Cigarettes were on the menu for a holiday meal aboard USS Ranger. [Courtesy of Linda Russell]

CARDINAL ESTATES — I met Robert in Columbia, S.C., in 1960. He had just joined the Navy after serving in the South Carolina Army National Guard. His mom noticed how thin he looked in most of the pictures he sent back to us from his first deployment. She asked me, when I wrote to Robert, to make sure he was eating properly. Moms always worry about things like that when their babies leave home.

He sent back the Fourth of July menu from his ship. I still have that menu, which included cigarettes listed as part of the meal — along with a Pall Mall cigarette pack with a sticker with the Department of the Navy seal on it.

 I married Robert on Jan. 5, 1963, and we headed out the next day towing a small U-Haul trailer with everything we owned to Pensacola, Fla., home of the Blue Angels. Robert was stationed aboard USS Lexington. So began my life as a military spouse and wife of a smoker. Ten months later our son was born. After many deployments, homecomings — trying to keep our son out of the water for both of those — and moves, we chose to make the Tidewater area our home.

Of course, the smoking continued. I remember once our son opened a whole carton of cigarettes, took a ruler and measured half way down, drew a red circle around all the cigarettes, then tried to stuff them all back in the empty packs. He had seen the advertisements to do this. Dad was only supposed to smoke to the red line, and, eventually, he would stop smoking.

When our son was 11, Robert neared retirement age and decided we should have another baby. The next year, on Mother’s Day, our beautiful baby girl was born. When she was 2 years old, she was diagnosed as a severe asthmatic. Our son also developed asthma later in his life. Robert always blamed himself because of his smoking.

Robert retired in November 1983, and he began making up for all the lost time and “fun” we had missed while he was away. Later, our children would choose to buy homes in our neighborhood. In the spring of 1990, Robert started having problems with his bladder. He was 51. He was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma. 

Over the rest of the year, four cancerous tumors were removed from his bladder. Doctors said it would be best to remove the bladder, prostate and the cancerous part of the ureters.

After admitting Robert into the hospital and getting him settled in, I decided to come home to check on the kids, now 28 and 16, both waiting for updates on Dad. 

I kissed Robert on the forehead and assured him that we would be back the next morning. I heard him sobbing when I reached to open the door to leave. I went back and crawled into bed with him. I held him until he fell asleep.

Being a chronic smoker, Robert’s lung capacity diminished. With lower levels of oxygen in his blood, his muscles tired very quickly. In a few short years, he required oxygen 24 hours a day. He would be diagnosed with Staghorn Calculus of the left kidney. There were many operations trying to break up or remove the stones. Once, he was even placed in a medically-induced coma for nine days because of a severe kidney infection.

Robert was very excited when our daughter announced that she was pregnant with our second grandchild. The birth of our first grandson was in October 1994. If we had known how much fun grandchildren were, we joked, we would have had them first. Our second would be a girl and the due date was on Robert’s birthday — Dec. 26, 2004.

On Jan. 7, 2005, I woke to find Robert in pain and his bag mixed with blood and stones. There was an abscess on his stomach. His fingernails were turning blue. He had an infection in the lower stomach, his right side, which burst open when he coughed after checking into the ER.

In September 2005, Robert wanted his nebulizer. He only took a partial treatment, and he asked for a cigarette. His breathing seemed quieter than usual, so I got up to check on him. Through the window I could see our son coming up the driveway. I called to him. He gave his dad CPR, and I called 911. They were very prompt, but Robert had died of a heart attack due to emphysema.

We buried Robert on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005. As we entered the cemetery at noon, the Blue Angles flew over us. Later, everyone asked how I arranged for that to happen. They just happened to be practicing for an air show. 

Robert and I started our life together with the Blue Angels, and we ended it with them.

The American Cancer Society offers information about quitting smoking via cancer.org.

© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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