My father is 77 years old. After over 50 years of enthusiastic smoking, he has finally been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. I’m 37 years old, and since I can remember I have worried that this day would come. He loves to talk about himself, so he calls me and goes on and on with the latest updates, and how he is sure the next round of treatments will cure him. (The five-year survival rate for people with his diagnosis is 1 percent.)
Beginning when I was a small child, I tried to get him to quit by using persuasion, anger, heartfelt letters, throwing out his cigarettes, even family therapy a few years ago, all to no avail. He would often get angry and defensive and even called me “selfish” for describing how his smoking affected me. I’m fed up and having a hard time mustering sympathy for his self-inflicted disease. And he is still smoking!
Part of me feels that I should be a loving and supportive daughter to my ill father. But my feelings are so clouded by anger that he has chosen cigarettes over his health and more years with his family that I don’t feel like responding with concern and good wishes. Is there anything to do but swallow my feelings and feign polite concern?
— Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, today the American male’s life expectancy at birth is just over 76 years. So while I understand you feel your father’s inability to face down his addiction robbed you of more time with him, you should recognize he has lived a full lifespan. Since you are approaching middle age yourself, if you take a mental survey of your friends, I’m sure you’ll note there are already some who didn’t get as many years with their fathers as you have had with yours. As time goes on, you will see many more of your friends caring for parents whose final years are an agonizing slide into dementia.
I despise smoking, and thank goodness the rates continue to go down, to less than 20 percent of adults today. But your father came of age in an era when almost half of adults smoked, and that infernal habit has racked up a huge death toll. The statistics make clear that your father will be added to this list soon. But it’s up to you to decide how to spend what time you have left with him. Imagine it’s five years from now and your father is gone.
I doubt you will look back on those last days and be glad you spent them seething with resentment that he couldn’t quit smoking. Angry as you are, try to find a way to open your heart and have some sweet, loving times with your dad, even if they take place outside the hospital while he has a cigarette. There’s no point in his trying to quit now. You know he’ll extinguish his last one soon enough.
Over 20 years ago I had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with my child. She reconciled with her husband and they raised the boy as their own. I have not had any contact with my biological son, at the husband’s request. No one in my family knows I have a secret son. Two weeks ago I found out my niece (my sister’s daughter) is engaged, and the groom to be is none other than my biological son! Prudie, I am livid that my son’s mother and her husband did not stop this relationship in its early stages.
“No, Bobby, you can’t date that girl because she’s you’re biological cousin” is all it would have taken. I contacted the woman and she swore she didn’t know our son was marrying my niece since my niece has a different last name. I asked her what she planned to do to stop the wedding and she said she’s doing nothing! Our son doesn’t know anything and according to her, cousin marriage is harmless!
Prudie, how do I bring this up with my niece and her parents? I have never had any contact with my son and I don’t think I should approach him about it. He doesn’t know his father is not his biological father. I don’t want my niece to live in incest because of my past mistake, Please help.
— Secret Dad
This is an opportunity to repeat my frequent reassurance to fathers: Dads, a statistically significant percentage of you actually have sired the children you think are yours. There’s no reason to doubt the mother of the groom when she says she didn’t realize the bride was related to you, especially if there’s been no big family gathering to celebrate the impending nuptials. You think you have a simple, easy way for the mother of the groom to stop the romance by saying, “Bobby, your father is not your father, and your fiancée is your cousin!” But if you think this through, explaining all this will entirely upend his family, and now yours, and at this late date in the wedding planning you can understand that the parents want to stick with their original plan to keep quiet about Bobby’s biology.
I do think that people are entitled to know their origins and keeping these secrets has the potential for blowing up, as you are now seeing. But as it stands only three people know you’re the biological father of the boy, and while it may take all your will power, I think it should remain that way.
Cousin marriage is common in much of the world and I think the remaining laws against it in this country should be repealed. Yes, there is an elevated risk of passing on genetic disorders, but it absolute terms it is very small. Two young people are in love and planning to make a life together. I think you should let that be.
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