Up in Smoke

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In the last months of her life, my mother-in-law simply denied that she started smoking cigarettes when she was 15 years old. And that – some 65 years later – she still was.

She hid the carton in her dresser under the thin disguise of a layer of t-shirts. She slipped them out when no one was looking, opening the sliding doors of the bedroom, huddling into the shrubbery along the wall, hiding in a haze of smoke and greenery. She trailed the scent of burnt tobacco with her anyway.

“She told the doctor she didn’t smoke,” my husband confided over the phone. He was calling from a California emergency room in the deep summer of last year, shortly after his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. His voice sounded soft with grief and worry and guilt. He’d found the hidden carton and hadn’t thrown it away yet.

“Did you tell him the truth?” I ask.

“Did you want me to call my mother a liar?” he snaps.

“Yes,” I flash back. “He needs to know.” Anger and worry hiss  across the connection.  Both of us right, both of us wrong, catching for that balance between honesty and dignity that’s so hard to find in a terminal illness.

But he sighs. She’d finally made herself say she used to smoke, maybe a few cigarettes, you know, now and then. The doctor’s voice had been soft also. Gentle even.

He could tell, he said, just by looking at her. I can imagine how she looked there in over-hyped clinic lights: a slight woman with blond hair fading to silver, Norwegian blue eyes, a smile that blazed with friendliness.

Usually, you couldn’t miss the smile. But the doctor, I realize, was reading her differently. He saw instead, the etching of lines, the roadmap face of a long-time smoker.

The Mayo Clinic offers this rather ruthless description of the way smoking erodes the skin:  “The nicotine in cigarettes causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin. This impairs blood flow to your skin. With less blood flow, your skin doesn’t get as much oxygen and important nutrients, such as vitamin A. Many of the over 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke also damage collagen and elastin, which are fibers that give your skin its strength and elasticity. As a result, skin begins to sag and wrinkle prematurely because of smoking.”

It tells you maybe more than you want to know about the corrosive nature of cigarette smoke. Or maybe not enough; it just hints at the havoc those compounds can create internally – the weakening of the heart and lungs, the sly spread of cancerous tissue.  But it doesn’t really tell you about the woman, smiling nervously at the doctor while he studies the chemical etching of her face.

Her name was Helen.  She laughed like a loon at bad jokes and could dance like a wild woman. She surrounded her home with flowers and fruit trees – peaches and apricots, pomegranates and oranges.  When we moved from California to Wisconsin, she bombarded us with boxes of walnuts,  oranges, raisins,  jars of home-made pomegranate jelly. She took in unwanted cats, wandering dogs, and just about anyone who she thought needed care and feeding. She wanted to make people happy and found it almost impossible to tell them no, a blessing and a curse.

She’d been trying to quit smoking ever since I knew her, an endless struggle with a habit that dated back to 1945. “Don’t tell Peter,” she would say to me when she came to visit. “Don’t do it,” I’d say.  “I’m down to just a couple a day,” she’d insist. “I’m almost done with them.”

She’d go sneaking out into the backyard, sometimes shivering in the icy drift of a Wisconsin winter, sometimes leaning against the mulberry tree on a summer evening with the air so soft you could barely see the thin ribbon of smoke.

When my husband threw those hidden cigarettes away last summer, she never said a word.

In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to require new, more graphic warning labels on cigarette packs: images of a corpse with black stitches tracking up the chest, a mother blowing a gray cloud on a child, toe tags on a body and some cautionary words. WARNING: Smoking can kill you.

Cigarette companies are already going to court to fight the new labels, which are scheduled to take effect this summer. My favorite quote on the subject comes from a New York Times story in which a tobacco company executive complains that the graphic warnings could “denormalize” smoking.

The truth is, there’s no warning that comes close to describing a smoker’s death. Smoking can kill you, the label says. It doesn’t say that death can come like a benediction. That the pain from the spreading cancer can be so intense that you will be gasping with it even while unconscious. That when your son flies to California to say goodbye, you won’t know him. You’ll look look at him, eyes glazed with narcotics, and you’ll call for your mother, dead these 30 years.

After the funeral on Sunday, one of my nephews wonders about the way she chanted her mother’s name at the end. We’re back at her home, leaving behind the chapel with its welter of flowers and history of grief. I had not realized how empty a house can seem, even when full of people.  “Maybe she saw her,” he says. “Maybe she knew they’d be together again.”

“I hope so,” I answer.

But mostly I hope she felt safe in those last moments.  That she wasn’t in some dark place, calling for a protector who didn’t come.  I wish for her to be tucked away, happy and warm, in the home of her childhood. Or in a garden awash with orange trees and the starry tangle of jasmine.  And I wish for what I cannot have. I wish she had never tried that first cigarette, answered its beckoning glow, taken the path that brought us to this January day as gray and cloudy as smoke itself.

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