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Tommy's Tales: Smokin' Tanks

My grandfather smoked like a chimney all his life. There came a time when all the smoking started to catch up with him. He was short of breath and had difficulty walking short distances. With a lot of pushing and nagging from my mother and grandmother, he gave in and went to see a pulmonologist, who very quickly diagnosed him with emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. So, he started to use a nebulizer twice a day, took steroids, and carried an inhaler with him at all times, but despite this serious diagnosis, Grandpa continued to smoke.

You had to approach my grandfather in a certain way when it came to cigarettes and that was "not at all". If you tried to convince him that it was only hurting him or that it was gross or that the smoke was bothering you, he would say, "Would you leave me the hell alone with the smoking please?" He would argue with my grandmother on a daily basis about his smoking habits. Now that I think about it, Cigarettes had become a kind of problematic character in our family. Gramma talked and yelled about Cigarettes so frequently that you would think Cigarettes stood a chance at being cut off from the Tricarico inheritance one day.

As time went on, Grandpa's pulmonologist recommended that he use oxygen. He was appalled that the doctor would even suggest it - like it was some kind of an insult. Now that I'm older and have more life experience, I understand it was because my grandfather was so strong willed and independent that he didn't want to admit that he had limitations and had to rely on something outside of himself to survive. My grandfather had worked, in some capacity, from the time he was 9-years-old all the way into his 70s. He went somewhere every day, earned a little bit of cash here and there, and either used it for his family or stuffed it in the wall or under his bed.

So, rather than accept that he needed the oxygen, he continued to push himself until he couldn't walk the length of his own apartment without having to sit down. My mom finally convinced him to get the damn oxygen. Let's say he called the doctor on a Monday - he had the oxygen delivered by Thursday. It came in a shipment of about 6 little tanks that fit in a sling that he could carry around with him. Initially he was angry at the oxygen, but he stopped complaining once he realized that it was helpful. Did he end his relationship with Cigarettes, though?

No, he did not. In fact, Cigarettes was causing even more of a problem now that there was a steady flow of flammable gas attached directly to my grandfather's face.

Eventually he got to the point where he had to wear the oxygen at night, so he got an enormous machine, called a concentrator, that he wore when he was sleeping. The doctor ordered a large back-up tank of oxygen that he could use in the event of a power outage. Up until the arrival of this large tank, Grandpa would wear the portable oxygen whenever he decided it was time for a rendezvous with Cigarettes.

I hope you can see the problem here. First of all, he was on oxygen because he couldn't breathe from so many years of smoking. Now think about this:

  1. You have to use fire to light a cigarette.

  2. The cigarette stays lit.

  3. Oxygen is highly flammable.

  4. There was a nasal canula emitting a steady stream of oxygen into my grandfather's nose while he held a burning stick in his mouth.

He could have potentially blown up the entire friggin' house and everyone in it. That's an obvious problem, right?

Apparently not!

The problem as my grandfather saw it, was that he was going through too many small oxygen tanks and he needed to reserve them for when he had to leave the house. So, he had my mother order 150-foot-long tubing that he could hook up to the big oxygen tank in the living room while he smoked by the windows in the dining room, on the opposite side of the apartment. One summer, we actually did have a blackout and he had to use the big tank because the concentrator was out of commission. When we went upstairs to check on my grandparents to see how they were faring, we found Grandpa sitting on the hot plastic couch wearing his oxygen while Gramma was in a chair, next to the big tank, holding a candle as she tried to figure out the settings. It's a miracle that the house is still standing.

Cigarettes, Oxygen, and Grandpa were in a complicated relationship. Whenever my grandfather went out during the day, he would always bring Cigarettes along for the ride to make sure they never felt left out. He carried on like this for a year or two, thinking that his doctor would never find out that he was still involved with Cigarettes.

Yes, of course his clothing smelled like smoke! His hair smelled like smoke! It was obvious that he smoked! The doctor probably knew that he was, at least, sneaking a few here and there. I don't think that ever occurred to him, though.

And then one day, while he was at the local vegetable store, he literally bumped into his pulmonologist just as he was ending a meeting with Cigarettes. She didn't say anything. She smiled and continued on her way into the store for her tomatoes. Grandpa decided to forgo his shopping trip, got back into the car, and headed home. As it happens, he had an appointment with her for that very same week. My mom went along with him as she always did and reported that he took the tongue-lashing from the doctor like a champ. The hope was that he would see the error of his ways and give up smoking once and for all now his doctor knew what he was up to.

Nope. Not my grandfather. He was the epitome of testa dura (stubborn, hard-headed). As soon as the doctor left the room, he turned to my mother, and said, "You believe the nerve of that bitch? She can stick it right in her ass."

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