The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When my boyfriend and I were struggling to find a house we could afford, a friend told us she’d cosign with us if we came across a property with two houses on it. We ended up locating a reduced-price lot with three houses, one of which we could rent out to help pay the mortgage. The homes were in disrepair, and the property was being offered through an auction-like court procedure. Other parties could show up and make a better offer, and we couldn’t afford to bid any higher. Sure enough, as we waited in the lobby to be let into the courtroom, our realtor pointed out another group of three people who had come to buy the property out from under us. One of them was smoking a cigarette.
The courtroom doors opened, and we quickly sat down and waited for our case to be called. When the judge read out the property’s address and asked if anyone present wanted to outbid us, no one did.
Our competitors were just entering the courtroom as we stumbled out in a giddy daze. We later learned that they’d waited in the lobby for the smoker among them to finish his cigarette.
Palo Alto, California
My older brother died when I was ten, of a congenital heart defect we’d known nothing about. He got up one morning for school, and twenty minutes later my mother found him dead in his bedroom, a cigarette still burning between his fingers. He was seventeen years old.
After that, my mom took my older sister and me to have our hearts checked by a doctor. My sister went first, and hers was fine. But when the cardiologist saw me, he said gruffly, “I don’t treat young children.”
I was relieved. The anxiety of having to take off my shirt in front of a man outweighed my fear of suddenly dying. When my mother asked if I wanted to see someone else, I said no.
I graduated from high school, fell in love with an itinerant man, and hitchhiked all over the country with him, taking odd jobs, panhandling, and squatting at campsites. Though we often ran out of food, we rarely ran out of cigarettes. If we did, we took the tiny leftover pinches of tobacco from crushed butts and rerolled them.
The boyfriends and places changed, but smoking remained a constant for me — twenty cigarettes or more on most days. I ignored the heart palpitations. I ignored my racing pulse. I pretended to be a normal twenty-something with a bulletproof constitution. Deep down, though, I felt sure my heart was defective, and that one day I, too, would be found dead.
In my mid-twenties I started college and pulled caffeine-fueled all-nighters to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average. I repressed my mounting fear of heart failure but became anxious about other potential ailments: A cat bite meant cat scratch fever. A swollen lymph node was cancer. One day, fearful about being sedated to have my wisdom teeth removed, I finally decided to get my heart checked.
The ultrasound room was large, dark, and nearly silent. The technician rubbed my chest with cold jelly and put the wand to it. I heard whooshes and thumps. I had no idea what the strange sounds meant and thought my secret was about to be revealed: I should have been dead long ago, just like my brother. What right did I have to outlive him? To travel the country? To walk the Great Wall of China? To salsa dance in Cuba? To fall in and out of love?
The technician’s face was impassive.
“How is it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m not the cardiologist, but it sounds normal to me.”
I lay there awestruck. My heart was not defective. A week later, when I got a clean report from the cardiologist, I quit smoking.
The admissions director of my private high school was also my piano teacher. He always dressed in Italian suits and wore shiny cuff links. Even though I came to lessons wearing combat boots and ripped clothes from thrift stores, he would compliment me on my color choices. That’s how proper he was.
I saw the yellow nicotine stains on his neatly trimmed goatee, and sometimes at school I heard hushed voices from his office balcony and saw wisps of smoke curling upward, but he was careful never to let his students catch him smoking. When I sat at his shiny grand piano, gazing through the crystal-clear window at his perfectly manicured gardens, it was hard to believe he had such a messy habit.
It turned out smoking wasn’t his only secret. Many years later, as he was dying of a brain tumor, he publicly proclaimed that, despite being married to a woman for forty years, he had always been gay. To everyone’s shock, he insisted on spending his last days with his one true love: the school’s financial director and his longtime smoking partner.
No one has ever offered me a cigarette. Maybe I seem too innocent. I have a baby face and look like I get plenty of sleep. The closest I’ve come to smoking was a few puffs on a cheap cigar.
I’ve always been so good. I got good grades and hung out with the nerds in high school. I went to church every Sunday. I had a strict, gun-owning father whose love I wanted more than anything else in the world. I went to a Catholic college. I prayed every night. But all I ever wanted was to be a rebel.
