I’ve never been a smoker, but I’ve never been a vicious anti-smoker either. Well, except for that time my mom lit up in a doctor’s office waiting room when I was a precocious child. Despite my requests, she wouldn’t put the thing out, not even when I feigned a coughing fit. I asked the receptionist for a piece of paper, pencil, and tape, and made my own ‘No Smoking’ sign that I posted on the wall. That sufficiently embarrassed my mom into snubbing out her cigarette.
That moment aside, I’ve always been laissez faire about smoking. I’ve traveled Europe and sat in smoke-filled cafes and bars. I lingered in the Los Angeles clubs of the 80s where only through the hazy filter of polluted air could you see the performers on stage. The smoke never bothered me, and I seldom gave it any thought.
Since my brother – a smoker since his early teens – died of lung cancer last month, I just can’t look at smokers the same way. I can’t just shrug and not care. I can’t.
We all have habits, some easy to discard, some that clutch to our sleeves desperate for survival. Not everything in my day amounts to healthy living. Not even close (okay, close, but still.) But smoking, that now has moved into its own category.
My brother was diagnosed around the New Year, and my parents instantly rallied for him to quit smoking, but his attention wasn’t focused in that direction. He was about to start chemo and radiation, and the thing is, I got why he was still smoking. He was about to face the most stressful and challenging time in his life, not exactly a setting best suited to kick the habit. Besides, his problem was so much larger than a few more months of continued smoking. If he made it through treatment, then he could face the reality of quitting.
He didn’t make it through.
When we emptied his apartment, we found a few cartons of unopened cigarettes. My mom wanted to destroy them. My brother’s friend said he could see if they could be returned to the store. My mom didn’t like the idea of someone someday smoking these cigarettes, but the conversation veered off to another corner of the room, to the stacks of clothes and papers and other remnants of a life snubbed out suddenly.
I don’t know what happened to the cigarettes. I don’t need to ask.
Now when I drive through LA traffic, my eyes hang on the smokers. I examine their profile, the way they move fingers to mouth, and the quality of their exhales. I drift into their heads looking for what their thoughts might be, could be, how they can puff away with the knowledge of the potential harm.
I study these inconsequential moments of these smokers’ day and think of my brother, of our last email exchange on his birthday – his voice too weakened to speak – when I playfully suggested that he’d be healthy and running marathons and doing yoga on his next birthday, this to the brother who never engaged in any form of exercise. He responded that all he wanted was for his next birthday to be cancer free.
He died later that night, alone, in the secluded hours of night, his eyes turned towards the TV.
When smokers shrug off their habit as just another habit, as an enjoyable slice of their day, I just don’t get it, because really, it is not so simple, not so innocent.