Watching His Mother’s Life Go Up in Flames

By MELISSA HECKSCHER
THE LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
May 7, 2009

Aaron Gray chronicled his mother’s death from lung cancer in a heartbreaking short film that can be seen on YouTube titled, “Thanks Tobacco: You Killed My Mom.” (Sean Hiller/Staff Photographer)
Aaron Gray remembers being 8, and crawling underneath a bingo table by his mother’s feet so he could escape the heavy fog of cigarette smoke hovering in the room above him.

He remembers driving to school during cold Canadian winters, the windows closed and the smoke from her cigarettes clouding up the car like gas in an execution chamber.

And he remembers hiding her cigarettes. Breaking them in half. Doing whatever a child could do to try and make things better. But it wasn’t until his mother died of lung cancer at age 56 that he could do something to make a difference.

He told her story.

“If I didn’t do this, she’d just be another nameless grave,” said Gray, 37, of Redondo Beach. “I wanted to do something to make her life matter.”

An aspiring filmmaker, Gray documented his mother’s illness, and ultimately her death, on film. His 10-minute documentary, “Thanks, Tobacco: You Killed My Mom,” shows his mother’s four-month decline from a strong, fiery woman to a frail, emaciated corpse.

Harrowing as they are, he hopes the details of her death act as a warning. “I know the cigarettes killed her,” Gray said in a letter on YouTube,

where he posted his film.

“I hope this video helps at least one family avoid this catastrophe. It would have meant my mom’s existence helped save lives.”

It has done something. The film has been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube and has been picked up by numerous anti-smoking organizations, including Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and the American Lung Association, which uses it for training.

It also has been shown in schools across the South Bay and has become mandatory viewing in health classes at Redondo Union High School, where Gray’s wife, Patti, teaches.

Health Canada (Gray and his mother originally are from Niagara Falls, Ontario) will be using the video in its yearlong anti-smoking TV campaign and Gray said the organization plans on using a picture of his mother on cigarette box warnings across Canada.

“This video isn’t just for people to watch and say, ‘I don’t want to smoke,”‘ Gray said, adding that he has received thousands of online comments on the video from people trying to quit. “Parents are watching this and saying, ‘I don’t want to do this to my kids.”‘

Charlotte Patricia Gray was born Aug. 21, 1950, and took up smoking cigarettes in 1963 at age 13 – long before the public knew about the dangers of smoking. A single mom, she tried numerous times to quit but couldn’t beat the addiction.

“She had tried hypnosis. She had tried acupuncture, the patch, Nicorette gum, candy. She had tried going cold turkey,” said Gray. In October 2006, she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. A month later, she suffered a stroke that put her in the hospital, where she died four months later.

Initially, Gray started filming so he could share his mother’s last words with relatives who couldn’t make it to Canada to visit her. Then it occurred to him and his wife that the video could be used for something bigger.

“She knows I’m a teacher, and she kept telling me, ‘Tell the kids, ‘Don’t smoke,”‘ said Patti Gray, 35, who teaches special education at Redondo Union. “One day she said to me, ‘Maybe we should make this into something more.”‘

From there on out, Gray brought his camera with him during most of his visits.

He filmed his mother as she asked him, raspy and weak and with a hospital blanket pulled up to her chin, for just one cigarette. Just one smoke.

And he filmed as hospital nurses wheeled her outside to get just that.

“Smoking … helps me … relax,” his mother says in the film, gasping as she brings the cigarette to her mouth and inhales.

“It’s taken everything away from you and you still want it?” her son asks, putting his hand on her face. “I’m only giving it to you because it doesn’t make a difference now.”

Finally, on March 24, 2007, with the camera propped up and recording from the back of the room, his mother closed her eyes for the last time.

It was in those last, intimate moments that Gray wondered whether the public needed to see everything. His wife convinced him it was those details that made the difference.

“I said to him, ‘We need to keep this in to show how much smoking can hurt a family,”‘ Patti Gray said. “We need to show that it’s not just about one person.”

There were a lot of things that didn’t make the film: the vomiting, the leaking of fluids, the cleaning of bedpans.

But it is the moments between Aaron and his mom that give the film its power.

“I love my mother dearly,” he says to the camera as he rubs his mother’s forehead just minutes before her death. Her eyes are closed and her chest beats up and down erratically. “She deserves to be something – an actual memory, an actual meaning.”

He continues as his mother grunts a quiet sound of recognition.

“You’ve been validated, Mom,” he says quietly. “Your existence matters tremendously.”

melissa.heckscher@dailybreeze.com