NOTIONS: The eerie echo of a hollow victory reverberating

May 30, 2005

The night of May 23, after the Indianapolis City-County Council passed a watered-down ordinance banning smoking in some workplaces, Council President Steve Talley called for a short break.

Proponents and opponents of the anti-smoking bill poured into the hallway outside the council chambers. Among the former, there were handshakes, hugs and high-fives. Among the latter, there was much shaking of heads. Lobbyists and legislators on both sides of the battle talked with reporters, uttering comment on the vote and its potential impact on the future of the universe.

I watched for a while, and thanked some of the people most responsible. Then I walked alone down the stairs and out the revolving door onto Market Street.

It was cool outside. The wind was blowing. And as I strode past City Market toward my car, I found myself holding my cell phone, wanting to call, wanting to call ...

I wanted to call my wife, Pam, of course. She began this battle at my side. She lived and suffered every word. It was her story-the nonsmoker stricken by a smoker's cancer-that moved some people to act, and others to tears, and others to roll their eyes. It was on her behalf, and in her memory, that some of us carried on even after her death back in March at age 49.

I wanted to call and tell her we won.

I wanted to say that while it's too late to save her life, we might-together-have saved someone else's.

I wanted to tell her how much I love her, and to say, "Hey, Pam, thanks for sharing your story that others might live, and be of good health and not have to suffer the pain that you bore so bravely."

But I don't know her number anymore.

So I drove home, and unlocked my (our?) home, and listened to the nothingness. And in the eerie echo of a hollow victory, I watered the plants sent in solemn memory of Pam's life, and love and death.

The next night, I joined a friend for a donors' preview of the new "dolphin adventure" at the Indianapolis Zoo.

The place looks like an old fishing village. There's lots of dramatic lighting. And the dolphins, who were flown to Texas while their home was refurbished, were circling 'round and 'round, excited by all the attention.

We walked around the pools for a few minutes, talking with people who'd contributed millions of dollars for the new facility. Then we sat on the bleachers to watch the show.

The dolphins walked backward across the water on their tails, jumped high into the air, turned circles in the water, and waved at us with their flippers.

The donors oohed and aahed, laughed and applauded at the magnificent mammalian maneuvers.

Then we discovered what's new at our zoo.

After watching the surface show and cutting the ribbon to officially open the place, everyone walked downstairs. There, we entered a magnificent glass room that juts into the middle of the dolphins' pool, well below the water's surface.

As I walked around in the quiet space, a dolphin swam slowly, powerfully and silently past-now beside me, now above me, now below-warily watching this human intruder in her aqueous environment.

At the dolphin adventure, there's a stark contrast between the surface show and what transpires beneath.

Up top, the pace is pulsating-dolphins leaping from the pool, fins flapping frantically, trainers chattering over loudspeakers.

But below, there's solemn silence as viewers gaze, in library-like respect, at the mighty mammals winding slowly and steadily about.

In the political arena, there's a stark contrast between the show in the council chambers and what transpires behind the scenes.

On Monday nights during the anti-smoking debate, I've seen polite civility and thoughtful discussion, cautious maneuvers and made-for-TV justifications.

But behind the scenes, I've witnessed name-calling and arm-twisting, backstabbing and grandstanding, cold stares and outright threats.

In coping with Pam's death, there's a stark contrast between what I do and how I feel.

I've been, on the surface, Mr. Busy-seeking every possible distraction, booking lunches and dinners with friends, pouring myself into work and attacking the smoking issue with a vengeance.

But behind the façade, especially on those no-one-ever-calls weekends, it still hurts like hell, and I still miss her so much, and no law-especially one that says, in effect, "It's OK for people 18 and over to get sick and die"-is going to bring her back or save others from the same fate.

And so, on the surface, we can shake hands and hug, and high-five one another over our new public smoking ban. And we can wait nearly a year, through a cloud of blue haze and a few hundred more deaths, to implement it.

But beneath the surface, the victory rings hollow, and partial, and much, much too late.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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