And I still do. I want to feel tough. I want to be more grungy than polished, more intimidating than approachable. I want to be a Democrat, coming from a family of Republicans. I don’t want to help the women clean the kitchen while the men drink beer. I don’t want to be polite. I want to do something I’m not supposed to do.
I want to smoke cigarettes.
Both my parents smoked. At school my older sister could reliably be found in the designated smoking area. I tried smoking as a teenager because I wanted to look cool, but I struggled to inhale and ended up coughing uncontrollably. In health class we looked at pictures of lungs turned black. I became an avid nonsmoker.
When I was feeling brave, I would proclaim the dangers of tobacco to my parents. This never went over well, since they already felt guilty about their unhealthy habit. After being reprimanded by my usually patient father, I stopped trying to save them.
My parents and my sister all quit eventually. Smoking was no longer a societal norm when, after twenty-six years of marriage, I found myself divorced and raising my youngest daughter by myself. I was alone with a nervous energy I had never experienced before. The only way I found to quell the constant tension was to smoke. At home alone after a hard day’s work, I would slip out to my back deck and enjoy a cigarette. It stilled my shaking hands and eased my mind.
Luckily it never became an addiction. As I put my life back together, smoking became less necessary, and after a couple of packs the desire went away completely.
I no longer judge people who choose to smoke. I understand that sometimes we need help to cope with life’s challenges. We need a cigarette.
I became pregnant after a one-night stand at nineteen. I didn’t make enough money at my part-time job to support a baby, so I had to drop out of school, get a second job, and beg my parents to let me move back in with them. They kindly allowed it, but their religious beliefs kept them from seeing me as anything but their wayward, sinful daughter. My pregnancy was not discussed. I worried about how they would treat my child.
When my daughter was born, they welcomed her much more easily than they had my enlarging belly. On the day I came home from the hospital, Mom, a longtime smoker, sat at the kitchen table holding my daughter. She reached for her ever-present pack of cigarettes and began to light one. Reports about the dangers of secondhand smoke were just beginning to emerge, and I gathered every bit of courage I had and said, “Mom, you really shouldn’t smoke around the baby.”
I expected her to be indignant, but she simply said, “You’re right,” extinguished the cigarette, tossed the pack in the trash, and never touched another for the remaining forty-three years of her life. Clearly she already loved my daughter more than she loved smoking.
Mary Jane Janowski
By 1983 I’d been smoking for twenty-two years and was determined to quit. I went to a psychotherapist who used hypnosis. Stretched out in the reclining chair, I imagined myself descending a staircase and listened to Dr. J.’s soothing voice restating all the reasons I had told him I wanted to stop smoking. I took a recording of our session home with me and listened to it again and again, but I still craved the rush of that first drag on a cigarette.
At my next visit I suggested a plan: if I smoked even one cigarette in the coming week, I’d write out a check for a hundred dollars to President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign — the surest deterrent I could think of to stop me from lighting up. Dr. J. liked the idea and insisted I write the check on the spot and give it to him for safekeeping.
“How did it go?” he asked when I returned for my next appointment.
“Well, I didn’t smoke,” I said, and then I broke into tears. Saying goodbye to cigarettes had been like losing a friend.
I held out a carton of True cigarettes, which I had just received for free in the mail as a promotion. I thought Dr. J. could hold the precious cigarettes until I was “cured” for good, and then I could give them to one of my smoker friends.
His eyes lit up. “Want to have some fun?” he asked, pulling up a huge wastebasket. Cigarette by cigarette, we tore those Trues into bits. I remember thinking, What a waste! But Dr. J. had the right idea. The memory of tearing them apart has never left me.
The craving remained for a long time, but I never bought another pack of cigarettes, and I never took another puff.
One night my older sister Pat took me along to hang out with her and her high-school friends. They goofed around, smoked, and listened to the radio on the steps of a building. It was harmless teenage fun, but I remember worrying about how much trouble she would get in if she were caught smoking.
