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Gemstones — a Commentary

HOST INTRO: When Ali Swenson thinks of memories with her dad, it usually takes her on a trip to the mountains.

SWENSON: When I was little, my dad used to take my sister and me from our home in Seattle to the Cascade Mountains. He’d pull out boxes he made out of wood and chicken wire, and we’d hike out to a creek. We’d grab fistfuls of rocks, toss them in the boxes and swish them around in the icy water to rinse off the dirt. Then, we’d pick out a rock and my dad would shine his flashlight. If the stone glowed red and went translucent like a crystal, that meant we’d found a garnet.

At the end of the day we’d walk back to the car, relaxed and happy, toting Ziploc bags full of the red gemstones. Then my dad would pull out a pack of cigarettes and light one up. I’d hold my breath and stew silently the whole car ride home. My dad always told me smoking is bad for you. So I didn’t understand why he couldn’t stop.

My dad smoked my whole life. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t at least a little mad at him about it. I felt like the cigarette burning in his hand was ruining every good memory we had together. He was the most supportive parent on the sidelines of my soccer games. He screamed louder than anyone. But when I ran off the field and hugged him, his clothes would smell like tobacco.

I begged him to quit. And he would, for a while. But then a few weeks later, I would see a new pack in his glove compartment.

One time, my sister and I ripped up scraps of paper and wrote tiny “No Smoking” signs. We rolled them up and stuck them in the carton next to his cigarettes. He tried really hard to quit that time. But he couldn’t do it. And somehow, I felt like I had failed him.

When I was 15, my friend and I wanted to watch 4th of July fireworks from the roof. My dad brought blankets up for us, but when he was climbing down the ladder his foot slipped and he fell. It was just a few feet to the ground but he was still in pain a few days later, so he went to the doctor. When they found out he smoked, they ordered tests. And then more tests. It was a hot summer, and everyone was outside swimming. But we spent the week shivering in the artificial cold of hospital air conditioning. That was when we found out my dad had stage IV lung cancer.

During chemo, family friends would visit and reminisce about his crazy adventures. The time he hopped freight trains all the way from Minnesota to Seattle. The time he carried his 60-pound Irish Setter down a mountain. But now he was sick. Before long, he couldn’t even lift his oxygen tank. Six months later, he died.

That was nine years ago. I still hate the smell of tobacco.

It can be hard to forgive parents for their mistakes, especially mistakes that take them away from us. But I think at some point in our lives we realize our moms and dads weren’t manufactured in a lab solely to be our parents. They’re people — with their own histories and experiences and problems.

My dad had his. And so now, when I think back to memories with my dad, the wafting smell of cigarette smoke doesn’t persist the way I once worried it would. In fact I don’t really think about that at all. I just remember how he taught me to find gemstones in the dirt.

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