By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Joe Konrath (right) with his mom Laura and brother Mike.

Joe Konrath (right) with his mom Laura and brother Mike. (Photo courtesy of Joe Konrath)

Writer Joe Konrath’s mother had five strokes, two heart attacks and numerous other health problems, but she still didn’t stop smoking. In fact, she kept smoking as long as she could before she died.

Laura Konrath’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune drew widespread attention because her family listed cigarettes themselves as her cause of death:

“On January 11, at the age of 71, Laura Jean Konrath lost her battle with cigarettes,” the obituary began.

Joe Konrath, a Chicago-based author of more than 30 novels, wrote the following account of his mother’s addiction to tobacco — a leading preventable cause of death — describing the agony it caused her and the family:

I tried to get Mom to quit for as long as I can remember. I recall pleading with her to stop when I was six or seven, trapped in the car with her on cold winter days with only a sliver of fresh air coming in through the barely cracked window.

Our family watched my grandfather die of lung cancer — he smoked too. It was an ugly way to go. But it didn’t deter my mother from smoking. She said, many times, “Everyone has to die of something.”

But Grandpa had it easy by comparison. Her terrible death made his look peaceful.

***

My son used to visit Mom once a week and spend the night, until he was 9 and couldn’t take the smoke anymore. My mother never visited my brother or her granddaughter. She loved them dearly, but a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride was too long to go without a cigarette.

When we visited her apartment, we had to take showers and wash our clothes afterward because the cigarette smell was so bad. We had to throw away the cookies she baked because they reeked of smoke. My mother always took pride in her nice things — expensive furniture, a Persian rug, artwork. But when she died, we got rid of nearly all her belongings, because the smoke stench was impossible to remove. It stained her watercolor paintings yellow, seeping through their glass frames. Her white walls had turned brown. You could touch them with your finger and feel the sticky tar.

When she had the first stroke, Mom spent the night on the floor of her apartment, unable to get back up. Even though she had a medical alert necklace, she didn’t press the button because she didn’t want paramedics to break through her door.

At the hospital, she left against doctor’s orders because they wouldn’t let her smoke. Back at home, she continued to smoke and continued to have mini-strokes. Finally, after she couldn’t get off her couch for two days straight, I called 911 even as she begged me not to.

It wasn’t that she feared the hospital. She just wasn’t ready to give up cigarettes.

She chain-smoked until the paramedics carried her off.

***

Mom had at least five strokes and two heart attacks. In her first few weeks of hospitalization, we thought rehab was a possibility. But the strokes didn’t let up. She kept getting worse until she was totally paralyzed on the left side and blind in one eye. She couldn’t swallow because half of her throat muscles didn’t work, and she aspirated liquids, food and her own saliva. The result was chronic pneumonia that antibiotics couldn’t cure.

A CT of her arteries showed black lines throughout her body, with occasional slivers of white. We asked if the white was where she had blockages. No, those were the few spots where she still had circulation. Her doctors had no idea how she was still alive.

She was in constant pain — not just from the stroke, but because the plaque in her arteries restricted her circulation so severely. Three of her coronary arteries were blocked. Her left carotid was 100 percent occluded, and the right was 70 percent. Plaque kept breaking off and getting lodged in her brain, killing her brain cells. That resulted in delusions and hallucinations; bursts of hostility and paranoia, talking nonsense and making outrageous and hurtful accusations.

“You put me here,” she would scream at me.

“No, Mom,” I said through my tears. “Smoking put you here.”

***

My mom gave monthly to five charities. She was smart and had a good sense of humor. She was a world traveler, loved crossword puzzles and was a constant source of encouragement when I began my writing career. She was always there for her family, whether it was with advice, emotional support or an interest-free loan when my brother and I were out of school.

Everyone should be able to choose what they do with their bodies. But we need to understand the consequences — for ourselves, and for our friends and families. Seventy-one is too young to die, and no one should suffer a death that is entirely preventable.

Before her extended illness, my mother made me power of attorney for her healthcare and finances. Signing the paper to put her in hospice was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

I still resent her for it.

Smoking was her choice. But she made the consequences of her smoking my choice.

I could never, ever do that to my children.

Instead of a relatively quick and dignified death, Laura Konrath slowly and painfully disappeared, losing her body and her mind, over three hellish months.

And her family had to witness that. And it was horrible.

And her children had to make her healthcare and financial decisions. And it was horrible.

And she lost her life, and we lost her. And it was horrible.

I was crying when I wrote her obituary. And I’m crying again as I write this.

I wish I didn’t have to write any of it.

I just want my mom back.