When Your Hero Dies of Lung Cancer


Walt Disney died of lung cancer, leaving an important lesson to my son.

Illustration of a woman with short curly brown hair with glasses and gold hoop earrings.

Everyone’s got a hero, whether it’s a parent, artist, politician or a peacemaker. Maybe your hero is the mailman. For goodness’ sake, he shows up in all kinds of weather. He is reliable and strong. And he brings you special deliveries and goodies (and bills.)

Those of us who’ve been through cancer might look up to our cancer doctors or nurses. Certainly, they are heroic.

Maybe, our hero is a military man or woman in the family.

Once, I was asked by a student who my hero is.

“My hero is Tina Fey,” I answered. “I like her because she’s beautiful, and she can write.” As a woman and a teacher of writing, I value these qualities in a person. And I would add that Tina is hilarious. What’s not to like?

My son’s hero is Walt Disney. As an illustrator of his own picture books, my son loves animation. Years ago, the Akron Public Library was having a book sale. I was browsing through the sale. There, on a table was a huge book about Disney, “The Art of Walt Disney,” a coffee table book that discussed Disney’s biography and his art. The book was written by Christopher Finch, published in 1973 and was 458 pages long. They wanted $25 for it. All the other books were $2 and $5. I bit the bullet and paid the price for the tome. It was entirely worth it.

My son was about 14 years old when I gave him the text. He pored over it, page by page. He absolutely loved it.

Then, the book found itself on a shelf underneath the coffee table. There it sat for years until very recently. My husband, my son and I were having a conversation about family matters (the dog grooming of our pooch, I think) when my son focused on the book, pulled it out from under the table and began to look through it. He happened upon the page where Disney’s death was discussed.

Our son read that Disney died of lung cancer. He’d been a chronic smoker. Disney died on December 15, 1966.

This meant something to my son because of my two breast cancers, only, the fact is, I’d survived.

“If my wife ever takes a puff of cigarettes, I’m going to divorce her,” my son said. This is what my husband said about me. There was only one reason for divorce in my family — smoking. My son was simply repeating what my husband had said.

My husband’s father had died of COPD; he’d smoked nearly all his life. And my husband’s grandmother on his father’s side needed oxygen to breathe. She smoked with one hand and held her oxygen tank in the other. My husband had just seen too much death due to smoking. Early on in our marriage, he’d announced, “If you ever smoke cigarettes, I’ll divorce you.”

Ironically, my husband kept me from getting lung cancer, but I’d gotten two breast cancers on my own.

I guessed I was grateful for him. He kept me from doing something dangerous. Maybe he just didn’t want to kiss a woman with nicotine breath. Or smell the smoke on my clothes and in my hair. Or bury his wife early due to lung cancer.

“If Walt Disney hadn’t smoked,” my son said, “he might had lived into his 80s or 90s.”

“I bet he would have,” I said.

“Just think of what else he would have created,” my husband said.

“Smoking,” said my son, “it kills you slowly.”

How did he get to be so wise?

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