My dad just quit smoking after 64 years.
He did it cold turkey, in a houseful of smokers.
The turning point was when he was struck with a horrible case of pneumonia, but – it ends up – there’s a lot more to it.
My dad smoked three packs a day before he quit. He doesn’t consider what he’s done impressive. "I was an idiot for smoking for all of these years," he said.
My father, Sidney Sodos, is a well-known, accomplished attorney. His love of the law fuels his active work schedule. He turns 79 next week.
Dad was always an unapologetic smoker. When clients coughed and complained in his smoggy office, he told them to get another lawyer.
"It was easy for me to say that because I had plenty of clients. If you are good at what you do, they let go of all the exceptions."
Smoking was always a part of my life, despite being an excessively vocal non-smoker.
I was one of those ’70s kids who endured traveling in a station wagon with both of my parents smoking, windows up.
Despite desperate pleas to stop from my older sister and me, they wouldn’t budge.
"We all knew it was bad - bad for our babies, bad for us, but we did it anyway," he said. "We brought children into our lives. I should have been more concerned. I had my values all screwed up. For me, that was my own selfishness. I was too weak and I didn’t have the conviction to stop. I convinced myself I wasn’t going to make my girls sick just because I was blowing smoke in the air. I was so selfish to those closest to me. I have a lot of regrets in my life, and that is a big one. In the end, I think my kids might have been closer to me if I hadn’t smoked. But I never pretended I was a perfect man."
My mom ended up quitting smoking in the ’90s. Dad kept it up all the way through his third marriage.
Now with the help of his wife, he has finally quit.
"Life is nothing but a bunch of distractions, "he explained. As you grow older, the distractions become more severe. But you also realize you have choices."
A smoker since he was 15 years old, things really ramped up when he was in college. By the time he was in law school at UW-Madison, he saw nearly everyone smoking. "Even the tree-huggers talking about ecology – they smoked, too," he noted.
Sid Sodos, circa 1953, as a teenager. It was around this time that the future lawyer started to smoke cigarettes.
"It was the cool thing to do. Frank Sinatra smoked, Elvis Presley was the big deal - it was the beginning of rock and roll. They smoked, so we did, too. Everyone around me smoked."
My dad tried to quit a few times in his life, but it didn’t take. Finally at his 65th birthday party, he noticed that most of the guests weren’t smoking. "I felt funny lighting up," he said. "These people went out of their way to pay their respects to me, and I was blowing smoke in their faces. It was not a nice thing to do. "
Sometime later, his doctor warned him a lifetime of smoking would most assuredly lead to a violent death. "He guaranteed me a brutal death. So why did I keep doing it? I’m a horse’s ass. I am a pompous assh*le who thinks he has a solution to everything in the world."
Then pneumonia struck just after the New Year. "I was sitting on the couch, trying to breathe." he said. "I was gasping for breath, I could have dropped for the count right then and there. Somehow, I was able to put on my sleep apnea mask. I truly believe that machine saved my life. And then I knew, I need to stop being so selfish to my family and all my loved ones. Not to mention, I still was hoping for a death that would be a little more pleasant."
I spoke to my father that night by phone. He doesn’t remember the call. He could hardly form a sentence amidst his deep heaves and panicked gulps for air. I cried myself to sleep, just knowing in my soul he may not make it through the night.
The next morning, he tossed the cigarettes (Pall Malls bought by the carton, all stacked up around his house). "I said to myself, ‘You are quitting. This is it. You will never smoke another cigarette again. This is where it ends and it ends now.’"
Oddly, my dad doesn’t really believe that nicotine addiction fueled his habit. "I don’t care about addiction," he said. "It’s all about getting over the habit, not the addiction. Breaking the habit is what’s hard to change, not getting off the drug."
Part of breaking the habit was becoming a Candy Crush fanatic. For a man who, just a few years ago, decried all modern cell phone technology, he now brags he’s played 1,617 Candy Crush games. To mimic what they’ve been doing for a lifetime, he and his wife blow through plastic drinking straws. They are also repainting the walls and steam-cleaning the carpets of their home.
During the past three months of living smoke-free, my father is sleeping better, his throat and chest feel clearer, and he believes his lungs are regenerating.
"I smell things I have never smelled before. Dexterity in my left hand has suddenly improved. My body is more sensitive. I am sleeping like a baby."
His wife, Shelly, and her mother are also longtime smokers. At first he told them they could keep smoking in the house because he didn’t want to be a hypocrite. But when his wife’s mother’s doctor strongly recommended that she stop smoking, he asked them to use the garage as their smoking lounge. Shelly has dramatically cut down and is rapidly on her way to quitting.
But for three months, he stopped smoking while the others puffed away. I told him I imagined it must be like a heroin addict trying to quit in a crack house.
He laughed but told me the act of quitting prompted deeper deliberations.
"I think the human will is a lot stronger than any of us know, but we play that down because we’re told to be victims. We should be controlling our own destiny. "
At the very least, my father tells me he’s pretty sure he’s bought some additional time on earth. "At least one or two years, and that’s a lot of life."
For me, my dad has taught me it is never too late to change your ways, no matter how ingrained they have become. And even though some of those smoke-filled years were tough for us, I could not be prouder of my father, or love him any more.
Samara Sodos is a Milwaukee native, UW-Madison grad and former TV news reporter who covered everything from major political campaigns and executions to deadly hurricanes and sinkholes.
She is trying to evolve after officially not having an opinion on anything for nearly 20 years. Sam is currently a public relations consultant and can be followed at @samarasodos.