Have you seen the COPD commercials? My favorite is the one with the elephant sitting on a woman’s chest. She says it’s hard to breathe. Then she inhales Spiriva, the miracle drug, and the next thing we see she’s showered and dressed and fit and laughing and out chasing butterflies. It’s a fucking miracle.
The first time I smoked a cigarette, I was in 5th grade. I was hanging out with Donna, a girl my mother and grandmother would have described as “trouble” and they might have been right. While we smoked menthols in her bedroom, Donna bragged and told stories about real drugs and sex and boys and scared me so much I stopped going over there. And being as I have never even liked the taste of mint toothpaste, her menthols made me feel like puking.
Mom smoked Marlboro 100’s. They were long and lasted longer and came in a pretty, feminine, gold and white box. So elegant. Grandma smoked Winstons in their red and white short boxes. Mom felt so evolved.
While I was trying out menthols, we lived with my grandparents and Grandpa Red was already well into his emphysema. He had a twin bed down in our unfinished concrete basement, and when he tried to mow the grass or work in the garden or butcher the rabbits stem-to-stern out back he’d have to take lots of breaks to sit and gulp — literally, gulp and gasp — air into his expanding chest, his panting mouth shaped like a small O.
One day my mom switched to Marlboro Lights because she thought they would be healthier. Being “light” and all.
Being in my grandmother’s kitchen with her and my mom and my aunts and uncles was like sitting in choking, impenetrable fog while hearing all the local gossip. My grandmother claimed she never inhaled. I believed her. They had to shoo me away from the table. “Grown up talk ain’t for kids ears!” I loved it.
When I was in my 20s I smoked once a year on girls’ weekend. On my annual summer get-together with my oldest friends — camping, river-tubing, boating — I would buy a pack of my mom’s Marlboro Lights and smoke them as fast as I could. The feel of being a grown up, the feel of Her.
My grandfather died of emphysema. As my doctor friend says, “He suffocated to death over years.” My grandmother died of a heart attack. Years later Aunt Mary said, “She had emphysema! You didn’t believe all that ‘I don’t inhale’ nonsense, did you?”
When I was in my 30s, my mother was trapped in her house, unable to smoke and unable to leave because she was on oxygen 24-hours a day and tethered to her oxygen tank like a dog on a chain in the yard. If she left she’d have panic attacks and feared wetting her pants, so she augured in. Stayed home. My mother, at age 56, was a prisoner. Except when she escaped to the hospital because she thought she was dying. But wasn’t. Yet.
When we caught my teenaged daughter smoking, I railed. But she didn’t care. She only stopped smoking when she got a boyfriend who said he wouldn’t date a girl who smoked.
The great benefit of having a mother who is sick and always home is that she is always there to answer your calls. The sicker she got, the more she couldn’t breathe, the more I called. Sometimes 3 or 5 times a day. There’s nothing like a mom who can’t wait to hear from the-all-important-Y.O.U.
A doctor friend told me my mother would die a horrific death. That she would suffocate slowly, over years, like someone holding a pillow over her face every day, all day long, all night long, for hundreds of days and nights.
Fuck him, I thought. Fuck. Him.
But that’s exactly how it was. Until she finally gave up. Until she finally died. In a nursing home. Among the elderly. Nurses came from other areas, saying, “I heard we had a young one ….” A week later, my mother died. At age 56.
Just 6 years older than I am right now.
In my 30s I was taking classes at the University of Minnesota, taking classes with 20 year olds and working to get my Bachelor’s Degree. Every time we had a “break” and everyone went outside to smoke it took everything I had not to scream, “I HOPE YOU’LL ENJOY YOUR CANCER AND SUFFOCATING TO DEATH.”
A few years ago I went home for another grandfather’s funeral. On the way to the wake I sat in the back seat while my father drove and smoked a cigarette — what kind??? — through a cracked winter window, while my stepmother rode in the passenger seat with plastic nose tubes, on oxygen. COPD.
When my son graduated from college, I stood outside on the deck of a Kentucky bar with my sisters-in-law, smoking a cigarette. He came out and caught me and said, “I can’t believe you’re smoking a cigarette, after what’s happened with your mother!” And I was sufficiently shamed. And indignant. And inhaled some more.
Today I was in the checkout line at Kroger and saw this display. My mother’s cigarettes. Right! There! The young couple in front of me asked the clerk for a carton of Marlboro Blacks — which I’ve never even heard of — and the clerk had to leave her station and go get the carton from another area of the store. I stood there, looking at the locked-up pack cigarettes, and thought about safety.
When I’m driving next to someone smoking in a car, with their window cracked, it sometimes takes everything I have not to run them off the road, yank them out of their car, and scream at them as they lie on the gravel shoulder.
Now it’s 2015 and my mother has been dead 13 years and my stepmother, a lifelong smoker, has exactly what my mother had. COPD. Can’t breathe. On home oxygen. She goes to the hospital often. And she’s afraid to tell my dad it’s bad, that she can’t breathe, that it’s time to go, because hey, she doesn’t want to bother him.
Though, of course, he still smokes.
Which makes me hate him.
Which makes me love him when he chooses not to smoke, like the last time I visited in November. “Did you see he didn’t smoke the whole time!” my stepsister said.
And yet some days, I imagine the smoke of my childhood, even as much as I hated it. Smoke is so familiar. Smoke means home.
I’m often tempted to buy a pack of cigarettes. A whole pack. To carry in my purse. To smell the raw tobacco. To hear the crinkle of the pack as I dig for my keys. Marlboro Lights, to be exact.
My stepmother has been in the hospital this week. She’s got a new regimen, and maybe a new doctor. She’s hopeful.
I imagine sitting out on my deck at night, alone with glass of bourbon which I don’t even drink, looking up at the stars, the moon, and lighting up. I think about the 8 miles it would take me to drive to Kroger and how I could be there and back home in minutes. The click-click-click-click-click of the plastic lighter. The sound of the burn. The smell of love, of death, of home.