Smoke Rings




 Smoke Rings

           Chesterfields, two packs a day, were what my father smoked until he died. He was a chain smoker, his fingers and teeth yellowed by tobacco smoke. My father entertained my sister and me by blowing a smoke ring and sailing another right through its middle. We laughed and clapped at the sight and asked him to do it again.

           Unbeknownst to any of us, my father was dying of Buerger's disease. Buerger's is a disease mainly of smokers that affects the blood vessels of the extremities. As blood vessels become blocked, oxygen-starved tissue dies, leading to gangrene and amputation. Incurable, the only remedy is to stop smoking. In the 1950s, smoking was not a problem. Ads featuring doctors touted the health benefits of smoking. But, knowing my father, he probably would not have stopped even if he had been aware of the danger. Our father smoked until he was no longer able to hold a cigarette.

           At first, there was pain, then redness and swelling in his right leg. Finally, he got a cane and kept on walking. There was a limp, but he walked as fast as he ever did. Doctors tried surgery to bypass the blockage and restore circulation — to no avail. The pain got worst, and his walk slowed.

One night, the pain was so intense; a doctor came to the house and gave him a shot of morphine. Dad was as high as the proverbial kite, insisting we played cards (Casino) with him — for money. Losing, he kept us playing, increasing the debt he owed us until he finally went to bed. No money ever changed hands.

           Black spots started to appear on his leg. The tissue was dying and turning gangrenous. Amputation below the knee was the only recourse. Unfortunately, my father was not a great patient, refusing physical therapy or learning how to use his prosthetic leg. I have a vivid memory of him losing his balance as he tried to use his prosthetic leg: "porca miseria" he yelled and slammed the side of his face.

When my Italian father was in pain or agony, he would yell porca miseria, take the palm of his hand and slam the side of his head — BAM. I knew that miseria meant misery and thought porca had to do with a female pig, but not what it meant to my father. Whatever it meant to my father, he suffered almost ten years of porca miseria until he died in 1959 at age seventy, alone on Welfare Island. 

Giving up, he accepted that he would have a disability for the rest of his life.  

Mom was not temperamentally suited to care for an invalid husband. She and her sisters were survivors: enduring poverty in Puerto Rico, the loss of children, absent fathers. Why would he give up without a fight — for my mother to accept being inutil (useless) was unthinkable? She had two children and a home to take care of. There was not enough time and energy to take care of a man that would not help himself.

            Bird S. Coler Hospital was on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island in the middle of the Harlem (East) River. Built to care for the infirm and provide long-term care in an era before Medicaid or nursing homes were options. My father was sent there for the treatment my mother could not provide. He spent three years on Welfare Island sleeping in a ward with five other men.

A couple of times a week, I would take the subway and then a bus to visit my father. My mother and sister never went to see him. Instead, I brought him his cigarettes or money to buy them. When the weather was nice, I would push his wheelchair on the island paths — to a lovely unobstructed view, across the East River, of the Manhattan skyline. We spoke mainly about what my sister and I were doing. Today I regret that I did not try and learn more of his early life in these talks.

           During my visits, my father had always been very lucid. However, when I saw him for the last time, less than a week before he died, he was confused and did not appear to know what was going on. Then, a telegram arrived that he had taken a turn for the worst. A second telegram came on July 14, 1959, simply stating that he had died from organ failure.

Death came the same day my 14-year-old sister returned from her Friendly Town homestay in Lancaster, PA. As I usually did each summer, I picked her up at Pennsylvania Station, climbing stairs in the cavernous building to get to the arrival hall to pick her up. She knew right away something was wrong. The subway ride back home seemed endless. I was not myself — not smiling, quiet, not talking much — waiting until we got home to tell her. That night she looked up into the sky and said she could see our father. That night the three of us slept in the same bed for the last time, my sister and I on either side of our mom, as if we were young children.

            He was buried in his best suit at St. Ramon's cemetery in the Bronx. The Social Security death benefit, still $255 today, paid for the funeral but was not enough for flowers.

Michael De Rosa

Michael De Rosa is a writer from Wallingford, PA, who retired as a professor (emeritus) of chemistry at Penn State Brandywine. Interests are travel, photography, and birding. The writer has published poetry in Ariel Chart, Trouvaille Review, and Academy of the Heart And Mind. 

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post