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.

Until lately.

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.


Black Thumb

I don’t know how it happened, but walking towards my bedroom door, I tip my head to the right, and there it is, my plant in bloom. For many, this is an annual occurrence, the resurgence of blossoms that definitively demonstrate life’s cycles.

The typical cycle in our household begins when I impulsively and optimistically buy a cute little plant, usually something on display at Trader Joe’s, imagining it the center of attention on the island between the kitchen and living room, or perhaps on my nightstand greeting me as I start my day. During the next phase, I kill said plant either with neglect or ineptitude. After watering it for a few extra weeks just to be sure that the brittle brown leaves don’t really signify death but rather a state of – let’s say – disinterest, I finally give up and give in. The burial is an unceremonious dumping in the garbage can.

I could turn the failed dream into mulch in our communal front yard and let it participate in the parallel life cycle story, cinematically valid but a little depressing. The fact that I don’t just shows how black my thumb is. In fact, I think my thumb can now be labeled a serial killer, so many have died under its care.

To see fresh blossoms on a plant I nearly killed two weeks ago while trying to extract all the spindly brown stems weaving through the cheerfully green show-offs, only to discover how truly entwined they all were (sorry, healthy stems that I ripped from life and a hopeful future), is truly amazing. Really. This is the first plant I’ve kept alive through one whole cycle.

There was one plant I had in college, that leafy green variety bred specifically for college students because it cannot be killed. Drownings in beer, lit cigarettes scorching its soil when used as an impromptu ashtray, a complete absence of light – the plant barely flinches. Sophomore year I went home for winter break, a full four weeks, and had no one to care for my plant, so I left it on our back porch and promptly forgot about its existence. Six months later, when packing up for summer, I found the plant on its side having fallen off the porch and living in a tangle of dirt and leaves. And you know what? It looked great. Better than if I’d actually tried to care for it.

My mom tried to give me an orchid on Mothers’ Day. I just couldn’t accept it. I have killed so many orchids that I’m sure I’m on that plant’s most wanted list. I can imagine them all lined up at the post office, waiting to send goodies to loved ones and glaring at the photo of my innocently smiling face – though in their eyes, maniacally so – amongst the other FBI’s most wanted felons. It’s that bad.

While Spring arrived for others weeks ago, I mark today as my official first day, commemorated by little purple flowers. At the same time, I must say an apology to all the plant siblings that didn’t make it. I did my best.

There is a reason I have only one child. I know my limits. Most of the time.