Monday, March 9, 2009

My war on tobacco.

My parents used to smoke. My mother did it in secret, after my sister and I had gone to bed. My father did it right out in the open. He would come home from work and dump the contents of his pockets on the desk in the kitchen. Keys. Wallet. Change. Pager. Lighter. Benson & Hedges. I would stare at them as I walked past, entranced by the rich packaging. I would stand with the refrigerator door open and look over at them, milk spoiling by the second. They were there every day, and I would often open the box and count them, just to keep score.

One day I learned that smoking was bad for you. Could kill you, in point of fact. I sat in my little desk with my big head spinning. Death by cigarettes? Really? I looked at slide after slide of disgusting lungs and mortality rates on charts. I heard the word "addiction" for the first time. I thought of my parents, two very smart people, sucking death into their bodies every day. It was a big thing, this smoking revelation. It turned the desk in my kitchen into a hospital bed. When the teachers were through with their presentation I vowed to take action, to bring this fight home with me.

At first, I could only bring myself to steal a few cigarettes at a time. I'd wait for my parents to settle into the couches downstairs and I would tiptoe into the kitchen, pocket two or three cigarettes and slide into the guest bathroom. I broke them into little bits, flushed them and watched the tobacco swirl around, disappearing forever.

This went on for some time, until I couldn't stand watching him smoke anymore. I told him I wanted him to stop smoking, that I didn't want him to die. I don't remember what he said to me, I'm sure he tried to make me understand that it wasn't that easy, but the packs of Benson & Hedges stayed on the desk in the kitchen.

Every day I stared at the box. Every day I took more cigarettes and flushed them. Once or twice I broke a bunch in half and left them in the box. I vaguely remember I got a lecture about wasting money that I answered with Ghandi-like civil disobedience.

Then the box was gone.

I could still smell it on him so I knew he didn't quit. I rifled through the cupboards and his jacket pockets but didn't find anything. I went through the garage and his bedside table. Nothing. Then I went to mow the lawn and spotted them in his car. The doors weren't locked, so the cigarettes disappeared. He never mentioned it, but he did sit me down and tell me he was going to quit. If I had any coordination, I would've done a back flip in the yard.

He went cold turkey and switched to candy. Instead of a box of Benson & Hedges there was a bag of Lifesavers. Every time I heard the wrapper I would add a few minutes onto his life and smile. I had won the war, and I was proud.

That's how I remember it.

My father doesn't remember any of this. He doesn't remember the pleas for his health, the broken cigarettes or the civil disobedience. He tells me he always considered coffee to be a harder habit to break, that he just decided to stop smoking one day and did. No fanfare, no withdrawal and no happy little boy.

Knowing this, I have to look back and wonder if my war on tobacco was all in my head. Have the years taken a few little gestures and magnified them into drastic measures? Could this just be another symptom of the storytelling disease that has taken over my life?

I do have some very vivid memories of tobacco swirling around a toilet, of my mother hiding a cigarette when I came downstairs, unable to sleep. I remember sitting in the car when I was supposed to be mowing the lawn, staring at the pack of cigarettes. I put a cigarette in my mouth and studied myself in the rear view mirror, pretending to smoke and drive. I remember feeling like an adult as I picked a tobacco leaf off my tongue. I also remember putting the pack of Benson & Hedges at the bottom of the garbage can and spreading some old newspapers over it.

I can't prove that any of these things happened, but I don't think that it matters. What matters is that neither of my parents smoke anymore, and that it's a better story the way I tell it.

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