Tzzzz-tzzzz-tzzzz The initial strike of the phosphorous-tipped match sizzles and emits an indescribable odour. And it is a scent that I will forever associate with my mother.
It’s a conflicting scent. On the one hand, I connect it with Shabbat. Each week, we usher in the Jewish Sabbath with the lighting of the Shabbat candles. Shamor and Zachor — keep and remember. One candle for each side of a single utterance. The sizzle. Brings warm, Shabbos memories from my youth to the surface.
Contrast that with that same scent of the match that is followed by a smoky, suffocating stench. At the height of her smoking, my mom
blew through smoked through a pack of cigarettes a day. Benson & Hedges. The entire house smelled like cigarettes.
Amazingly, not one of us suffered from the risks associated with smoking during pregnancy or secondhand-smoke. Not a premature birth or low-birth rate among us. No asthma or related breathing problems. And none of us grew up to be smokers.
Having a parent who smokes creates its own conflict. Growing up, lots of people smoked. Parents, scout leaders, characters on television. When then-Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop released his landmark position paper, “Toward a Smoke-Free Society by the Year 2000,” to the Minnesota Coalition for a Smoke-Free Society 2000 in the year nineteen hundred eighty-five, things began to change. Cigarette packaging began to carry a warning from the Surgeon General. School anti-drug programs named tobacco a gateway drug and encouraged kids to get their parents to quit.
Sometimes she would finish a pack and ask one of us to go get another one from the far right drawer in the kitchen. I hated that. I hated that because I felt like an accomplice. But to disobey was breaking a pretty major rule. I certainly didn’t have enough knowledge to know that getting cigarettes for someone addicted to nicotine might fall under the category of lifnei iver — placing a stumbling block before the blind. All I knew was the emphasis placed on honouring one’s parents.
Sure, she tried to stop. More than once. She stopped when she was pregnant with her first child. But it was so stressful that her obstetrician encouraged to her continue smoking. “The stress isn’t good for the baby.” Several attempts to participate in the Great American Smokeout yielded some very short-term results. Until…one ordinary day in November 1987…my mom quit. She quit. Cold-turkey. After twenty-five years, my mom became a former smoker in a single day.
Don’t be impressed. It wasn’t by choice. You see, hospitals have rules about smoking. And while there are designated smoking areas, it isn’t possible to get to one of those locations when hooked up to oxygen and with drainage tubes protruding from a collapsed lung.
Much to our surprise, my mom’s primary spontaneous pneumothorax was not believed to be caused by her smoking. Examination of her lungs showed several weak spots that her surgeon felt were congenital. [For my money, I think the surgeon should have lied and blamed it on the smoking.] Contrary to the majority of patients with a PTX, my mom required surgery and a somewhat lengthy hospital stay. During which time, they still refused to allow her to smoke. Which she rather resented.
No. To quit smoking in a single day is not impressive. Especially when one is connected to machines. What is impressive is the daily decision to remain a non-smoker. Though for years after her release from the hospital my mom would reach for phantom pack of cigarettes, she never took up the habit again. She could have. Millions of times. But she didn’t.
It’s the choice that is impressive. Each and every day.
Remembe(RED) is a memoir meme. An image prompt this week. Non-fiction and 700 words or fewer. When others become entangled in my story, is it fair to share the story with the world? I’ve never really talked about how it felt to grow up as the daughter of a smoker. I leave you with this: my mother was a shell of herself when she smoked. Now, she is a beautiful, shapely woman whose (relatively) newfound culinary skills are stunning. As always, constructive criticism is welcomed!