Soon after, while Mom was at work, Pat insisted my sister Jane and I go up to the attic with her. There was something she wanted to show us. We followed her up the staircase into the musty space, where she pulled out a pack of Marlboros and some matches. Jane and I looked at each other in trepidation.
“We’re going to smoke, OK?” Pat said. It wasn’t really a question.
She put a cigarette between her lips, struck a match, and lit it. She told us we needed to suck it like a straw and inhale the smoke into our lungs: “cheek smoking” was for fakes.
Jane and I took turns, hacking our way through a few puffs. When the cigarette was finished, Pat stubbed it out in an ashtray and said, “Now that you guys have smoked, you can never tell Mom that I do.”
It was my first experience with both smoking and blackmail.
My mother grew up in a poor family of tenant tobacco farmers. Until the 1980s her parents’ home had no indoor plumbing. My grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove, water came from a well a hundred yards away, and the bathroom was an outhouse up the hill.
In my youth I had to help Mom’s family in the backbreaking work of pulling tobacco: shuffling down the long rows and stooping to take the ripe leaves off the low ends of the stalks. I came to understand why Grandma’s spine was shaped like the letter C. I also went to the annual tobacco auction, where my grandparents sold their harvest for a wad of cash. That one payment had to last them a year, and their earnings were dependent on a crop susceptible to frost, flood, drought, and disease.
I never started smoking. My parents never stopped. Throughout my childhood everything in our house smelled like cigarettes. Freshly laundered clothes absorbed the odor before I could get out the door. My dad died in 2010 after years of battling emphysema and chronic lung disease. My mother, whose lungs probably look like two charcoal bricks, continues to smoke. She likes to say with a smirk, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
My mother hasn’t told me whether she wants to be buried or cremated, but I’ve decided. I’ve spent too much of my life emptying her ashtrays and disposing of her cigarette butts to say goodbye by scattering her ashes.
Thompson Station, Tennessee
In college several guys on my baseball team smoked, so I joined them and quickly progressed to being a chain-smoker. Cigarettes were cheap when I started, but the price rose as the years passed until smoking was taking a significant chunk out of my meager budget. I had also heard the surgeon general’s proclamations about the dangers of cigarettes, but I couldn’t quit. I took a vow to stop when the price reached one dollar a pack. Within a year they hit the one-dollar mark, and I made a new resolution. Because cigarettes were cheaper by the carton, I decided I would quit when they reached ten dollars a carton, which equaled one dollar a pack.
By late 1985, as the price of cigarettes neared ten dollars a carton, I decided to quit on New Year’s Day 1986. I woke up on January 1 and lit a cigarette.
The next day I was getting dressed for work when I suddenly became dizzy and began to sweat profusely. I felt a heavy weight on my chest, but no sharp pains. Convinced I had pneumonia, I called my girlfriend, who came to my place, took one look at me, and said, “I’m taking you to the hospital.”
At the emergency room a nurse rushed over with a wheelchair. “Sit down,” she said. “You’re having a heart attack.”
I was taken to intensive care and given a drug to break up the blood clot that was blocking an artery. Luckily the drug worked, and I survived with only minor heart damage.
That was the last day I ever smoked. All I’d needed was the proper motivation.
Starting smoking was easy. The summer after eighth grade I stole a few cigarettes from my dad, lay on the grass field at the elementary school, lit one, and inhaled as much as I could, enduring the acrid smell and the burning in my lungs. I continued to smoke for more than thirty-five years.
Quitting smoking was much more difficult, but cancer and heart disease were real concerns, and I wanted to be a better father.
I tried various times to quit before I found a method that seemed to work: I would subtract a cigarette a day until I reached zero.
I threw away the last of my pack the night of January 16, 1994. The next morning I was awakened in my Los Angeles apartment at 4:31 AM by the room’s violent shaking and my son crying out, “Dad!”
It was the Northridge earthquake. My first thought was to protect my son, and I bolted across the room to pull him from his bed and into a doorway, where we waited out the tremors. My second thought was that I hoped the convenience stores would be open soon, because I really, really wanted a cigarette.
