Leavitt: What do you do after you kill your mother?

Jerry and Ritta Leavitt, the columnist’s parents, in 1971.

I killed my mother.

My friends argue with me when I say that. They say it’s not true, that what happened was not my fault. But it is true, and it was my fault. And I live with that knowledge every day.

It happened in 2004. My father, Jerry Leavitt, was dying of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and it was rough on me and Mom. Especially her. Ritta Leavitt took care of him in that little condo of theirs for years, until it wasn’t safe anymore. Then we put him in a nursing home about two miles away.


It did not get much easier for her. Every morning, six days a week, she took a bus to the nursing home, to spend all day with her husband, who did not know her.

I spoke to her at length every day, and she was usually cheerful. One day, she asked me a question I won’t forget.

“Do you think it would be OK if I started smoking again? I think it would make me feel better.”

She hadn’t smoked in decades. A few years after she quit, she didn’t crave cigarettes anymore. But she knew that nicotine stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, and tends to calm smokers, because I had told her.

Since my father’s illness, she had made few important decisions without consulting me. This was just another one.

We talked about the risks, and eventually I said, “I wouldn’t, if I were you. But if you really want to, who am I to say?

“At your age, I don’t know how much difference it makes.” We both laughed.

She bought a pack the next day.

Less than two years later, I was sitting with her in the hospital, waiting for the results of an X-ray. She had been getting a lot of pain in her back.

The X-ray showed little tumors all over her liver.

Within a few days, we knew that her lungs were riddled, too.

She was 82, but in good health, when I gave her the green light to smoke, and by 84, her home was a hospital.

The pain got progressively worse, and it was hard to watch. Her doctor kept telling me that it was unfair to let her hurt so much.

“A little bit more morphine under the tongue, and she’ll drift off, and not come back,” the doctor said.

Finally, I asked her what she wanted, and she said she wanted to go. I called my sister Lee, and told her that her mother didn’t care to live any more.

That evening, Mom was unconscious. The morphine went under her tongue, and she died in a couple of minutes.

So I had killed her not once, but twice.

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Ritta Leavitt had started smoking in 1934 when she was 12, 14 years after Illinois reduced the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 16. Yes, reduced.

Tobacco companies, trying to get customers addicted earlier, had lobbied hard for such changes all across the country, and many states relented. At the same time, cigarettes were marketed to children.

My Mom said that at the time, she’d thought, if it’s OK to smoke at 16, what difference if you start a little sooner?

That’s because children have their own special kind of logic. If you’ve ever had any around the house, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Anecdotal information that smoking is bad for health had been clear enough in 1895 that 15 states had banned smoking. Tobacco industry lobbying cleared that up relatively quickly.

The first statistical evidence linking smoking to lung cancer was reported in 1929.

The smoking age in Illinois wasn’t raised back to 18 until 1964.

Currently, according to the American Lung Association in Greater Chicago, one in five Illinois high school students smokes.

Last year, the state legislature passed a law to make it illegal to sell tobacco products to those under 21. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it, saying young smokers would just get supplied elsewhere, and the state would lose the tax revenue. The loss was estimated at $6 to $8 million annually.

An Illinois Senate committee voted a new Tobacco 21 law to the Senate floor Feb. 5.

Opponents, all Republicans, said they wanted a bill that, instead of just regulating tobacco sellers, made it illegal for minors to possess smoking products, as previous laws have.

Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) the sponsor, said she preferred a new law that didn’t seek to introduce teens and adolescents to the criminal justice system for the crime of smoking a cigarette.

Six other states now have similar 21-year-old age limits, as a result of recent anti-tobacco activism, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The organization says that 95 percent of smokers start before the age of 21.

Tobacco industry folks have said that if you can join the Army to fight for your country at 18, why shouldn’t you be allowed the privilege to decide whether you should do other adult things, like smoking?

I understand the concept, but it’s a logical fallacy.

Enlistment is not necessarily an adult occupation.

The reason that the age of legal enlistment is still so low is that when young, you’re likely not smart enough to realize that, patriotism aside, joining the service is a questionable career choice.

Yes, there are benefits, but the pay is generally low, and once you start, you’ve got a long time to wait before you’re free to quit and try a different career path. And the possibility of sudden premature death or significant, life-altering injury is high.

Not coincidentally, tobacco use has often traveled along with the military. Congress tried to ban smoking in the services in 1917, but the tobacco industry shills screamed, and convinced enough people that the calming effects of cigarettes were necessary at the front.

Later, they solicited the testimony from doctors for ads claiming one cigarette or another was less irritating to throats. Among the first brands to do this were Lucky Strike and Camel. I used to smoke both of those, and I doubt it.

Now, manufacturers of vaping equipment say their products are better for you than regular smoking, and are a great way to quit.

If they’re so good for quitting, let them be available by prescription. Otherwise, I’m pretty suspicious of a nicotine-delivery system that features more kid-friendly flavors than a grocery store’s cereal aisle.

Before World War I ended, cigarettes were added to soldiers’ rations, at U.S. government expense. Cigarettes were supplied free to soldiers through 1986.

Mom was in the World War II Navy, but not in combat, so she didn’t get her smokes free. They were very cheap, however.

They were almost as cheap about 20 years after her enlistment, when I used to pick up her weekly carton at Sullivan’s tavern, and only had to bring a note and $2. She was hooked for another 10 years or so.

Despite the rises in price, and the heavy sin taxes, she was happy to be smoking again in 2004.

“I really missed this,” she said.

And then she got sick, and then she was dead.

I can’t undo what I did. But I can try to make sure she didn’t die in vain.

When I am walking, it often takes me longer to get where I’m going than other people, because when folks come out of buildings clutching their lighter and one cigarette, I stop to tell them about Ritta Leavitt.

“It is hard to die of lung cancer,” I tell them. “It is hard to watch someone you love die, too.

“Who will sit next to your hospital bed as you writhe in pain? Your husband? Your child?

“You should make arrangements now.

“It might be difficult to find someone willing to slip that last dose of morphine under your tongue.”

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