I’m a little late in writing about The Great American Smokeout, which was Thursday, November 17. “Butt…”
I’m a reformed smoker, having taken up the nasty habit in college, because it was fun to gather in the “smoker” (can you imagine a college having a room devoted to smoking these days?) and play bridge and gab with all the other smokers. I continued smoking cigarettes after college, until we were pregnant with our first child, although I occasionally smoked cigars. After she was born, I began smoking cigars regularly, and at parties I would “borrow” cigarettes from friends. Thoroughly awful!
Then when our daughter was five or so, we made a deal. I would quit smoking if she quit biting her fingernails. After that there was no smoking at home. I admit to “borrowing” a cig or two at parties even after making that promise. But she didn’t quit biting her fingernails, either!
The event that made me give up tobacco forever was the death of my uncle from lung cancer. I flew to Massachusetts for the funeral. I probably bummed a cigarette from my sister on the way from the airport. We got to the funeral home in my Dad’s hometown, where my uncle and aunt were living. There was a crowd of people, as my uncle had been a lifelong resident, a hometown boy, and active in town politics.
As I came into the viewing room, I caught a glimpse of my father, older brother and best friend of my uncle, in an unguarded moment. I had never seen him look so lost and so sad. It brought tears to my eyes. My father, always so “up” and rarely seen alone in a social situation, was sitting apart in one of the small chairs set around the room, head down, hands clasped between his knees, his face telegraphing, “I am grieving deeply. I don’t want to talk about it.”
When I finally made my way to my uncle’s casket, I knelt down to say a prayer, as they do at Catholic wakes. My eyes were at the level of his chest. I recognized him, of course. He was a constant presence in our childhood and into our adult years. But I couldn’t get over the fact that although they had dressed him in a beautiful suit, it was as though they had tried to dress a skeleton. The suit coat stood away from his chest at least four inches, he was so emaciated from his long suffering with lung cancer.
I had heard the stories about my aunt moving a bed into the dining room, how weak he was becoming, and then of course I got the call when he died. But up until then I hadn’t seen much of death, especially no one so close. My grandfather died when I was in high school. But here my uncle was, a shadow of his living self, and suddenly I could imagine the long battle against the lung cancer, the pain, the bleakness he left behind for his survivors.
The next day, after the funeral, we all went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, which had been our grandparents’ house as well. There were drinks and food, and everyone was smoking. My aunt opened a drawer in the pantry, and pulled out a full carton of cigarettes — my uncle’s. They weren’t her brand, she said, and did anyone want them. She handed out packages to several of my siblings and cousins.
That gesture, after what I had seen in the mortuary, was too much for me. Never again, I told myself, and that was it. I finally saw that even just smoking at parties was still smoking and that smoking would kill me.
My father died of lung cancer. His father died of lung cancer. My brother died of lung cancer. My sister died of cancer, and I have a second visitation from the dread disease, although not lung cancer, and many years after I quit tobacco.
Too great a risk. I wanted to be alive for my kids; I hadn’t even remotely thought yet of grandchildren. And I sure am glad I am here for them.
I don’t know if such exhortations as this ever help people quit. I mean, we all know smoking is a killer. It’s addictive, yes. It’s hard to quit, yes. But it’s not impossible to quit. Ask anyone who quit after a heart attack or bout with cancer how easy it is to quit when you’ve nearly seen heaven’s door.
Quit! Don’t wait to see the long white tunnel. There is help everywhere. Call Winona Health, ask your doctor. Just quit, please.