My grandfather called me every year on my birthday, a date he remembered because it was also the anniversary of the day he quit smoking. He’d wish me a happy birthday, then say, “You’re how old? Well, that means I haven’t had a cigarette in six (or eleven, or nineteen) years!”
My grandfather worked at Chrysler, and, like many men of his era, he was a smoker. He’d tried to give it up several times, but it took his first grandchild — me — to give him enough motivation. As a gift to me for my first birthday, he finally quit. He wanted to be around while I grew up.
He never let me forget this sacrifice. I think he missed smoking cigarettes until the day he died. As he taught me about cars and mathematics, he was always quick to condemn smoking. I didn’t think of picking up a cigarette during my teenage years. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I even took a puff — of a cigar at a law-firm retreat.
He passed away a decade ago. In his last voice mail, on my twenty-fifth birthday, he reminded me that he had been a nonsmoker for twenty-four years and said how much he loved me. I still listen to his message on my birthday every year.
Alone in my garage, I pulled on thick gray sweatpants over my jeans. I added a rain jacket and topped off my ensemble with a bright-blue shower cap I’d purchased at the dollar store. These clothes were my protection from the noxious odor of the forbidden cigarette I was about to smoke.
It had been months since my last one. My family and friends continually informed me that a return to smoking could lead to my death, but I had no more patience for their dictates. I wanted to feel like myself again.
As I lit up, I reflected on my fifty-three years of smoking. When I’d started, it was considered normal. Now I was told by strangers that my habit was shameful, sinful, and smelly. And I knew people thought I was weak. I was a seventy-year-old woman hiding in her garage wearing a shower cap. Oddly, though, that cigarette made me feel strong. By the time I took my last, long drag, I felt the return of my self-confidence, which had eluded me for months.
Cameron was one of the cool kids at my new middle school. She often wore a Nirvana T-shirt and had a grunge wardrobe she’d bought at the thrift stores on Melrose Avenue. I was still shopping in the kids’ section of Old Navy and had just been nominated for student of the month for being the only one in my history class to turn in all my homework. The only thing I had going for me was that Cameron thought I looked like Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain.
I was eating lunch alone in the outdoor seating area when I felt Cameron tug on the back of my shirt. I followed her behind some bushes to a secret table where five of her friends were sitting. “Guys, doesn’t she look like Kurt Cobain?” Cameron said. No one cared. Then she pulled a little wad of tinfoil from her pocket and held it in her palm like treasure. Everyone leaned in to see.
“It’s a roach,” she said. “Let’s smoke it.”
“Why would you want to smoke a roach?” I asked and immediately realized I shouldn’t have spoken.
“To get high, duh.”
I had no idea what was going on, but I pretended to. She unwrapped the tinfoil. The dark-brown wad inside looked like a crushed bug. As Danny searched for a lighter in his backpack, the bell rang. Cameron shoved her roach back in her pocket, and we dispersed quickly.
We had lots of roaches at my house. My mom had even set out traps for them. That night I waited until she was asleep and then snuck into the kitchen. I found three cockroaches in the trap next to the refrigerator: two alive and one dead. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to smoke them alive, the way you cook lobsters, or if they should be dead first. I started with a live one, rolling it into a makeshift tin-foil pipe. I had already taken drags of my father’s cigarettes, so I felt pretty confident. I put the tinfoil to my lips and lit the end. Nothing happened. I tried again. I couldn’t even get smoke to come out. By the third or fourth time, the tinfoil was so hot it burned my fingers, and I gave up. But at least now, if someone asked, I could say I had smoked a roach. Fortunately no one ever asked.
My mom began smoking in 1956 when she was twenty and pregnant. She said her doctor “didn’t like his patients getting fat,” so he recommended she start. She smoked well into her late seventies, when a fall left her unable to bring a cigarette to her lips.
I began smoking the day I turned sixteen. My mom suggested I smoke her brand, Salem 100’s, so we could take turns buying cartons. The only problem was I couldn’t smoke at school, so she got seven packs to my three.
