The Briefcase

My Dad used to carry around a briefcase, long after he was retired.  It had everything in it he needed to stop smoking. There was nicotine gum, the patch, a couple of prescriptions from his doctor for smoking cessation pills, and a package of black jelly beans.  It was all tucked in neat and tidy, and everywhere Dad went, the briefcase went with him.   The briefcase represented his way of “quitting”.   He would talk about quitting.  He would make trips to Walmart to stock up on his nicotine gum.  I would visit and he’d say “I need something out of the briefcase in my office.”  He’d disappear in there but I didn’t really know what he was doing.  Visiting the briefcase.  I think at some point he truly convinced himself that being ready and armed at all times with the tools needed to quit, effectively meant that he quit.  The work was done.  There wasn’t a product on the market left out of his arsenal.  Any day now and he’d be ready.  Replenish the supply, run to Walmart, eat some more jelly beans.  The hard part was over.  The preparation, the training, the grueling work of assembling the necessary mechanisms designed to make the transition of “tapering off” that much easier.  He was always ready to quit.  The briefcase was ever present, fully stocked and sat idly by, waiting for word that “operation quit smoking” would commence.

The briefcase was always ready, but it would become apparent one day that the briefcase was missing a key element.  “Gumption”.  Dad used to love that word.  “Well if a person just had enough gumption, they could do just about anything.”  Gumption is defined as “ability, wisdom, get-up-and-go, good sense, horse sense and spirit”.  The opposite of gumption is foolishness and stupidity.  I told my Dad once that if he didn’t quit smoking, I was positive he would die of a smoking related death.   “I am going to be so mad at you at your funeral and I don’t want to be mad at you when you die.” We only had that conversation once.  I don’t know if he forgot about it but I never did.  After awhile we all stopped talking about him quitting.  There was a silent understanding that the more we brought it up the less likely he would actually quit.  He would try numerous times over the years, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, the briefcase open and active.  The deep biting addiction to nicotine would win the battle each time, as the war raged on.

One day about five years ago Dad went to an appointment for his prostate cancer.  The doctor mulled over the file, and gently put it down.  “Are you still smoking Ken?”  Dad let out a long sigh, and quietly said “yes”.  The file was closed and pushed across the desk.  “Well then this is a moot point.  You’re going to die.”  Dad had seen many doctors over the years who told him to quit smoking.   I would never know why that day held such fierce influence.  He had been told countless times he was going to die.  He would re-arm the briefcase and off he’d go, on vacation, to the golf course or out to dinner, with an absolute mindset that he was quitting.

But even the briefcase couldn’t convince him after that visit.  He told no one of his plan.  He quietly quit smoking on his birthday in 2012.  No nicotine gum, no patches, no trips to Walmart.  He simply quit.  Perhaps it was more than he could bear to have had his life reduced to a “moot point”.  Perhaps the briefcase became immeasurably heavy.  He could no longer carry the weight of preparation.  The rehearsal was over.  The curtain would soon fall, and he would not be denied the final bow.  He found his gumption.

Unfortunately he would soon discover that the fully stocked briefcase had gone unused far too long.  He would not reap the benefits of a smoke free life.  Sixty years of tobacco and nicotine had ravished his body, and his health declined severely.   Depression engulfed him, he suffered insomnia, anxiety and additional lung issues.  His brittle bones would crumble often, requiring multiple procedures.  He was in excruciating pain.  His breath was labored, and the oxygen tank became his best friend.  He often spoke of the American Lung Association’s slogan “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

His life became a series of steps.   He walked from his recliner chair in the living room, approximately ten steps to the kitchen counter.  The counter became a “rest area”.  When he was ready it was ten more steps to the bathroom.  Ten minutes later he would appear at the kitchen counter rest stop again, gasping for breath.  The eventual trip back to his chair would commence.  Nothing else mattered, except breathing.

It was at one of those counter rest stops one day that I had my last meaningful and coherent conversation with him.  I placed my hand on his bony forearm, his skin translucent and wrinkled.  We caught each other’s eyes and he looked defeated.  I desperately needed to revisit the “I will be so mad at you if you die” conversation.  I felt the weight of his defeat and I grabbled his hand.  I needed him to know that his sorrow was piercing and I felt his pain.  In his breathless state, he had forgotten about victory over the briefcase.  “Dad, I know that you are so disappointed.  You did not reap the benefits of quitting.  You got ripped off Dad, because you did it.  You slayed the beast that squeezed the air from your lungs for so long.  It sucks Dad, it sucks so much that you did not get better.  But you quit!  You get to claim the victory!”   Tears pooled in his tired eyes.  He squeezed my hand gently and his lips curled slightly into a tiny smile.  His voice was quiet.  My Dad hated the word “sucks”.  Our eyes met only briefly and he said “Yes it sucks.  And yes, I can claim that.”  I turned my head away, and fought back the tears.  ” I won’t be mad at your funeral.  And even if you hadn’t quit, I wouldn’t be mad, because I saw you carry the briefcase all these years, and I know how hard you tried.  I know how hard…”   Dad passed away in 2015 not long after our conversation at the kitchen counter.

I have briefcases all over my house.  They are filled with acrylic paint bottles and brushes.  One has a typewriter and blank papers.  Another has new shoes, workout clothes and a Rocky Balboa playlist.  They sit unopened.  I am trying so hard.  Sometimes I take one in the car with me on a trip.  Sometimes I open them in my living room, staring in at the contents.  I pick up a piece of paper and put it into the typewriter.  I strike a key.  It sits for weeks.  I close the briefcases and neatly stack them against the wall, where I will see them.  They are strategically placed so I will trip over them.  I want to be reminded that the weight of “the preparation” will eventually become too heavy to bear.  I am my father’s daughter.  I will remember the lesson.  The briefcase is full.  It might be time to open it again.

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