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So over the weekend, Peter Jennings died of lung cancer. I’ve read the tributes and anecdotes about his rich life being cut short. Apparently, he’d a heavy smoker who’d given up the habit years before but returned to it after 9/11. When it was announced in April that he was receiving chemo-therapy treatment, I genuinely hoped that he’d recover.

Why would I hope this for a complete and total stranger? Beyond the very human response of wishing another person good health in times of need, I had a purely selfish motive as well. I wanted Mr. Jennings to live and to use his vast public appeal and media access to tell the public what it really feels like to face what another lung cancer survivor’s doctor described as “the worst death known to mankind” (LA Daily News). I wanted someone with some horsepower to be able to tell the general public about the kind of agony and anguish lung cancer causes. I wanted him to live, to tell the tale. You see my grandfather died of lung cancer in 2000.

Arthur H. Sidelinger wasn’t anyone famous. He was a WWII veteran (Royal Canadian Air Force, and US Marine) and to some extent an itinerant dreamer throughout his life. He was a promoter, a salesman, recovering alcoholic and many other things. To me first and foremost, he was a father figure, and a special friend. He was my sounding board and the vent I could turn to when I didn’t feel I had any other while growing up. He was an avenue of escape that I joyously traveled to over many summers during my adolescent thru college years. He was my cheerleader and my advocate.

After graduating college and heading off to my Air Force career, we gradually drifted apart. The time zones and the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood increasingly sapped my ability to write, call or visit. When I could talk with him or spend time, he was always there with encouragement and patient understanding of how I was trying to avoid the mistakes the world had to offer (and many of which he had made).

My grandfather had a massive heart attack in the 1980’s and a second lesser one in the mid-1990’s. The heart attacks had been brought on by over thirty years of smoking which had weakened his heart and damaged his arteries. With the heart attacks and hospitalization, he went cold turkey and gave up his cigarettes. What he didn’t know, was that the damage went even deeper. In the late 1990’s, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor growing in his left lung. The problem was that the damage to his heart from the previous cardiac had left him too weak for his doctor to operate or for him to receive chemo treatments. The doctors elected to delay surgery in hopes that his heart would be strong enough to survive removing part of his lung. The cancer won the race instead.

I managed to make it to his bedside in Florida shortly before the end. The stout, solid man, whom I’d spent so many years looking up to as a child, and looking towards for wisdom as an adult, was barely a shell. He clung to life despite the agony he described as being terrible. Into my horrified confidence, he described every breath as a self inflicted torture beyond any words. He tried to convey the searing feeling, the intense pressure and the agony that forcing his lungs to work caused. It was beyond my ability to offer him comfort, or fully comprehend this at the time. Emotional shock is sometimes a friend. I can not describe the pain that man endured to hang on for him to see us one last time. He knew it was nearly over, but he grimly hung on through the pain in order to say goodbye to his relatives. Within a few weeks of my visit and following my mother’s, he passed from this world.

About a year later, we scattered his ashes in Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, AZ. This was one of his favorite places on earth and was the last wish he imparted to me. It’s been over 5 years still I climbed out of the canyon and returned home.

To me, lung cancer is not a distant story to be read in the paper or a lament to be viewed on the evening news. It’s a horror that’s destroyed many a life and one very close to my own. So sadly another famous person has passed from its influence. For every famous man or woman who dies in this horrific manner, thousands more expire in obscurity save for but the grace of family and friends who suffer watching a loved one die struggling to get their next breath. I’d hoped that Mr. Jennings had been among the lucky percentage who survives, so he could convey the subtle horror of this disease to the remainder of society..

To my smoking friends, this is not aimed at you at specifically. You have a choice in this potential outcome and I shall not harp upon you one way or the other. Some people talk about smoking as a need or a right, but to me it represents loss and suffering. My tears are my own and I’d like to never have to shed them again for this cause. This was my way of releasing a deeply hidden pain I’ve held since my grandfather’s death. It’s also my way of offering a small memorial to one of the nameless and faceless victims.
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April 2017


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