I remember navigating the perilous parking lots of Randhurst Mall with my father as a child. He’d sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles whenever cars got too close, a gentle reminder to hold his hand. I trusted him because he was a certified crossing guard in grammar school, “an expert in pedestrian safety and playground traffic control,” as he told it.
I also remember my father teaching me how to drive in the parking lot of our favorite restaurant, the Prime Minister, before the lunch crowd arrived. I had plenty to learn. A few minutes into my first lesson, the car stalled because I wasn’t giving it enough gas.
Of course, hazards aren’t confined to parking lots. Life is full of obstacles both visible and invisible. Sometimes we block our own paths to freedom. We overeat, drink too much, abuse drugs. Unhealthy coping strategies compound our pain.
I remember watching my father slowly kill himself with cigarettes—two packs of Pall Mall or Chesterfield per day. I begged him to stop. He said he would. He never did.
Our house smelled musty all the time because he refused to smoke outside. Our living room drapes turned yellow. There were burn holes on the carpet in front of his favorite chair.
My mother and I suffered breathing problems and sinus infections. When I showed up smelling like smoke at the doctor’s office one day, a concerned nurse told me to quit while I was still young. Embarrassed, I told her I never smoked, but my father did. She said I was basically smoking too, just by living with him.
When my father sang that Beatles song in the Randhurst parking lot, he was already thinking about his next cigarette. Thirty minutes into every movie we saw, he left the theater for a drag. Thirty minutes later, he left again. I had to explain everything he missed.
The steering wheel of his Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was so sticky I had to wash my hands when we got home. After my first lesson, I asked if I should empty the car’s ashtray because it was so full. He told me to wait until the ashes cooled.
My father smoked for fifty-five years. I was alive during the final twenty-five. His powerlessness to quit led me to question how much control I really have in my life.
The last time my father rode in a car, my mother was driving us to the hospital. I sat next to him in the backseat, holding his hand as he struggled to breathe. When we entered the emergency room, I asked a security guard for a wheelchair.
“I think I have emphysema,” my father told a nurse. He died twelve hours later.
I love my father dearly. I just wish I could’ve saved him from himself.