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A heartbreaking ad campaign

Updated: May 31, 2022

I have a great appreciation for a dear friend’s father. His name is Bill Shilling, and I adore his illustrations and humorous writing. (Try to find a copy of his graphic satire, The Little Old Lady's San Francisco, and you'll see what I mean.)

When my friend mentioned my appreciation to him, Bill insisted that she show me something he’d done that gives him great pride: the advertisement you see here, which he concepted, wrote, and art-directed.

I can see why. The headline pays off the grief we see in the boy's face.

I’d seen it on my own little boy’s face.

I last time I saw my father-in-law, Ben, was just two days before he died in a Manhattan hospital bed. By then, he’d been there several weeks, waiting out the last stage of lung cancer. Ben was asleep when I got there, but the nurse allowed me to sit at his bedside. When he finally opened his eyes, his delight at seeing me gleamed from them before it dawned on him that my reason for being there was to say my final goodbye.

Then he teared up, and I couldn’t stop myself from doing the same.

Ben tried to speak. His voice was soft, and for some reason, he felt he had to apologize for leaving us. I tried to hush him, to say I was there because, with what little time we had left, I wanted to tell him I loved him and had always appreciated how he’d treated me like his daughter; to say I’d miss his jokes and hearing his laugh, and that he was one of the sweetest, most debonair men I’d ever known.

That his youngest son, Martin, was the blessing he’d given me; that I’d hoped the two children Martin and I'd created would have Ben’s sense of humor, his tenacity, his joy for life;

And that I was glad he’d spent Christmas and New Year with us.

Now so many years later, it’s easy for me to believe that I said all of this to him. And, yes, maybe between the fits and starts that came while I gulped back the tears and the pain from my grief in knowing that Ben would be gone in just a few days I actually got some of these thoughts out. I really don’t remember. But what I do know is that we both said “I love you.”

What I didn’t say was that I both appreciated and resented his doctor for not having told Ben—and us—that he’d only have a few months left to live. Perhaps instead of busying myself with a New Year's Eve party, we would have taken Ben and the kids to the beach, like we’d done the year before, so that he could share a room with our three-year-old son, Austin, who idolized him, yet thought nothing of scolding him: “Grandpa, take out your teeth and come to bed now!”

Before I got to Ben’s hospital room, he’d given Martin the wedding bands he’d exchanged with his wife, Ruth, whom I’d never met. She’d died of a brain tumor when Martin was just sixteen.

Martin was thirty-eight then. In a few days he’d be an orphan.

Ben had started smoking young, in his teens. By the time he quit, he was a pack-a-day man. But you see, even having quit smoking twenty-five years before—in 1964, the very same day the U.S. Surgeon General made it official: smoking causes lung cancer—Ben couldn’t eradicate the cancer cells that were already there, lying dormant in his body.

Austin didn’t take the news of Ben’s death well at all. We took him to one of his favorite spots, a duck pond near our house. Tearfully, he shook his head in disbelief at the thought that he’d never see Grandpa again: that his best friend, whom he loved so much, had gone away forever without saying goodbye. He ran to the edge of the pond and stared out, refusing to come home with us.

Later that month, Austin’s teacher arranged to meet with us to discuss Austin’s angry outbursts in class. She asked, “Has there been a change in your household?”

Martin and I exchanged glances. “Yes. Austin’s Grandpa died. They were close.”

The best ads are those that take what we know to be true and use this knowledge to move us. Bravo, Bill, for getting to the heart—and lungs—of the matter.


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