Once I got to college, I couldn’t afford cigarettes, and I smoked only during finals and on holidays and my birthday. That special-occasion habit sustained me until I got pregnant and stopped. The day my son was born, my mom thought I needed a cigarette, having gone nine months without one, so we went to the designated smoking room in the hospital. When I went to the nursery afterward to pick up my son, I reeked of smoke. Embarrassed and disgusted, I quit that day for good and have never been tempted since.
My mom passed away last year, and I inherited her blue desk. Though I’ve tried to air it out, every time I open the drawer, it smells like stale cigarette smoke. But it also smells like Mom.
Kelly Sikora Pocci
Downers Grove, Illinois
When I was six, my father quit smoking, but my mother couldn’t give it up. She began to hide her ashtray on top of the refrigerator. She and my father competed for my affection, and she must have thought I’d be angry at her for not quitting. I found it funny (sort of) that she thought I didn’t know what was going on.
She started smoking outside, inventing chores for me in other parts of the house so she could sneak out. One day she left to get groceries, and I rode my bike to the store and discovered her in the parking lot, blowing smoke out the window of her blue VW Beetle. She saw me, coughed with surprise, and said, “You caught me.” I hoped things would change after that, but of course they didn’t.
When I was in high school, I stole a cigarette from her pack and put it in my jeans pocket to smoke with my cousin. My parents had told me if I ever wanted to smoke, I should do it at home. But why take them up on that offer when I could sneak it? My cousin and I soon began purchasing Marlboros from the corner store, where the clerk was famous for disregarding customers’ ages. We smoked one cigarette each morning on the walk to school, the packs hidden in our knee socks under our bell-bottoms.
In college I smoked with a handful of friends who were also secret smokers. Our boyfriends didn’t smoke, so we didn’t want them to know, and we definitely never told our parents.
I was no different than my mother, sneaking cigarettes because I wanted people to think of me a certain way.
There is nothing I like more than a long draw on a menthol ultra light. My friends who are smokers laugh at this. They say such sissy cigarettes don’t count, and for years I’ve thought of myself as not really a smoker.
But I am.
The only way I can get myself out the door in the morning is the promise of a cigarette on my drive to work. And on my way home a cigarette is my reward for making it through the day. I get a special glee from the cigarette after my Zumba class, knowing I can exercise and continue to smoke.
But the habit is starting to affect my body. My chest is tight, and some days I even hear a slight wheeze. If the back of my throat or my tongue aches, I worry it’s cancer creeping in. But I keep smoking. I think I don’t want to live too long, and this is my way out.
Last year my brother died from small-cell lung cancer. He said he had quit after his quintuple heart-bypass surgery, but two years ago, when I came to visit, I caught a distinct whiff of smoke on him. Eventually he gave up the charade. After working side by side with me at his second job, cleaning carpets at night, he stopped at a 7-Eleven: I bought a doughnut and a small box of wine; he bought cigarettes. We sat in his van and smoked before our drive home at the dawn of a new California day.
“Can’t help it,” he said as he inhaled.
Jessie and I were at the end of our senior year at Catholic school when we decided to break our good-girl image by learning to smoke. I said I’d buy the first pack. I was only seventeen and worried I’d get carded, but the guy at the gas station just grabbed the box of Marlboro Lights, rang me up, and took my money. I walked out with my heart racing as if I’d robbed the store.
Because we were scared of getting sick, Jessie and I decided not to inhale, practicing taking light puffs to accompany our deep conversation. The cigarettes added to our sense of being adults who talked about important subjects. Plus we looked cool leaning against our cars in the parking lot.
That’s when Jessie told me she wasn’t really a good girl. Her family had hosted an exchange student that year — a boy. She confessed that she had been having sex with him throughout second semester. My shock caused me to accidentally inhale, and I coughed for several minutes, feeling incredibly young, naive, and uncool. I was still more of a good girl than I wanted to be.
I eventually learned to inhale without coughing, and I would buy cigarettes when I was feeling rebellious or angry and smoke them until the feeling passed. I often gave away the rest of the pack. I also tried sex and liked it. I had my own revelations about what it means to follow the rules. I gave up categorizing myself as good or bad.
