We started our married lives, as so many do, with four healthy parents.
Well, healthy might not be so accurate given that we'd lose three of the four before we celebrated our 13th anniversary. But on the day we said our vows, all four parents were present and accounted for and were working, functional, productive, happy citizens of the land of the living.
Then we lost Steve to a sudden, massive heart attack. Cigarettes, and the blocked arteries they tend to cause, were certainly a contributing factor.
Then Dad died of bladder cancer, and the oncologist told us that bladder cancer, at least the subtype Dad had, is a smoker's cancer.
Our mothers tried to quit. Mom saw what Dad went through and gave it a good effort; alas, she failed.
Kathie began to have problems of her own and gave it a good effort; alas, she too failed.
We watched as Kathie fought with chronic lung disease caused by smoking and lost. We watched as my mom was diagnosed with both peripheral artery disease and coronary artery disease (smoking was given as a contributing factor) and had multiple angiograms and a stint placed.
"If she doesn't quit smoking," the surgeon who placed her stint told us way back in 2006, "I'll see her again in 5 years or so when the stint fails."
Five years later, he turned out to be right.
Until 2am Sunday morning, I would have bet money that my mom wasn't smoking anymore. She had too much to lose; she told me time and again, after hearing and seeing what Kathie went through, that she wanted more than anything to live to see Ainsley grow up and have children of her own. It made her sad that Kathie didn't even live long enough to see all of her own children marry and have children. Sometimes I smelled smoke on her clothes; I was assured it was from a smoky restaurant, or from visiting her boyfriend.
"Don't you trust me? If I were smoking, I'd tell you I was smoking," she'd say.
Turns out my mom is a brilliant liar.
That sounds more bitter than I mean for it to be. But when the sole surviving grandparent of your child gets taken into emergency surgery to repair a blockage that was supposed to have been repaired 5 years prior, and you find out that she confessed to the doctor that she's still smoking a few cigs a day, it stings a little bit.
"You have to understand," she told me yesterday, "that when we started smoking, no one knew how bad it was. It's so hard to quit something you've done for 50 years."
I can only imagine how hard it must be. I treasure my daily Coke and chocolate break; I like my Saturday night adult beverages.
But if I knew my consumption of those things, even in moderation, could kill me, I'd like to think I could do it. For Ainsley. For Jason. For the trip I want to take to England, for retiring in the mountains, for all the good books I want to read and movies I want to see and experiences I want to have in this world before I leave it for the next.
I'd like to think that. But I just don't know.
People try and fail everyday to quit smoking. It's a powerful addiction I will never understand.
Mom has assured me that this time, she's scared straight. She basically had a "leg attack"; for a few hours, her left leg had no blood flow and the pain and pressure were immense. She watched her foot turn blue and became unable to move it. It was, she said, the most scared she's ever been for herself and the most pain she's ever been in. Worse than childbirth, worse than her gall stones, worse than hernia surgery.
"We don't know that the cigarettes caused this," my sister said. "Mom inherited a lot of her heart and circulation problems from her mom, who never smoked a day in her life. Don't take it so personally that she's still smoking."
It's hard not to see it emotionally. All four of mine and Jason's parents were smokers; three of the four are gone, and gone too young. Some of the smokers I know stand by the assertion that cigarettes don't kill; for every smoking person who's died too young, there's a story of someone who smoked three packs a day and lived to be ninety and died in the throes of passion instead of hooked up to oxygen.
After Dad beat lung cancer and successfully quit smoking, years before he succumbed to bladder cancer, he sat outside at work one day eating a bolgna sandwich.
"Chuck, those things'll kill ya," a coworker told him. At the time, said coworker was taking his designated smoke break and chain-smoking half a pack of Marlboros.
Dad said he looked at him to see if he was joking; surely, a smoker wouldn't feel compelled to tell a processed-meat-eater that he was the one engaging in the risky behavior. He detected no irony, though, and told all of us the story.
"He's probably right," Dad said. "Something's going to get us all, eventually. I shouldn't judge him, and he shouldn't judge me."
I just can't stand the thought of losing our last parent to the same vice that played such a hand in the death of the other three. It seems preventable and senseless.
So, if you're one of the people I love who smokes, please, please, PLEASE put down the cigarettes.