MY MOTHER THROUGH THE SMOKE – MARGARET ANNE (HENNESSY) SYSKA (1935-1989)

1985 celebrating Mom’s first Christmas at Cedar Lane Rehabilitation Center in Waterbury CT.  At the time, we were still optimistic her therapists could wean her from that machine.  Instead, she spent 4 years, 3 months and 2 days attached to a respirator. 

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 there was no skype, facetime, email, texting nor any digital form of communication.  Mom’s tracheotomy prevented her from talking on the phone. Months turned into years in the hospital which atrophied her muscles and made letter writing difficult and so she basically lived for our visits.  Visiting was hard, time consuming and emotionally draining. Every trip ended with us leaving and her staying, knowing after the first year or so, that she wasn’t coming home, she would never sit at the kitchen table again, laugh or talk, 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, Bob, 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.

Sherry, Peg and Don

My mother, Margaret Anne Hennessy, who everyone called Peg or Peggy, was the fourth child born 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.

In 1954, her father, Thomas Hennessy passed away due to  heart disease, although when she got older my mother suspected her father’s heart condition was caused or exacerbated by smoking.  Just about everyone smoked back then and, for the most part, people 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.

Peggy’s mother and my grandma, Margaret (Cox) Hennessy, nicknamed Flo, was hospitalized in 1956. In the 2 previous years, Flo had lost her husband, mother and sister, leaving the burden of caring for her family completely on Flo’s shoulders.  It was a burden she was not equipped to handle.  I don’t know the diagnosis that led to her hospital admission, but it was something akin to a nervous breakdown. Flo remained in the hospital for the next 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 Philippines.

Stan, Scott, Peggy in 1963
Peggy married Stan Syska on October 20, 1962.  My brother Scott was born in 1963, my sister, Suzy, in 1965 and I came along 13 months after that.  Years later, I came to understand how chaotic a time that was for Mom, when my own twins were born and I found myself with 4 children 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.

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 nurse’s aid, slept during the day and took care of us in the afternoons and evenings.

Stan Syska, Tom Hennessy & Peggy (Hennessy) Syska- with cigarettes in hand

I don’t know exactly when Mom was diagnosed with Emphysema, but she told us kids in 1981 when she began oxygen therapy at home.  We had this little machine in the corner of the living room that converted the air to 98% oxygen which meant mom could get the oxygen she needed with many less breaths.  This was necessary because emphysema destroys the air sacs in a person’s lungs and that puts a large strain on the heart as well.  Eventually, oxygen and medications weren’t enough. Mom went into cardiac arrest and was put on a respirator. I would need a much longer forum to tell you about the course of her disease, how it affected all our lives and the decisions my sister, brother and I had to make. 

 

One thing I learned in my research though is that the typical onset of Emphysema symptoms occurs when a person is in their 60’s or 70’s even for smokers. I suspect my mother may have had a genetic condition called AAT deficiency (see picture on  right) which causes early onset empysema.  Today you can be tested to see if you have this deficiency or are a carrier of the gene. 

In 1985 after going on a respirator and spending several months in the hospital, Mom was transferred to Cedar Lane Rehabilitation Center in Waterbury, CT where she would spend the rest of her life.  We did our best to make it seem normal, but there is nothing normal about a 49 year old woman being confined to a hospital and attached to a machine.

On April 25, 1989, my brother and his wife had their first child, Kevin. When Kevin was almost two months old, they brought him to Cedar Lane where Mom was delighted to cradle him in her arms. All the nurses came in the room and Peggy got to proudly show off her grandson. I wish I could have been there to see her face.  And then my mother knew it was time to go.  Peg simply stopped eating or drinking and, with a do not resuscitate order, it was only a matter of time until she passed away on July 27, 1989.

As one of her many legacies, my mother had 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.  

PART II:  THE MARKETING OF TERMINAL DISEASE

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

Mom started smoking in 1950 at just 15 years old.  It’s hard
to imagine a time when people didn’t know smoking was harmful. 
To help illustrate what that era was like, I found 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.

Other ads made outlandish claims such as “more doctors smoke Camel” or cigarettes make you thin.  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 full flavor. 

 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 cigar
ettes 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.

Update:  According to the CDC, cigarette smoking in the US is at an all time low of 15.7% of high school students and 17.8% of adults.  However, smoking is shockingly high in Asian countries.  According to the World Health Organization, in 2015 76% of the Indonesian population 15 and older were smokers.  Other alarming statistics reported by WHO indicate large portions of the populations of
many countries are lighting up including  70% in Jordan, 60% in Sierra Leone, 59% in Russia, 53
% in both Cuba & Greece, 50% in Egypt, 49% in the Ukraine, 47% in China and Vietnam, 43% in Congo, Malaysia, Phillipines & Serbia.  

The WHO report of all countries can be accessed from this link  http://gamapserver.who.int/gho/interactive_charts/tobacco/use/atlas.html

Multinational tobacco companies continue to market, sell and profit from a product that is known to cause a host of serious, debilitating diseases that lead to horrid, premature death.  According to an ICIJ report,   “The industry’s product is the world’s single-largest preventable cause of death. Between 2005 and 2030, tobacco-related illnesses will claim as many as 176 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.”  

Access the ICIJ report here:  https://www.icij.org/project/smoke-screen-big-tobaccos-global-lobbying/tobacco-lobby-goes-global

 

 

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