I haven’t smoked in years.
Queens, New York
In my childhood home the tabletops, the nightstands, the kitchen counters, and the plastic high-chair tray were all scarred from my parents’ smoking. “At least we didn’t burn the place down!” they’d joke.
I came home from college with my first bag of dirty laundry and returned to the dorm with it clean but reeking of smoke. For the first time I realized I had smelled like cigarettes in every class, in every car, in every church pew. I never again took laundry to my parents’ house.
Dad quit his thirty-five-year, two-pack-a-day habit while riding in the ambulance with Mom after she suffered her first heart attack. (She quit smoking that day, too.) When he was dying of renal-cell carcinoma, he told me if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn’t have smoked indoors. “What if one of you kids got sick from it?” he asked.
I sing. I jog. I do yogic breathing. I’m fixated on my home’s ventilation system, changing filters often. But will any of it make a difference?
Sue Ann Higgens
I smoked a pack of Marlboros every day from 1963 to 1980 and don’t regret a moment of it.
I can’t remember any nonsmoking adults in my childhood. My parents and their friends gave each other cartons of cigarettes at Christmas alongside holiday-packaged bottles of Johnnie Walker. Almost every tabletop in our house held an ashtray. My favorite was a miniature rubber tire with a crystal ash receptacle for a hubcap.
My parents’ smoking rituals were suave and stylish. Mom would pull out a gold cigarette case, open it the way she did her powder compact, then deftly slide a cigarette to her lips while clicking the case shut. Dad would snap open a Zippo lighter and hold it up for Mom to take her first couple of puffs. They smoked everywhere, even in the car with the windows shut. Who cared?
I smoked in college because a cigarette dangling from my mouth felt like the perfect complement to typing papers and drinking coffee. All the jobs I had over the next fifteen years involved typing, coffee, and tobacco.
In 1966 I saw an index card on a dormitory bulletin board that read, “Seeking companion to drive to New York. Smokers not welcome.” This confused me. Who was this oddball?
Today my friend Carolyn stands near the garbage cans outside our office to smoke. The only upside, she says, is having a reason to take more breaks than nonsmokers.
Yes, smoking does kill. Somehow I have avoided cancer (fingers crossed). But back in the day, smoking was cool, sexy, and acceptably filthy. I miss it.
In 1965 I got my first teaching job, in a small farming community in southern Colorado. My meager salary made it hard to find housing, so my wife and I rented a trailer in the school superintendent’s backyard.
Shortly after we moved in, he invited us over to view slides he had taken during a trip to Mexico. We had never seen 35mm color slides before, and we were amazed by their quality. My wife and I decided that we had to have a 35mm camera like the superintendent’s. With a two-year-old daughter, we had little extra money. To save for it, we both gave up smoking. A pack of cigarettes cost twenty-five cents. We figured if we put away fifty cents a day for about eight months, we would have enough.
We struggled with quitting, but we wanted that camera. Every day we dutifully deposited our fifty cents in a large jar on our dresser. After eight months we counted up our loot, drove to a camera store in Denver, and told the salesman the story of how we had saved the money. Holding our brand-new camera, we left the shop and walked to a corner drugstore. I had a quarter left in my pocket, and we bought a pack of cigarettes.
Woody Creek, Colorado
My bedroom smells like burning garbage. The window fan blows the pungent night air at me as I get into bed. It must be the neighbors, burning trash at 10:30 at night.
The smell reminds me of growing up in a small town in Michigan. What garbage we couldn’t spread on the garden to decompose or take to the town dump went into the barrel in the backyard for incineration.
I remember my Dad lighting the fire. Once in a while I’d do it. I liked to watch the milk jugs crumple in the heat. Most of the time the smoke would blow into the house, but we didn’t give much thought to the chemicals we inhaled.
When I moved to this home in the country thirty years later, I considered getting a burn barrel to avoid having to pay for trash pickup. Concerned about the pollution I’d release into the air, I decided not to.
Tonight, though, as that familiar scent drifts over from the neighbors’ yard, I don’t close the window. Instead I remember the past and think about Dad.
