Shutting Down the Smokestacks: The Best Advice You Never Wanted To Hear

And I Never Wanted To Give

Many years ago in a not-so-far-away land lived a forty-something woman who smoked only ten cigarettes a day. (No, this is not a fairy tale, though I wish it were.) Anyway, this woman.... let’s call her “I”.... had convinced herself for years that if she allowed herself to smoke “only” ten cigarettes a day, she was doing herself a good deed and therefore would not suffer the ill effects of the drug that had become increasingly maligned, first by the medical community, then by the media, and ultimately, by most of society. Imagine her surprise, then, when her family doctor informed her that she had emphysema, an irreversible lung condition.

So I quit smoking. Despite the fact that I had just lost my beloved grandmother and my loyal dachshund and had recently had some scary panic attacks, I quit smoking at probably the worst time to take on a challenge of such magnitude. “After all,” I reasoned, “What better time will there be? If I can do it now and be successful, I’ll never need another cigarette again.” And I was right.... not that it was easy. For one thing, I had bizarre nightmares for months. For another, my decision to quit smoking came at the beginning of A Teacher’s Summer, which meant I had lots of extra light-up time on my hands. The thought of continuing the assault on my lung capacity, however, was a conscious nightmare that I just couldn’t ignore.

“Well, good for you,” you might say. “That was your choice. But I choose to continue smoking. Period.” That’s pretty much what I said when anyone dared even hint that perhaps I should think about quitting the habit that had pretty much controlled my life since my college days. It’s true; quitting smoking is a personal choice. When making that choice, however, many of us forget the other persons.... children, spouses, parents, friends.... who will be affected by the outcome.

That’s the end of my lecture. Now it’s time to get back to my story.

When I quit smoking, I enlisted the help of my husband; I knew that my resolve might weaken if there continued to be another smoker in the house. To my relief, he agreed to give up the habit to which he’d been addicted. (That is the correct word choice. I know from personal experience.) In fact, by the time we met, which was at the end of our junior year in college, he had become so addicted that he continued to smoke during basketball season. No Big Deal? It was a very big deal for the captain, record-setting rebounder, and three-years-running Most Valuable Player of the team. In fact, I remember comments that were made back then “suggesting” what-might-have-been if he’d only quit smoking. So, yes, I was thrilled when he agreed to quit.

That’s still not the end of the story. Several years after 'we' had quit smoking, one of my friends said, “I thought your husband quit smoking.”

“He did,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” she hesitated, “but on my way to school this morning, I was driving by his office, and he was crossing the street....holding a lit cigarette.”

Let’s just say that my disappointment manifested itself in an angry confrontation. Yes, he had quit for a few months, but the bottom line was: he enjoyed the habit. He noted that he’d cut down his smoking considerably from his previous packs-a-day habit. Although that didn’t appease me, he continued his “abbreviated smoking,” never within a mile of either me or our daughter and her family. (After all, she had grown up a victim of her parents’ Personal Choices; she wasn’t about to subject her children to the dangers of secondhand smoke.)

Fast forward to 2011..... just about this time last year, as a matter of fact. My husband had just finished shoveling the results of the latest in a series of notable East Coast snowstorms . He casually mentioned that he’d had “a weird little pain” while shoveling. Sirens went off in my head. “That’s it,” I said. “You’re going to see a cardiologist.” The Man Who Never Needed A Doctor agreed to do so only because a local cardiologist was a personal friend and fellow sports fanatic.

Long-story-short version: An EKG revealed that he’d had a silent heart attack at some point in his life, and a cardiac catheterization went on to show that one of his arteries was 100% blocked. The surgeon attributed the cause “100 per cent” to smoking. Not only that. The artery was totally destroyed, i.e., it could not be surgically repaired. Oh... and two other arteries were blocked, one 40% and the other, 50%. The surgeon went on to explain that since the one artery was, essentially, gone, my husband’s only recourse would be to go on a strict, heart-healthy diet, lose weight and start an exercise program.

He has done all that. He also has a defibrillator in the left side of his chest. It hasn’t been easy, but he has lost 60+ pounds, makes every effort to get to the gym three days a week, and has made drastic dietary changes. (This has caused some unbridled hostility from the man who grew up with the likes of scrapple, shoofly pie, roast beef, mashed potatoes and butter.) I have taken on the unpopular role of His Conscience, reminding him that “those cookies are not a good idea” and “lasagna is not what they meant by ‘cheating in moderation’ .” He thinks I’m being cruel; I know that I’m being, well... scared. Hindsight is the wrong place to look, but I wonder: would quitting smoking all those years ago have been any more difficult than this?

Both of us agree on one thing, however. Whenever we see someone, particularly a young person, smoking, we are seized by the urge to confront him/her with our story. It’s certainly not a story anyone wants to hear. It is a story, though, that no one wants to include in his autobiography.


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