The problem started about five or six years ago. Most people I know with this affliction have it when they are children and then it lessens in severity as they age, but leave it to me to wait until my waning years to acquire an infirmity that I should have outgrown instead of grown into. I have asthma. Oh, not the full-blown, struggle to inhale, think you’re going to black out, wheezing asthma, but enough to cause shortness of breath and an annoying tight cough, which can’t be relieved by regular cough medicines.
I’ve got my father to thank for it…well really, his father…come to think of it, I shared it with my son too, so there’s enough paternal blame to go around on this one. Heredity seems to have played its part here. My father had to take an early retirement due to respiratory problems brought on by allergens in the workplace. Long before that, his dad (my Grandpa Phillips) was stricken with emphysema, a lung disease far more serious than my touch of bronchial asthma.
I thought about Grandpa recently. I had helped the Lovely Lady with a reception for a friend of ours and was carrying boxes out to the car. The extreme change in temperature from inside the building to the frosty air outside, was enough to bring on another attack and before I knew it, I was straining to breathe. I felt a kinship with Grandpa that I had never thought about before, as I saw him in my mind’s eye, struggling to breathe from the exertion of walking 10 feet across the room. He would stop and lean against a table, or chair, or desk, with his chest heaving, the over-developed chest muscles forcing air in and out of the diseased lungs. I must admit that as a child, I didn’t empathize well. This was just how he had always been in my memory, and I assumed that it was his own fault. Grandpa had been a heavy smoker, first rolling his own and then as the hands became shaky, purchasing them in the pack–his brand of choice, filter-less Camels. A he-man’s cigarette if ever there was one. But for a person predisposed to breathing issues, as seems likely, the habit was a slow killer. I’m not a smoker and my problem doesn’t begin to approach the gravity of his, but just for a few moments this evening, I felt an empathy, a bond with my Grandpa that I never considered when he was living. And, I missed him again.
Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street from me when I was a kid. What a great blessing, to be able to grow up so close to your grandparents that you can run across the street and sit with them on the screened-in front porch, or maybe watch an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” on television with them. Two channels on TV then, with the signal literally coming through the airwaves and being picked up by a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the tiny black & white set. Every time an airplane would approach the local airport (we were in the flight path), the static and wavy lines across the screen would interrupt the program. But the best thing was listening to Grandpa tell stories about people he knew. He loved to talk–even talked about talking…“So, I says to him, says I, …”, was one of my favorite phrases I heard him use when describing a conversation with someone else. If I weren’t such a language snob, I would incorporate that into my own speaking. Maybe it’s best to keep that as a memory instead. But I think I get my penchant for story-telling from him and, from where I’m standing, that’s not a bad legacy. The reader is free to agree or not…
The asthma won’t go away, but I carry an inhaler with me when it flares up and a couple of puffs on it usually relieve the symptoms within a minute or two. I’m not happy to have the problem, but tonight, I’m actually a little grateful for the walk down memory lane. We’ve all got memories that live in our heads and hearts; some sad, like Grandpa’s ultimately fatal affliction, but also some happy ones too, like my memories of life with him so close. There are times when I think it would be great if all our memories were like the latter, but then again, I’m reminded of a song I heard as a teenager which reminded us that hardships make us value the good times more; just as we cherish coming home because we had to be away in the first place. I think memories are often like that, the bittersweet giving way to the heartwarming, actually making the happy occasions seem more bright.
In a day or two, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, another of the memory-fraught times of the year for most of us. I’m going to be remembering my Grandpa’s dinner prayer as we approach this holiday. “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the many blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us…” When I was a boy, it was only remarkable in that the language never changed. As an aging man, now a grandfather myself, the message of those words has lasted well beyond his mortal years and still resonates today.
“Many blessings” indeed.
“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die”
(Thomas Campbell, from his poem “Hallowed Ground”)
Edited from a post originally published in November, 2010.
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.