mom sitting at the kitchen table, chin cradled in one hand, a cup of black coffee or glass of Pepsi,  in the other.  That plain, creaky kitchen table was where we talked about everything and mom dispensed her shrewd advice that was almost never well received by my teenage self.  

I've written about oodles of relatives going back hundreds of years, but not my own mother. I glossed right over her.  So much was left unsaid when she was dying. I never said goodbye or told her how I felt because I was clueless. I have to admit I wasn't a very good daughter when she needed me most.  Back in the 80's we didn't have skype, facetime, email, texting nor any digital form of communication.  Mom's tracheotomy prevented her from talking so phone calls were out.  Months turned into years in the hospital which atrophied her muscles and made letter writing difficult so she basically lived for our visits.  Visiting was hard, time consuming and emotionally draining. Every visit ended with us leaving her in the hospital, knowing after the first year or so, that she wasn't coming home, she would never sit at the kitchen table again, laugh or dispense advice, cook one of her amazing dinners or even smell the lilacs she loved so much.  Over time weekly visits turned into monthly and then every few months until she was gone.
Tom, Robert, Jack and Peggy

But enough of that wishy washy stuff. I should be telling you about her roots. It seems impossible to sum up my mother's life in a neat little blog post, but I will try to give you a glimpse of the impact her truncated life made. 

My mother, Margaret Anne Hennessy, who everyone called Peg or Peggy, was the fourth child born on November 17, 1935 to Thomas Francis Hennessy and Margaret Florence (Cox) Hennessy.  Older brothers Thomas, Robert and John (Jack) were 4, 2 and 1 years of age when Peg was born.

Eight years later, the twins, Donald  & Sherry  came along.   In 1940 the family resided at 56 Northfield Rd. New Rochelle, NY.  
Sherry, Peg & Don
In 1954, her father, Thomas Hennessy passed away due to a heart condition, although my mother wondered if his condition was caused or exacerbated by smoking.  Just about everyone smoked back then and for the most part, they were oblivious to the health consequences.  My mother started smoking when she was 15 years old. 

Sherry Hennessy and Margaret
Cox Hennessy about 1980.  

That's our kitchen table with the
Grand union bicentennial dishes 
from 1976.
 Peg's mother and my grandma, Margaret (Cox) Hennessy, was hospitalized around 1956. In the 2  prior years Margaret had lost her husband, mother and sister, all of whom had passed away, leaving a burden she couldn't handle. Margaret remained in the hospital for 25 years until her death in 1981.

Peg, along with her brother Jack, went to work and took responsibility for raising their younger siblings, Sherry and Don. Their brother Tom had left home years earlier and had started his own family, while Robert had joined the military and was serving in the Phillipines.

Stan, Scott and Peggy in 1963
Peggy married Stan Syska on October 20, 1962.  My brother Scott was born in November of 1963, my sister, Suzy, in  February 1965 and I came along 13 months later in March of 1966.  Years later, I came to understand how chaotic a time that was for Mom, when my twins were born and I had 4 children of my own under the age of 5.  I wished my mother could have been there although I'm sure we would have bickered over something important like diaper duty or pacifier protocol.   

Stan Syska, Tom Hennessy and Peggy
(Hennessy) Syska
Life wasn't easy for my parents.  They worked hard always struggling to make ends meet.  Dad was a self employed carpenter.  Mom dreamed of going to college and becoming a writer.  Instead she worked nights as a nurses aid, slept during the day and took care of us in the afternoons and evenings.
I don't know exactly when Mom was diagnosed with Emphysema, but she told us kids in 1981 when she began oxygen therapy.  Eventually, the oxygen wasn't enough, she went into cardiac arrest and was put on a respirator.   The typical onset of Emphysema symptoms occurs in the 60's or 70's even for smokers. I suspect my mother may have had a genetic condition  called AAT deficiency (see picture on below right)

On April 25, 1989, my brother and his wife had their first child, Kevin Syska, who was my mother's first grandchild. About 2 1/2 months later, they brought Kevin to Cedar Lane where Mom was delighted to hold Kevin in her arms. All the nurses came in the room and Peggy got to proudly show off her grandson.  And then she knew it was time to go.  Peg stopped eating or drinking, with a do not resucitate order, it was only a matter of time until she passed away on July 27, 1989.

My mother promised each of her children she would give us $100 if we didn't start smoking cigarettes by the time we were 21.  None of us have ever smoked, defying the odds that say children of parents who smoke  are twice as likely to take up the habit themselves. I never got my cold hard cash but my mother had already given me everything: life, love, air.  


Mom had been 'quitting smoking' for most of my childhood. She tried everything from hiding her cigarettes, to joining smokenders, even hypnosis but the addiction was too strong.  She finally quit for good when she started the oxygen therapy, but it was too late.  Emphysema is a progessive, terminal disease that destroys the lung's air sacs.

It's hard to imagine a time when people didn't know smoking was harmful. 
To help illustrate what that era was like, I compiled some  cigarette advertisements with celebrities like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Lucy & Desi Arnaz and Babe Ruth.  There were many more. Even Fred and Barney Flinstone appeared in cigarette ads in 1960-61.

Then there are the ads that claim "more doctors smoke Camel" or cigarettes make you thinner.  One of the most bizarre is the "Winston, when you're smoking for two" ad that claims low birth weight is a win-win: easy labor, slim baby and great taste. 

Cancer by the Carton

1952 article published in Readers Digest that demonstrated to the public the connection between smoking and lung cancer.  This was based on 30 years of research at the time!

Tobacco companies fired back with the statement below and intense ad campaigns touting low tar and low nicotine cigarettes with filters.  While the number of smokers in the US continues to decline, we have exported the problem. Today there are 1 billion smokers globally with 80% of smokers living in low and middle income countries according to the World Health Organization.

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