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
In the 1950s the Marlboro Man was the ideal image of the macho American male. Tall, tan, and handsome, the iconic cowboy was never without a cigarette.
Wanting to be like him, I started smoking Marlboros at the age of twelve. I would stand on the street corner and puff away, a pack of smokes rolled into the sleeve of my T-shirt so girls could see how manly I was.
Advertisers sold the myth that smoking was safe and sophisticated, even healthful, because it calmed the nerves and relieved tension. Everyone, it seemed, smoked, from Hollywood femmes fatales like Lauren Bacall to saintlike crooner Perry Como.
Chain-smoking was a fact of life for me and most of my friends until, in 1964, the surgeon general released a report linking smoking and lung cancer. Those tobacco ads had been lying to us. I was determined to break the habit.
When I was forty, I sought the help of a hypnotist. After two months without a cigarette, I figured I had my addiction licked and could enjoy an occasional smoke at parties. But within a month I was back to a couple of packs a day.
Later I saw an antismoking ad featuring an actor who’d portrayed the Marlboro Man. He was dying of lung disease. I heard him plead with viewers to stop smoking.
I finally quit cold turkey. But that was not the end of it.
I recently underwent a routine physical that included a chest X-ray. Something showed up. My doctor said it was probably nothing, but he recommended another test. As I await the results, I think back on the Marlboro Man, my street-corner pose, my thirty years of nicotine addiction.
I am terrified.
My fourth-grade class was assigned the new, young teacher from out of state. Mr. B. was funny and creative and told captivating stories about living in Washington State when Mount St. Helens erupted.
One day Mr. B. was unusually strict and seemed upset. He said his brother had been diagnosed with cancer. Mr. B. was shaking with anger as he told us his brother’s illness could have been prevented if he had stopped smoking.
He led the class behind the school, handed us all cigarettes, lit them, and asked what we thought of this addictive killer. Most of us coughed, and a few threw up. We all vowed to our beloved teacher that we would never smoke.
It’s a miracle he didn’t lose his job. As a parent now, I would be furious if a teacher did this to my child. But Mr. B.’s method worked on me. Though I did smoke briefly in high school, my vow to him eventually inspired me to quit.
I grew up in an evangelical-Christian home where neither tobacco nor alcohol ever poisoned the temples of our bodies or the souls within. My father left when I was eight, and my older brother joined the Navy when I was twelve. After that, only my mother and I remained. I wasn’t a problem teen. I got good grades, had a part-time job in a medical laboratory, and never dated, thereby sparing my mother any worries about my precious virginity. But I did talk on the phone for hours, often took a slapdash approach to chores, and played my stereo too loud. The worst thing I did was stop believing in God. Soon afterward I refused to go to church.
The list of topics my mother and I could discuss grew shorter and shorter, and our relationship was polite but tense. When we disagreed, she would declare, “As long as you’re living in my house, you’ll abide by my rules.”
When I was nineteen and commuting from home to the nearby state university, I started dating. Mother imposed a curfew, but one time, intoxicated with the excitement of my first romance, I came home at five in the morning to find her waiting up for me. She didn’t believe that my boyfriend and I had been talking all night, even though it was true.
Within a week I had rented an apartment. I moved out while Mother was at work and didn’t tell her where I had gone or how to reach me.
One of my first acts as a free adult was to start smoking. It’s my temple to defile, Mother, I thought. I slept at my boyfriend’s apartment instead of my own. I’m not going to be lonely like you, Mother. When, after three weeks, I finally called her, she was relieved and did not lecture me. We arranged a visit.
I parked in front of the house, walked to the door, and knocked, feeling nervous and defiant with my just-lit cigarette. Mother opened the door, welcomed me in, and said, “Let me find you an ashtray.”
In the Readers Write on “Smoking” [July 2019], Joseph Fanning ended his piece awaiting the results of medical tests after a chest X-ray. How is he doing?
After six weeks of waiting, I was relieved and grateful to find nothing on the further test. As the doctor framed it, I’d dodged a bullet. But every smoker is vulnerable.